Sunday, May 1, 2016

Embellishments of Buddha Halls

A temporary exhibit last spring on the "Embellishments of Buddha Halls in the World of Magnificently Decorated Buddha" at the Central Buddhist Museum at the Jogyesa described some of the material accompaniments to augment religious practices. This helps me make some sense of the material culture of Buddhism which was suppressed but existed simultaneously with the aestheticism of Confucianism.

The Hall of Enshrined Buddha

Buljeon refers to a hall or building where Buddha is enshrined, and this building is the center of the temple. In a narrow sense, it simply refers to the main building of a temple, but broadly it means all buildings enshrined with Buddha or bodhisattva statues. A temple embodies the pure land of the utmost bliss. Therefore, a person's journey to a temple likewise leads to the pure land of utmost bliss. When a layperson like enters the Single Pillar gate, that person leaves the mundane world he/she lives in behind.

Since a Buddha hall is considered the pure land of utmost bliss, its architects magnificently decorate the building with sincerity in their hearts. When someone says Jangeom, it means to embellish or decorate with fine and beautiful things. Jangeom implies the pure land where all is beautiful and solemn, and also indicates the state of the bodies of Buddha and bodhisattvas, beautifully shining because of their good deeds. In this sense, it also includes the devotees decorating Buddha halls, as well as the statues. It is only natural that its embellishments are majestic and beautiful, since it is the pure land where the eminent Buddha resides.

Decorating the Land of Buddha

As a Buddha hall is a form of Buddha's land realized on Earth, it is the ultimate refuge for the sangha and the laity. Its symbols have been manifested in various forms of Buddhist art in every era. Accordingly, all the elements of the embellishments in Buddha halls are decorated in an elaborate and magnificent manner so that all devotees may cultivate their minds in the ideal pure land of Buddha, and thus they should be able to receive the divine response of the Buddha for their great devotion. Among all the elements of the embellishments in Buddha halls, the desire for magnificence is expressed most strongly in the form of craft works. These are excellent examples of the tradition of the most impressive Buddhist arts. During the Joseon Dynasty, various Buddhist ceremonies flourished despite religious oppression. At the time, Buddha halls were utilized for a variety of purposes. Consequently, the embellishments in Buddha halls were used in numbers of ways, leading to a greater variety in types of Buddhist decorations. Even now, many of these artworks survive, reflecting the aesthetic sense and faith of that time.

The Expansion of Buddha Halls, Outdoor Dharma Talks, and Embellishments

Various ceremonies were carried out inside of the main dharma hall to pay homage to the Buddha. However, when many people came for a ceremony, it was done outdoors. Well-known outdoor dharma ceremonies included Suryukjac, which is a ceremony to comfort lonely spirits and hungry ghosts both in water and on land, and help them attain rebirth in the Pure Land or in heaven by redeeming their bad karma.

For these outdoor ceremonies, the whole temple ground was set. However, the main yard of the main Buddha hall was the center stage of the ceremony. Also, just like a Buddha hall has three mandalas or altars, the system of three mandalas or altars was applied to outdoor ceremonies. The upper altar, with Buddha and bodhisattvas, became the dharma hall, and was decorated with gwaebul, an outdoor version of the long hanging Buddhist scroll painting of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. These outdoor gwaebuls were an important symbol not only for the ceremony, but also because they could transform the temple grounds into a Buddha hall, a ceremonial space.

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