Buddhist Images and Rituals during the Chosŏn Dynasty


A review of Sabangbul During the Chosŏn Dynasty: Regional Development of Buddhist Images and Rituals, by Kim Jeong-Eun.

Kim Jeong-Eun’s dissertation is a thorough examination of the “Four Directional Buddhas,” or sabangbul 四方佛. The term refers to images of Buddhist divinities that symbolize the four cardinal directions (p. 18). The author uses this term broadly since the identities and numbers of Buddhas constantly fluctuated. In the context of her work, sabangbul refers to a corpus of sculpted or painted assemblies of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and further divinities. Previous scholarship by Mun Myung-dae (“Silla sabangbul ŭi kiwŏn kwa Sinin-sa ŭi sabangbul” [The origin of Silla sabangbul and a study on the sabangbul group at the Sinin-sa site—A study on sabangbul I], Han’guksa yŏn’gu 韓國史硏究 18 (1977): 49-75) and others focused on sabangbul imagery from the Three Kingdoms (57 BCE-668 CE) and the Unified Silla period (618-935), while Kim focuses primarily on sabangbul depictions from the Chosŏn period (1392-1910). She is particularly interested in the role of iconographic programs of multiple Buddhas employed in Chosŏn Buddhist funerary rituals.

In Chapter 1, Kim Jeong-Eun describes sabangbul images from the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla period. She elucidates how sabangbul production was supported by the ruling class, indicating the political use of Buddhist ideas (p. 110). Noteworthy is her analysis of Odaesan, the Korean equivalent to the Chinese Wutaishan, or Five Terrace Mountain (pp. 71-77). Kim suggests a connection between this sacred site and sabangbul imagery. Supported by previous research by scholars such as Suh Yoon-kil, Rhi Ki-young, and Chŏng Pyŏng-jo (e.g., Suh, Han’guk milgyo sasangsa yŏn’gu 韓國密敎思想史 [History of Korean Esoteric Philosophy] (Seoul: Pulgwang ch’ulp’ansa, 1994), Kim describes how Sillans developed an Avataṃsaka-inspired mandala centering on Odaesan, which consequently became a Buddha land in Sillan territory (pp. 95-98). Kim also explains the designation of two Bodhisattvas as directional deities in the Odaesan cult by discussing Ŭisang’s role in popularizing the veneration of Avalokiteśvara (pp. 78-88), and Chinp’yo’s role in popularizing the Kṣitigarbha cult (pp. 88-92).

In Chapter 2, Kim Jeong-Eun combines research on early Chosŏn political history with an iconographic analysis of pagodas, statues and paintings depicting Buddha assemblies. Kim argues that the primary reason for Buddhist practice by royalty was to elicit “the assistance of spiritual powers to enhance royal authority rather than the interests of the nation,” which negates the notion frequently expressed in Korean secondary scholarship of a “nation-protecting Buddhism” (p. 182). Her interpretation complements previous research conducted by Robert Buswell [“Buddhism under Confucian Domination: The Synthetic Vision of Sŏsan Hyujŏng,” in Jahyun Kim Haboush and M. Deuchler, Culture and the State in Late Chosŏn Korea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1999), pp. 134-159] and others, which revealed that royal family members supported Buddhism to bolster their authority (p. 116). Kim Jeong-Eun’s careful analysis of Buddhist iconography and inscriptions suggests that new types of sabangbul imagery were created due to socio-political and doctrinal changes. For example, early Chosŏn paintings made for outdoor rituals depict the “Three Bodies [of the Buddha]” (Skt. trikāya, K. samsin 三身) in combination with the “Buddhas of the Past, Present and Future” (K. samsebul 三世佛, lit., “Buddhas of the Three Worlds or Realms”).

In Chapter 3, Kim provides a detailed art-historical analysis of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century kwaebul 掛佛 (lit., “hanging Buddha”), which are large Buddhist paintings produced for outdoor rituals. Kim not only presents the most recent scholarship on kwaebul paintings by South Korean scholars such as Yu Mari, Chŏng Myŏng-hee, Kim Jung-hee, and Lee Eun-hee, but also provides an additional perspective by stressing the positive impact of royal sponsorship of Buddhism, which was practiced in the early Chosŏn period by “everyone from the lowliest peasant to the king” (p. 188). She also suggests that outdoor rituals, which were held frequently during the latter half of the Chosŏn period, served “the dual function of fulfilling Confucian filial piety and safely guiding the spirits of the deceased through their intermediate existence to prevent them from becoming a disruptive force to the living” (p. 195).

Kim then demonstrates that in the eighteenth century, the kwaebul composition became simpler, with fewer attendants surrounding the main Buddha figure (p. 236). Kwaebul paintings depicting “Śākyamuni Buddha Preaching to the Vulture Peak Assembly” became popular in tandem with the rising popularity of an outdoor ritual called yŏngsanjae 靈山齋, which reenacts the historical Buddha’s delivery of the Lotus Sūtra on Vulture Peak (p. 243). The abundant production of ritual texts indicates that yŏngsan-jae was a widely practiced funerary ritual in the Chosŏn period, as its liturgy contained a memorial ceremony for the spirits of the deceased (p.  222). The “Three Bodies [of the Buddha]” were another popular topic in late Chosŏn Buddhist painting and sculpture. Kim argues that the “Three Bodies” theme emerged thanks to the emphasis by the Avataṃsaka school, regarded as the mainstream school of Korean Buddhism, on trikāya, the doctrine of the “Three Bodies of the Buddha.”

In Chapter 4, Kim examines the relationship between ritual texts and nectar ritual paintings (K. kamnot’aeng 甘露幀), which visualize the ritual distribution of food (K. sisik 施食) to the dead and the hungry ghosts. After thoroughly analyzing primary sources and publications by Kim Sung-hee, Hong Ki-yong and others (e.g., Kim Sung-hee, Chosŏn hugi Kamno-to ŭi tosang yŏn’gu [Iconographic Study of late Chosŏn nectar ritual paintings], MA thesis, Hongik University, 1989), Kim Jeong-Eun concludes that Chinese ritual texts were considerably modified and re-edited by Chosŏn compilers to the extent that the newly compiled Chosŏn versions eventually replaced their Chinese models (p. 261). Most importantly, Kim argues that the visual depiction, frequent invocation, and use of mantras, dhāraṇīs, and mudrās related to the Five/Seven Tathāgatas in Chosŏn funerary rituals evidences esoteric practices in Chosŏn Korean Buddhism (p. 265). Kim also claims that in some paintings, the Five Tathāgatas equal the Five Directional Buddhas of the Vajradhātu Maṇḍala (p. 273).

In order to strengthen her arguments surrounding esoteric practices, Kim Jeong-Eun considers late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century nectar ritual paintings that show the Seven Tathāgatas in the center of the painting, while the Amitābha triad, which had been placed centrally in early Chosŏn examples, was moved to the right and depicted on a smaller scale (p. 283). Kim asserts that this iconographic shift reflects the “esoterization” of the sisik rite, a process by which the Tathāgatas were moved to a central position within the picture’s composition (p. 284). Kim’s valuable art-historical findings complement previous buddhological research by Hong Yun-sik (“Han’guk pulgyo ŭirye ŭi milgyo sinang chŏk kujo” [Esotericized structure in Korean Buddhist ritual], Pulgyo hakpo 佛敎學報 12 (1975): 101-124) and Henrik Sørensen (“Esoteric Buddhism in Korea,” Esoteric Buddhism in Asia: SBS Monographs 2, ed. by Henrik Sørensen. Copenhagen, Seminar for Buddhist Studies, 1993: 73-96), who discussed esoteric elements in Korean Buddhism and Buddhist ritual during the Koryŏ and Chosŏn periods.

In Chapter 5, Kim suggests that yŏngsanjae is a spiritually transforming and symbolically purifying esoteric ritual. She introduces ritually significant visual elements to support her claim that the ritual space functioned as an esoteric mandala, in which ritual adornments were arranged in accordance with the cosmic order (p. 315). Ritual banners associated with directional divinities and colors were used to define the ritual space. Paintings such as those of the twelve zodiac signs denoting time and directions were hung at the ritual site in a clockwise direction to protect the sacred precinct (p. 312). Acting as objects of attention during the ritual, paintings of Daoist, esoteric and indigenous guardians represent the Korean synthetic concept of tutelary deities (p. 310). Kim contends that large kwaebul paintings performed a dual role of being objects of worship and functioning as “transformation tableaux” (K: pyŏnsang 變相) of the Lotus Sūtra (p. 320).

Kim Jeong-Eun’s dissertation represents a pioneering diachronic study of Chosŏn Buddhist ritual culture, which fills a gap in the current literature on Korean Buddhist Art.  Her work deals with a less-known topic in the West and in Korea and will be of great interest to scholars of Korean Studies, East Asian Art History and East Asian Religions.

Maya Stiller
Assistant Professor in Korean Art & Visual Culture
University of Kansas

Primary Sources

Han’guk pulgyo ŭirye charyo ch’ongsŏ 韓國佛敎儀禮資料叢書.
Han’guk pulgyo chŏnsŏ 韓國佛敎全書.
Kangjwa misulsa 講座美術史.
Misul sahak yŏn’gu 美術史學硏究.
Pulgyo hakpo 佛敎學報.

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 2011. 419pp. Primary Advisor: Youngsook Pak.

Image: Statue of the “Four Directional Buddhas.”

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