Learning from a temple’s colorful wallsLittle can match the visual glory of a Korean temple. The bright tanch’ong must have seemed even brighter in Joseon times, when other buildings were not permitted paint at all.
Like European stained glass, tanch’ong’s purpose was to educate. When few could read, the pictures on a Korean temple taught Buddhism.
Like Christianity’s Stations of the Cross, one popular theme is the life of the Buddha. More than biography, each panel illustrates dharma, Buddhist doctrine. Such paintings can be pondered endlessly, yielding new meanings each time you visit.
Let’s consider a random few.
Here the newborn Sokkamuni (Buddha) stands on lotus blossoms, showered by dragons. Legend says he emerged from his mother’s side. He took seven steps north; at each a lotus bloomed. Nine dragons showered him, washing away the afterbirth. He pointed one hand to heaven, another at the ground and declared: “In heaven and on earth, I am the one. This is my last birth.”
Sky dragons are masculine; lotus blossoms feminine. Cloud dragons rain water on the earth; lotuses rise through water to the sky. This is the universe as a union of opposites, the “yin-yang.” Enlightenment emerges at the point of perfect balance.
A few panels on, an adult Sokkamuni sits horrified in a chariot, surrounded by four figures: a skeleton, a man wasted by sickness, an old man and a monk.
A king’s son, he finally explored outside the castle walls. He witnessed these four figures, representing four realities: sickness, old age, death, spiritual striving.
This illustrates the first noble truth, starting point of the spiritual chariot’s journey: existence is suffering. Here the Buddha’s chariot wheels have eight spokes, for the eightfold path, the Buddhist way.
Next, a maiden offers Sokkamuni a bowl of rice. For six years, he has practiced extreme austerities: now every rib shows. Yet he felt no closer to the riddle of existence. In desperation, he gave up, just as a maiden appeared with rice gruel. Sokkamuni accepted it to break his fast.
But when he threw the empty bowl into the river, he saw it, impossibly, float upstream. That night, he achieved enlightenment.
Moral: rejection is not balance. Suffering is caused by desire, but that includes desire for enlightenment. Just let go.
The male Sokkamuni looks down from the cave; the girl Sujata offers up the bowl of rice. Within and without, spiritual and physical, reach towards each other: enlightenment comes.
Next, the Buddha preaching to five monks, in the Benares Deer Park. These had been Sokkamuni’s companions. They abandoned him, a backslider, when he renounced his fast. Now he teaches them.
This illustrates Buddhism, the middle path, showing its three elements, “three jewels”: the Buddha (founder), the dharma (teaching) and the sangha (community). With this first sermon, Buddha becomes founder; he might instead have enjoyed enlightenment alone.
And this, the Deer Park Sermon, is the classic expression of dharma. The five are the sangha: once preached to, they ask to be ordained, becoming the first Buddhists.
Last, Sokkamuni’s funeral. Monks are elaborately weeping. Kasyapa embraces the flower-draped coffin. By legend, he was away when the Buddha died. The soles of two feet stick out the coffin wall, to give this disciple one last glimpse.
Surely there is a joke here. Showing the soles of your feet is a traditional insult in India.
Death, to the enlightened being, seems just another gag: absurd, trivial. Nothing to fear or mourn.
Most temples feature such visual parables, and more, around their walls. Try Jogyesa, head temple of Korea’s largest order. Exit Jonggak station and walk north along Ujeonggukno. The temple pokes out of an alleyway to your left.
by Stephen K. Roney