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Temple halls: sanctuaries of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

By Kim Haan-young, The Korea Times, June 24, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- If you visit Korean temples, you will find many halls that are dedicated to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are many different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Buddhism.

This phenomenon originated within Mahayana Buddhism, which prevails in Northern Asia. Theravadan Buddhists of Southern Asia only recognize the Buddha Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, as their spiritual teacher. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, recognizes hundreds of Buddhas, fully enlightened beings, as well as myriads of Bodhisattvas.

Korea is one of the main Mahayana Buddhist countries, and different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are worshipped in a unique system of practice. Almost all Korean temples install separate halls for respective Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. A Bodhisattva is the model practitioner in the Mahayana tradition, who entirely dedicates his or her life to the salvation of other beings.

In Mahayana Buddhist cosmology, the universe is populated with various celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Some people misunderstand them as gods or goddesses. They are not gods or absolute beings, but real figures that have attained the highest potentials of existence.

The detailed explanations for each temple pavilion are as follows:


Daewoong-jeon, or the Main Buddha Hall, is literally translated as ``the Hall of the Great Hero'' but is usually described as the Main Buddha Hall or the Great Shrine Hall. It is also called the Daewoongbo-Jeon, meaning the treasury hall of the great hero.
Situated at the very center of the temple compound, this hall is dedicated to the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. Two attendant bodhisattvas support Sakyamuni Buddha: One is Manjusri Bodhisattva, the left-hand attendant who is regarded as the personification of wisdom. The other is Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, the right-hand attendant who symbolizes the teaching, meditation and practice of Buddha. Most Dharma meetings and events take place in this hall.


Also known as the Hall of the Ultimate Silence and Light, this hall is dedicated to Vairocana Buddha, the manifestation of Dharma. Vairocana Buddha spreads the light of truth in every direction.

This is the hall of the three bodies of the Buddha; the Dharma-kaya (Vairocana) at the center of the hall is a reference to the transcendence of form and realization of truth; the Sambhoga-kaya (Rocana) is the Buddha-body that is called the ``reward body" or the ``body of enjoyment of the merits attained as a bodhisattva"; the Nirmana-kaya (Sakyamuni) is the body manifested in response to the need to teach sentient beings. These three bodies represent how the Buddha is revealed in a variety of ways to individuals depending on their spiritual capacities.

Gwaneum-jeon (Hall of Avalokitesvara)

The Gwaneum-jeon, or the Hall of Avalokitesvara, is dedicated to Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of the Buddhist virtue of great compassion. It is considered as the power of the Buddha Amitabha manifested as a bodhisattva, and is therefore often depicted as the helper of the Buddha of the Pure Land. Avalokitesvara is one of the most important bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. As it is capable of manifesting 33 forms of incarnation to save the sentient beings, Avalokitesvara is depicted iconographically in 33 different ways, each of which is distinguished by the number of heads and arms as well as by the attributes held in the hands.

The most popular appearance of Avalokitesvara in Korea is the one with a thousand hands, and has an eye in the palm of each hand in order to see and aid in the relief of the sufferings of sentient beings. If the Hall of Avalokitesvara is the main hall of the temple compound, it is then called the Wontong-jeon, meaning the Hall of Perfect Interpenetration.


Also known as the Hall of Immeasurable Life, this hall is also called the Geukrak-jeon (Hall of Ultimate Bliss) or the Bogwangmyeong-jeon (Limitless Light Hall) dedicated to Amitabha (the Buddha of Immeasurable Light) who expounds the Dharma in his pure paradise (Sukhavati) in the Western Pure Land.

In iconographic art, Amitabha is usually portrayed as having two assistants: Avalokitesvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) who appears on his left and Mahasthamaprapta (the Bodhisattva of Great Power) who appears on his right.

Mireuk-jeon (Maitreya Hall)

The Mireuk-jeon, or the Maitreya Hall, is dedicated to the bodhisattva Maitreya who is destined to appear on this earth and become the Buddha for the future world. For this reason, worshipping Maitreya has been most favored in Korea mainly by lay Buddhists since the Three Kingdom period (57 B.C.-A.D, 668).


The Yaksa-jeon, or the Healing Buddha Hall, enshrines the Yaksa Buddha or the Healing Buddha who is considered to have a particular power to relieve the sickness and sufferings of sentient beings; birth, aging, sickness and death.

The Yaksa Buddha is always depicted carrying a bowl of medicine in his hand. He is the chief teacher of the pure emerald world of the east. When this Buddha was in a human body, he made 10 great vows to free sentient beings from sickness, nourish their spiritual faculties and guide the way to liberation. Two attendant bodhisattvas support the Yaksa Buddha: One is the Sun Light Bodhisattva on the left-hand side and the other is the Moon Light Bodhisattva on the right-hand.


Known as the Judgment Hall, this is the hall of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who made a great vow to postpone his own enlightenment until every sentient being in hell is saved. This Bodhisattva is always depicted with green hair. In East Asian Buddhist cultures, when someone dies, the bereaved family holds a memorial service, the 49 ritual ceremony at seven-day intervals in this hall for the purpose of guiding the spirit of the dead to the Pure Land.

Also in this hall are enshrined the Ten Heavenly Kings who judge people's fates after death according to their deeds on earth. Thus, it is also known as the Hall of the Ten Heavenly Kings as it is the cosmic abode of the 10 kings of the dark realms. In China and Korea, this hall is normally found in temples. In Japan, it is called the Hall of Yama.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Buddist English Translation

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