The third potential gate at Korean Buddhist temple is the Cheonwangmun Gate, or Sacheonwangun Gate. This means either “Heavenly Kings Gate,” or the “Four Heavenly Kings Gate,” in English. This gate houses four figures that have intimidating stares, bulging eyes, and gnashing teeth.
These four figures represent the Four Heavenly Kings that are Hindu in origin. They are said to stand in the four cardinal directions on Mt. Sumeru, and they serve King Sakra. King Sakra resides on the summit of this mighty mountain in a palace called the Palace of Correct Views. This area, at least according to ancient Buddhist cosmology, is the centre of the universe. And according to the same ancient Buddhist cosmological belief, the Four Heavenly Kings stand approximately 750 feet in height and they live for 9 million years. At one point, they are said to have helped Siddhartha Gautama, who was the Indian prince that became the Historical Buddha (Seokgamoni-bul), to leave his father’s house and ultimately renounce all things worldly.
The reason that the Cheonwangmun Gate, or the “Heavenly Kings Gate,” in English, is placed where it is is to protect Buddhism and the Buddha’s teachings from evil spirits. The Four Heavenly Kings were placed inside the Cheonwangmun Gate after they had embraced the Buddha’s teachings and vowed to defend them. And the reason they look as ferocious as they do inside their gate is that they are forcing unruly spirits to submit to their will. And for those that are unwilling to submit to their will, the Four Heavenly Kings simply trample these opponents underfoot. So their ferocious expressions encourages people to bow to them and to rid a visitor’s mind of bad thoughts. If your mind is not peaceful and pure enough to enter into the Land of Buddha, which is the inner sanctuary of the temple grounds, then they might not let you enter. In fact, if you look down at the feet of the Four Heavenly Kings, you’ll see demons that look like government officials, foreign soldiers, or just plain demons being trampled underfoot. As for how the Four Heavenly Kings are represented, they can either appear as four large statues, which is more common at larger temples; or, they can appear as four murals that hang inside of the gate.
The first of the four, and their leader, is Damun Cheonwang (or Vaisravana in Sanskrit). To identify them, move counterclockwise and you’ll find the cardinal directions of the west (Gwangmok Cheonwang), the south (Jeungjang Cheonwang), and the east (Jiguk Cheonwang). Damun Cheonwang guards the north. Damun Cheonwang is the one that holds a pagoda in his hand. The pagoda symbolizes a stupa, a reminder of death and spirituality. The second Heavenly King is Jeungjang Cheonwang (or Virudhaka in Sanskrit). He holds a sword in his hand and guards the south. He is said to have the power to multiply his sword so that he can always outnumber his opponents. The third Heavenly King is Jiguk Cheonwang (or Dhritarashtra in Sanskrit) who holds a lute in his hands and protects the east. With the strings of the lute he controls the weather, like the wind, thunder, lightning, and hail. The fourth, and final, Heavenly King is Gwangmok Cheonwang (or Virupaksha in Sanskrit) who is the guardian of the west, and he holds a dragon in one hand and a jewel in the other.
Originally, however, there was no hard and fast rules regarding which King held which object. Two great examples of this can be found at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju and Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do. Concerning the example of Seokguram Hermitage, three of the four kings are holding swords and Damun Cheonwang is holding a pagoda.
In fact, the Four Heavenly Kings appearance varied between Goryeo and Joseon style paintings. Over time, the objects became a lute, a dragon, a sword, and a pagoda. This standard was established by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China, and the Joseon Dynasty followed. However, at some temples, these items and names of the Four Heavenly Kings were mislabeled. For example, at Songwangsa Temple, Damun Cheonwang is holding a lute instead of a pagoda. Jeungjang Cheonwang is holding a dragon instead of a sword. Jiguk Cheonwang is holding a sword instead of a lute. And Gwangmok Cheonwang is holding the pagoda-like staff instead of a dragon. These clay statues, which are Korean Treasure #1467, were recast in 1628 after being destroyed in the Imjin War in 1597, which explains the difference.
So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, have a look for this third potential entry gate and the fearsome Four Heavenly Kings and the demonic demons that they’re trampling underfoot.