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One of the more difficult Buddhist murals to find at a Korean Buddhist temple is the Gamno-do, or “Sweet Dew Mural” in English. In fact, I’ve only ever seen this mural at a handful of temples and hermitages in all of my travels. So what is a Gamno-do? What does it look like? And what is it supposed to mean?
A Gamno-do depicts the Ullambana Sutra. Other names for this type of painting is “Gamnowang-do” or “Gamno-taenghwa.” The Gamno-do is used in the Sweet Dew Ceremony for the dead. Prayers are said by those alive to help and comfort the souls of dead ancestors already in the Western Pure Land, or “Jeongto” in Korean. The goal, therefore, of the painting is the feed the Agwi (Hungry Spirits), while also lessening the pain of those that are already suffering in the afterlife. The actual word, “Gamno-do” is a reference to the delicious food, food that tastes as sweet as nectar after a long drought, that’s being offered.
Traditionally, the Gamno-do is based on one of the stories of the ten disciples of the Buddha, Maudgalyayana. The disciple is said to have relieved the suffering of his mother in the afterlife from the Agwi that were inflicting pain. A traditional Gamno-do is divided into three sections.
The top section consists of a centralize image of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Amita-bul is welcoming sentient beings into the Pure Land alongside five to seven other Buddhas. The Bodhisattva in the mural that stands with a flagpole is leading the dead towards the Pure Land, as Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) descend from the clouds.
In the centre section of the painting, you’ll find one or two Agwi (Hungry Spirits) with a bulging belly, constricted throat, and pin-hole mouth. They are typically fighting over food in front of an ancestral rites table. And on either side of the Agwi, you’ll find monks performing the ceremony for the dead by chanting, ringing a hand bell, cymbals, or striking the Dharma Drum to help comfort the spirits of the dead.
And in the lower section of the Gamno-do, you’ll find the realistic portrayal of the six realms of existence, which are hell, Agwi, animals, humans, Asura (large demons), and heavenly beings. Hell, Agwi (Hungry Spirits), animals, and Asura, are portrayed as though they were alive in the present day. And each artwork varies depending on the mural’s artist.
Overall, the Gamno-do has a dual purpose. The first is to console the spirits of the dead in the afterlife and free them from the pain that’s being inflicted on them by Agwi. The second purpose of the mural is a warning for those that are still alive and the misdeeds they might be committing in their present life. And hopefully, the mural will act as a deterrent and help change people’s present ways.
In total, there are six Gamno-do that are Korean Treasures. Great examples of the Gamno-do can be found at Unheungsa Temple in Goseong, Gyeongsangnam-do; Yeongsanjeongsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do; Boseongsa Temple near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do; and on the exterior walls of the Geukrak-jeon Hall at Seongjusa Temple in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do.
Specifically, Seongdeokam Hermitage in Masan, Gyeongsangnam-do has a modern twist on the classic design of a Gamno-do. The Gamno-do at Seongdeokam Hermitage follows the traditional form of a Gamno-do: it has three sections. The upper and central sections follow the traditional standards of the genre with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the upper section and with an Agwi (Hungry Spirits) in the middle section. However, where the Gamno-do at Seongdeokam Hermitage diverges is in the bottom portion of the painting. Instead of realistically portraying the six realms of existence in some ancient or mythical scenario, the Gamno-do at Seongdeokam Hermitage is firmly rooted in the past fifty years of world history. More precisely, instead of having people that might look like they inhabit a world around a Goryeo or Joseon Dynasty time frame, we see images of those people that have shaped our world in the present. In the mural, rather remarkably, you’ll see painted images of Osama Bin Laden, George W. Bush, 9/11, the DMZ, the Vietnam War in the form of the famous picture of the national police chief of South Vietnam executing a Vietcong fighter, the Gwangju Uprising from May 18th to 27th, 1980, and the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia.
So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, have a look for the Gamno-do. While extremely hard to find, especially historical Sweet Dew Murals, you definitely won’t regret it. It’s both beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.