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Two of the more obscure figures you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple or hermitage is Gareungbinga or “Kalavinka” in Sanskrit, and Gongmyeongjo or “Jivamjivaka” in Sanskrit. While these human-bird-like creatures were once far more prominent at temples, they are now much harder to find. So what do they look like? Where can you find them? And what do they symbolize?
Gareungbinga – Kalavinka
The first of these two mysterious human-bird-like creatures is the Gareungbinga – 가릉빈가 in Korean, or Kalavinka in Sanskrit. What physically distinguishes this mythological creature from its Gongmyeongjo counterpart are the amount of heads. Both have bird bodies, while the upper portion is human. But while the Gareungbinga has one head, the Gongmyeongjo has two heads. The exact origins of the Gareungbinga are unclear; but it’s believed by some that the Gareungbinga are based on the real birds of India.
According to myth, Gareungbinga live in the Buddhist Pure Land, or Jeongto in Korean. It can live here or among the snowy forests of the Himalayas. The Kalavinka is said to have started singing even before it left its shell to live in the Himalayas and the Pure Land. The Korean word Gareungbinga is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word Kalavinka for this creature. The Sanskirt name of Kalavinka means “a beautiful sound” in English. And it’s believed that the Kalavinka has the most beautiful, the purest, and the most delicate of voices found in Buddhist texts. For this reason, the voice of the Kalavinka is often described as having Buddha’s voice. In fact, there are a couple Buddhist sutras where the Buddha’s voice is described as being like a Kalavinka. Specifically, this can be found in the “Parable of the Phantom City,” which is from chapter seven of the Lotus Sutra. In this section of the sutra it says, “Sage lord, heavenly being among heavenly beings, voiced like the Kalavinka bird, you who pity and comfort living beings, we now pay you honour and reverence,” when specifically describing the voice of the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul.
Like Buddhism, the image of the Kalavinka migrated eastward first from India, on towards China, and finally arriving on the Korean peninsula and then onto Japan. The image of a Kalavinka appears on ancient tomb murals from Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.). The Kalavinka has also appeared as a roof tile design and on pagodas from Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). The image of the Kalavinka has also appeared on stupas from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and in the murals on temples from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Specifically in Buddhist art, a Kalavinka can appear either singing or playing a musical instrument like the Bipa (a Korean mandolin). A Kalavinka is also a celestial being similar to an angel. Another name for a Kalavinka in Korean, other than Gareungbinga, is Geukrakjo. “Geukrak” is a reference to the Pure Land in Buddhism where Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) resides. This is the destination for people after the cycle of Samsara has come to an end. Instead of being reincarnated, people live in the Pure Land, or “Jeongto” in Korean, forever. The Pure Land is believed to be filled with beautiful jewels, flowers, and fruit. As such, the Pure Land is filled with a sweet scent. And included in this beauty is the beautiful singing of the Kalavinka that makes the Pure Land that much more beautiful with its voice.
Gongmyeongjo – Jivajivaka
Almost identical in appearance to the Gareungbinga, and often confused, what differentiates the Gongmyeongjo from a Gareungbinga are the number of heads to this human-bird-like mythical creature. Again, a Gongmyeongjo has two heads while a Gareungbinga has one. But while they appear nearly identical in appearance, they do have quite distinct backgrounds and distinct symbolic meanings.
The Korean word for this mythological creature is Gongmyeongjo – 공명조. In Sanskrit, this creature is known as Jivajivaka. The name is derived from a bird’s chirping sound. There doesn’t seem to be a specific history behind the Gongmyeongjo; instead, it’s guessed that this creature was transported along the Silk Road since a two-headed eagle and/or stork appeared in ancient Middle Eastern and Roman iconography like in paintings and statues. So historians have long thought that with the migration of people through commerce and trade, art and ideas, the Jivajivaka also migrated eastward.
A Jivajivaka flies with light feathers and a golden body with two heads. And despite the fact that the Jivajivaka has two heads with one body, they have two different spirits. And yet, they live and die at the same time.
Like a Kalavinka, the Jivajivaka is also described in Buddhist texts as having a beautiful voice. Interestingly, the Gongmyeongjo appears just as often as the Gareungbinga in Buddhist texts. Specifically there is a story that begins with a Garuda (enormous predatory birds) and a Wupagaruda (a bird with two heads sharing one body). One day when the Wupagaruda fell asleep, the Garuda ate some delicious food that it found all by itself. After the Wupagaruda found out about this, it was very upset. Later, the Wupagaruda saw a beautiful flower that was poisonous. So angry about the Garuda being so selfish, the Wupagaruda ate the poisonous flower killing the two-headed creature. At the end of the story, the Garuda found out the reason the Wupagaruda ate the poisonous flower and asked, “Why did you do all that?” the Wupagaruda answered in a poem:
- “When you fell asleep,
- I ate the delicate and sweet flower.
- That flower came with the wind,
- But you were very angry,
- I don’t want to see a stupid person,
- I don’t want to hear that I lived with a stupid person.
- There’s no benefit to live with a stupid person,
- That person just harms other people and himself.”
This poem makes plain the utter detestation that a Gongmyeongjo has for selfishness and stupidity both in others and in oneself. It’s from this sort of self-centeredness that a lot of harm can enter into world and injure others and oneself whether these actions are intentional or not. So a Gongmyeongjo reminds us to be more mindful when we act.
Here are a few of the great examples Gareungbinga that you can find in and around Korean temples and hermitages. Perhaps the most famous can be found on the East Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple in Gurye, Jeollanam-do. The stone relief can be found at the base of this national treasure. Another great example of this one headed creature, which is in fact missing on this statue, is the Stele for Buddhist Monk Gwangja at Taeansa Temple in Gokseong, Jeollnam-do. The capstone is adorned with a headless Gareungbinga, and the stele is Korean Treasure #275. And one final example of a Gareungbinga is a part of the main altar inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, which is Korean Treasure #562, at Hwanseongsa Temple in Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do.
As for the two-headed Gongmyeongjo, you can find an older mural dedicated to this mythological figure at Chwiunam Hermitage at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. And another far more elaborate mural of the Gongmyeongjo can be found above the entry of the main hall at Gwaneumsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.
There aren’t too many examples of either a Gareungbinga and/or a Gongmyeongjo in and around Korean temple grounds. But a couple places you might keep your eye on are in and around older stupas and some of the murals around temple shrine halls like the Daeung-jeon Hall. While not common, they are definitely distinctive. And if you listen close enough, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to hear their heavenly voices.