Geukrak-jeon – Paradise Hall: 극락전
A Geukrak-jeon Hall is dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Amita-bul is a transliteration of the Sanskrit “Amitabha,” which means “Immeasurable Life,” in English. Amita-bul is the overseer of the Western Pure Land, or “Jeongto,” in Korean. This idea is rooted in the very name of the Geukrak-jeon Hall, which means “Paradise Hall,” in English. The hall also goes by a couple other names like Mita-jeon or Muryangsu-jeon like at the famous Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The name Muryangsu-jeon means “Immeasurable Life Hall,” in English, which again, is another parallel to Amita-bul.
Amita-bul was born from the meditation of the first Buddha. That’s why he’s known as Nirmanakaya. Amita-bul vowed to save all beings who call on him. Amita-bul aids people by allowing them to enter his Pure Land, where there is no hindrance in achieving enlightenment. In Korea, the belief in Amita-bul began in and around the 6th to 7th century. The reason that a lot of people started to worship Amita-bul during the Three Kingdoms Period (Baekje, Silla, and Goguryeo) in Korean history is that many people were dying at this time due to war and disease. As a result, people prayed for the souls of those that died to enter paradise. Presently, next to the main hall, the Daeung-jeon Hall, the Geukrak-jeon Hall is the second most common hall to find at a Korean temple. Correspondingly, Amita-bul continues to be an object of deep veneration by Buddhist devotees in Korea.
As for Amita-bul’s appearance, it’s one of the easier things to identify at Korean Buddhist temples. The way this is done is through the mudra, or “suin,” in Korean. A mudra is a ritualized hand gesture. In Amita-bul’s mudra, the right hand is held upwards and the left hand is turned down. What this symbolizes is the mudra of “Fearlessness.” What this mudra means is the ability to shed one’s anxieties, while being led towards wisdom. Another Amita-bul mudra, and probably the most popular for Amita-bul, is where the fingers are curled together almost in an “okay” gesture. This mudra symbolizes the “Turning of the Wheel Mudra.”
Typically, Amita-bul is joined by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Buddha Wisdom). Collectively, they help to guide the spirits of the dead towards the Pure Land, “Jeongto,” in Korean. Sometimes you’ll even hear worshipers saying “Namo Gwanseeum-bosal,” or “Namo Amita-bul.” This is a transliteration of the Sanskrit, which means “to take refuge,” in English. By uttering these words, devotees are praying for the dead in hopes that the dead will be reborn in the Pure Land. Furthermore, Gwanseeum-bosal embodies Amita-bul’s compassion and is said to rescue anyone in distress and calls out for her help. Daesaeji-bosal, on the other hand, shines the light of Amita-bul’s wisdom on all sentient beings, providing them with limitless strength.
Because there is such a strong belief in Amita-bul in Korea, the overall interior of this hall will almost always be as elaborate and ornate as the Daeung-jeon Hall. The painting behind the triad of statues in the Geukrak-jeon Hall depicts a scene of an assembly in the Western Paradise. The altar itself is decorated with floral patterns and Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities). The canopy above the triad is adorned with carved dragons and carved birds of paradise that lead the way to the Western Paradise. It must be remembered that this hall symbolizes the idealized version of the Western Paradise: Jeongto. Perhaps the most spectacular Geukrakbo-jeon Hall is at Eunhaesa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do.
And because Amita-bul is so popular in Korean Buddhism, typically Amita-bul will have a statue or monument dedicated to him at the temple. Perhaps one of the better known is the massive Amita-bul statues at Manbulsa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. There is another beautiful statue of Amita-bul crowning the heights at Gakwonsa Temple in Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do.
So the next time you visit a Korean Buddhist temple, you’ll have to look carefully at the mudra of Amita-bul to find the Buddha of the Western Paradise. It’s through Amita-bul that you can gain entrance to the redemptive Pure Land in Buddhism.