Whenever you enter a Korean Buddhist temple shrine hall, one of the very first things you’ll notice are the floral paintings adorning the ceiling of the structure. These floral patterns are known as “Ggotbi – 꽃비” in Korean, or “Rain of Flowers” in English. You might also see paper lanterns designed as pink or purple lotus flowers suspended from the ceiling, as well. So why exactly are these flowers painted or hanging from the ceiling? And what do they symbolize?
History of Flower Ceilings
The Introduction of the Lotus Sutra describes the sermon given by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on Vulture Peak. As Seokgamoni-bul completed his sermon entitled “Immeasurable Meanings,” he “sat down cross-legged, undisturbed in body and mind among the great assembly and entered the samadhi [meditative consciousness] called the ‘abode of immeasurable meanings.'” It was while he did this that “…great manjusaka flowers [celestial flowers] fell like rain from the sky, scattering over the Buddha and all of his attendants.”
There is another reference in the Lotus Sutra found in chapter seven entitled “The Parable of the Phantom City,” where thirty-three devas built a lion seat under a bodhi tree for the Buddha. “As soon as the Buddha sat on this seat, all the Brahmas rained down various heavenly flowers for a hundred yojanas [ancient Indian measurement] around; periodically a fragrant breeze would blow away the withered flowers and they would rain down fresh ones.” The devas created this lion seat so that the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, could sit on it and gain supreme and universal enlightenment. And after gaining enlightenment, to the time of his earthly death, flowers would rain down from heaven periodically on the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul.
With these textual references in mind, a Korean Buddhist temple shrine hall’s ceiling is symbolically referring to the Lotus Sutra. The Korean temple shrine hall is meant to symbolize the site of the Vulture Peak Assembly, where the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, taught his community his teachings. And a second reason for these painted flowers and hanging paper lotus flowers is that the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, gained enlightenment under a sky of flowers. With all of this in mind, the ceiling of flowers is meant to remind monks, nuns, and devotees that they too can gain enlightenment.
There are two typical ways in which these floral patterns make their presence known inside a Korean temple shrine hall. The first is that they are painted on the ceiling of the structure. They are typically divided into cross-hatched sections with a lotus flower painted in the centre. And while the lotus flower is the most common flower that you’ll find adorning the ceiling flowers, it isn’t exclusive. Sometimes you’ll find peonies, roses, and other colourful flowers, too. And the other way in which these celestial flowers can manifest themselves is as purple and pink paper lotus flowers that are suspended from the ceiling of the temple shrine hall. Typically they are suspended at head height or just above it.
So now that you know what all these flowers are meant to symbolize inside a Korean Buddhist temple shrine hall, you can now appreciate them that much more. While they are aesthetically pleasing to the eye, they are also packed with the symbolic meaning of the Buddha’s enlightenment. And they act as a reminder that enlightenment is also possible for anyone at any time, as well.