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Another one of the more obscure shrine halls that you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple is the Yeongsan-jeon Hall. The name Yeongsan-jeon means “Vulture Peak Hall,” in English. The hall is meant to symbolically re-enact the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, seated on Vulture Peak. It’s on Vulture Peak that Seokgamoni-bul espoused his central ideas and teachings found in the Lotus Sutra, or the “묘법연화경” (Myobeop Yeonhwa-gyeong; short: Beophwa gyeong), in Korean.
In the Lotus Sutra, which is regarded as one of the most important and influential sutras in Mahayana Buddhism, Seokgamoni-bul presents the ultimate truth of life. The central idea found in the Lotus Sutra is that Buddhahood, which is the supreme state in life, is characterized by compassion, wisdom, and courage. And most importantly, Buddhahood is inherent in all of us without any perceived limits like intellectual ability, social standing, ethnicity or gender. The Lotus Sutra encourages us to actively engage with the mundane world and its challenges. So Buddhahood isn’t an escape from the world; rather, it’s a challenge to transform a world of suffering into a world of happiness. Thus, the Lotus Sutra gives expression to the infinite inherent in human life.
As for the Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Korean Buddhist temples, it traditionally houses three statues on the main altar. In the centre, rather obviously, sits Seokgamoni-bul. This statue is joined on either side by Yeondeung-bul (The Past Buddha) and Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). Typically, the Yeongsan-jeon Hall is populated by one of two things: in the first type of Yeongsan-jeon Hall, you’ll find Palsang-do murals (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life) like at Tongdosa Temple; or in the second type of Yeongsan-jeon Hall, you’ll find five hundred statues, which are meant to depict those individuals that were present at Vulture Peak to actually hear Seokgamoni-bul teach the Lotus Sutra like at Geojoam Hermitage at Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do.
In total, there is one Yeongsan-jeon Hall that’s a National Treasure. It’s the aforementioned Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Geojoam Hermitage, which is National Treasure #14. There are four additional Yeongsan-jeon Halls that are Korean Treasures. They can be found at Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do; Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do; Seongnamsa Temple in Anseong, Gyeonggi-do; and Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Also, the murals housed inside the Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Songgwangsa Temple are Korean Treasure #1368.
In addition to the murals housed inside the Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Songgwangsa Temple, there are the murals housed, both inside and out, at the Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple. These murals at Tongdosa Temple are Treasures #1041 and #1711. There are seventeen fading murals that adorn the exterior walls to the Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple. The interior murals, on the other hand, that adorn the walls and beams inside this shrine hall date back to between 1714 to 1716. In total, there are forty-eight wall murals that depict “Life and Activities of Sakyamuni Buddha Incarnate.” The eastern wall, except for one wall mural which depicts dragons flying in clouds, is devoted to the “Life and Activities of Sakyamuni Buddha Incarnate.” Such is the case for the northern and southern walls of the interior, as well. The western wall deviates a bit from the other three walls. While it also depicts the “Life and Activities of Sakyamuni Buddha Incarnate” in the upper two rectangular panels, the central panel is devoted to the “Vision of the Bejeweled Stupa.” “Vision of the Bejeweled Stupa” at Tongdosa Temple is the only surviving historical mural of its kind in Korea. It depicts the story of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) teaching the Lotus Sutra on Vulture Peak. A stupa by Daboyeorae-bul (The Buddha of Abundant Treasures) rises from the ground in the mural. Moved by his teachings, Seokgamoni-bul enters the stupa and sits next to Daboyeorae-bul. This pagoda is then backed by various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). The interior of the Yeongsan-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple is a true masterpiece of Korean Buddhist artistry. So take your time, be respectful of those praying, and enjoy this amazing feat.
So the next time you’re at a large Korean Buddhist temple or smaller hermitage, keep an eye open for this often confused, and little understood, shrine hall. Trust me, if you do in fact find a Yeongsan-jeon Hall, you won’t be disappointed. It’s often packed with beautiful Buddhist murals and statues.