One of the most common things you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple is a dragon. You can find them in paintings, statues, adornments, latticework around shrine halls and even under bridges. So why do you find so many dragons at a Korean Buddhist temple?
History of the Korean Dragon
As Buddhism started to migrate eastward from India, it started to take on local influences and forms. One great example of this can be seen when Buddhism started to spread throughout China during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). When Buddhism entered into China, the dragon first came as a Naga. Naga, as in Hinduism, takes the form of a great cobra. They are divine, or semi-divine deities, or even a semi-divine race of half-human/half-serpent beings that are raised in Patala (a subterranean realm of the universe). As a result, they are primarily depicted in three forms. They can be wholly human with snakes on their heads or necks, a serpent, or as half-human/half-snake. Some Naga are capable of using magic powers to transform themselves into humans. As for how they interact with human beings, Naga are potentially dangerous, but they are also helpful, protective, and beneficial to humans.
With Buddhism firmly being established during the Six Dynasties (220-589 A.D.) in China, the Naga became a dragon. And with the migration of Buddhism to the Korean peninsula from China taking place first in the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.) in 372 A.D., dragons, instead of Naga, migrated to the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 B.C. – 668 A.D.), as well.
Korean Dragon’s Appearance and Symbolic Meaning
In Korean, dragons are known as “yong” or “ryong.” In appearance, they can have deer antlers, a snake belly, a fish tail, claws, and whiskers. They can also be a number of colours like blue, red, yellow, green, or brown.
Another thing that differentiates Korean dragons from other dragons is that they have longer beards. Also, you’ll usually see a Korean dragon with an orb, which is known as a “Yeouiju – 여의주” in Korean. This is a Cintamani, or wish-fulfilling jewel. It can be held in its claws or mouth. It’s believed that whoever holds a Yeouiju has the power of omnipotence and creation. Another feature that differentiates Korean dragons is that they have four toes to hold and wield the Yeouiju, as opposed to lesser three-toed dragons.
However, unlike the western idea of dragons, which are thought to be destructive and harmful, dragons in Korea are thought to be a sign of good luck. In fact, dragons are thought to be the bearer of good fortunate and spiritual clarity because of their loud voices. Their voices clear away any and all delusions of corrupting thought. In Korea, dragons are said to have power over the sea, floods, and storms. And specifically in Buddhism, they are thought to be one of eight kinds of protective deities that help guard the teachings of the Buddha (the dharma).
Where to Find Korean Dragons
There are numerous places that you can find dragons at a Korean Buddhist temple. Here are eight specific examples of where you can find these dragons.
The Dragon Ship of Wisdom
The Dragon Ship of Wisdom, which is known as “Banya Yongseon-do – 반야 용선도” in Korean, is a ship that transports people across the Sea of Samsara. In Korean, Samsara is known as “Yunhwi – 윤회.” Samsara, or Yunhwi, refers to the idea of the cycle of life: birth, death, and rebirth. As the name of the ship kind of gives away, The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is shaped like a dragon (go figure!?). It has the head of a dragon for the bow and the tail of the dragon as the stern. Typically, the dragon shaped ship is painted blue with a handful of occupants sailing across Samsara. The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is being ferried across Samsara by two Bodhisattvas at either end of the vessel. (Picture from Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do).
Temple Shrine Hall Adornments
Oftentimes you’ll see a pair of dragon heads near the entry of a temple shrine hall, book-ending the nameplate of the specific shrine hall. These dragons that protrude outwards from the eaves of a temple shrine hall are meant to symbolically represent the Dragon Ship of Wisdom. So by entering a temple shrine hall, one is being transported across the Sea of Samsara. These dragons are one of the more misunderstood dragons that you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple. More often than not, they’re simply thought of as being ornamental, but everything at Korean Buddhist temples, especially the artwork, has meaning. (Picture from Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do).
Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha)
As for the Mireuk-jeon Hall, which is where Mireuk-bul commonly takes up residence at a Korean Buddhist temple, this temple shrine is also known as a Yonghwa-jeon. Yonghwa means “Dragon Flower” in English, while jeon means “hall.” This connection to a dragon might seem a bit confusing at first; however, according to Buddhist tradition, when Mireuk-bosal returns to Earth as Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha), he will have attained his Buddhahood under a Dragon Flower Tree. Furthermore, dragons are thought to have a countless amount of scales on their bodies, which is a symbol of the infinite. It’s also symbolic of a dragon’s immeasurable power. Another connection to the dragon for Mireuk-bul is the belief that Mireuk-bul turned into a dragon spirit as he entered into a meditative state while awaiting to achieve Buddhahood. This also connects the idea of a dragon’s ability as a shape-shifter to appear in any number of forms to help people towards Jeongto (The Pure Land). (Picture from Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do).
The Sacheonwang (The Four Heavenly Kings)
Another connection that dragons have to Korean Buddhist temples is through the Sacheonwang, who, in English, are known as the Four Heavenly Kings. The specific connection that dragons have to the Four Heavenly Kings is through Gwangmok Cheonwang (or Virupaksha in Sanskrit). Nagas are followers of Gwangmok Cheonwang (don’t forget that Nagas became dragons during their migration eastwards). The Four Heavenly Kings are guardians of Mt. Sumeru, which is the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual centre of the universes. As a result of this devotion of the Nagas, you can typically see a dragon being held in the right hand of Gwangmok Cheonwang. (Picture from Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju).
Poroe (The Bell Dragon)
Traditionally, a dragon adorns the top of a Korean temple bell. The hooks that hold the bell to the rafters on a temple bell are usually shaped like a dragon. As a result, they are called “dragon hooks.” In Korean, this dragon is known as as Poroe – 포뢰. Poroe has a bit of a phobia. Poroe is afraid of whales. And according to this myth, when Poroe sees a whale, Poroe cries out. The reason this is important is that the striker that hits the bell, traditionally, is a whale-shaped striker. So when the whale-shaped striker hits the bell, Poroe, who crowns the bell, lets out a loud scream. This allows the bell to make a louder noise. That’s why, in Korea, the sound that a bell makes is called a “whale sound.” (Picture from Seokbulsa Temple in Buk-gu, Busan).
Datjib (The Main Altar Canopy)
Datjib, in Korean, is a compound word. “Dat” means separate, while “jib” means house. Another name for a datjib is “celestial canopy,” which is a reference to the airy feeling that the roof-shaped structure possesses.
As for the design of the datjib, it’s made of wood, and the woodwork consists of finely interconnected brackets that have been ornately decorated. The pillar of the datjib are usually thin, which helps contribute to the airy feel of the design. Surrounding the typically red painted datjib are dragons, phoenixes, lotus flowers, Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities), and other celestial deities. At a glance, the canopy looks like a mini-palace. As for the dragon or dragons that take up residence near the datjib, they are meant in their more traditional role as protectors. (Picture from Samgwangsa Temple in Busanjin-gu, Busan).
Sometimes if you look under a bridge at a Korean Buddhist temple like Seonamsa Temple’s Seungseon-gyo Bridge in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do, you’ll find a dragon. Not only are dragons listeners of the dharma (Buddhist teachings), but they are also protectors. So some temples with streams have bridges spanning them. On the underside of the bridge or near the wall of the stream, you’ll find a dragon. The reason you’ll find a dragon on the underside of the temple’s bridge is to prevent malevolent spirits from riding the stream water and entering the temple grounds. (Picture from Seonamsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do).
Yongwang (The Dragon King)
The name of the shaman deity kind of gives it all away. Yongwang (The Dragon King) is a shaman deity that can be found either in a Yongwang-dang Hall or a Samseong-gak Hall alongside other shaman deities like Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and/or Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). Traditionally, Yongwang is the deity of lakes, rivers, ponds, waters, seas, stream, or pretty much anything to do with water. There’s a belief that there’s a world beneath the sea. And in this world, Yongwang rules in his Dragon Palace called “Yonggung” in Korean. And an easy way to identify Yongwang is that he’s always with a dragon. Sometimes these dragons fly all around him, and sometimes he’s flying one. And if he is in fact riding a dragon, this act symbolizes his dominance over the dragon. (Picture from Gwaneumsa Temple in Jeju City, Jeju-do).
There are a few temples in Korea with the word dragon in their name. Great examples of this can be found at Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site in Gyeongju; Guryongsa Temple in Wonju, Gangwon-do; Hongryongsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do; and Yongjusa Temple in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do.
In addition to temples using dragons in their names, there are several famous temples throughout Korea that have dragons in their founding creation myths like Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do; Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Gijang-gun, Busan; Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do; and Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.
So as you can see, dragons play an integral part in the artwork, history, and architecture of Korean Buddhist temples. The images and representations of dragons are diverse in their artistry and originality. So take a look around you the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple and see just how many dragons you can see flying around the temple grounds.