Contribution │ Gwaneum and the Ocean __ Daniela Schenker

Gwaneum and the Ocean

Daniela Schenker | professor, Busan University of Foreign Studies

Photos by Jang Myeong-hwak

Probably my most special morning in Korea was one early autumn day after the steamy grey clouds of summer had vanished and the crystal-clear Korean sky arched across the peninsula like a vibrant blue dome. We got up before dawn, and with the full moon overhead, we followed the trail toward Bori-am Hermitage, located on beautiful Namhae Island in the South Sea. We reached the hermitage before dawn and immediately walked down to a small platform from where we enjoyed a magnificent view of the vast moon-lit ocean. The full moon still glowed above the mountain behind us as the sun started to rise quickly from the ocean in front of us. In the center of this invisible axis stood a large and graceful granite statue of Gwaneum-bosal, probably the most venerated bodhisattva in Korea. The breeze at sunrise was strong and invigorating, and the small islands scattered in the ocean were now surrounded by shimmering silvery water. Such a location truly enhances meditation and helps us perceive the powerful mutual connectedness of humans and nature. Such a beautiful magnificent scene must also have inspired such Buddhist terms as “Ocean of Wisdom” or “Ocean of Compassion”.

Images of Gwaneum and her connection with the ocean enhance
meditation and also help us perceive the powerful mutual connection of humans and nature. They have also inspired such Buddhist terms as
“Ocean of Wisdom” and “Ocean of Compassion”.

The first rays of the sun also directly touched the vase with the nectar of compassion that Gwaneum holds in her left hand, and shortly afterward, gently illuminated her serene face. What a perfect place for this statue! This statue is the iconic landmark of this hermitage and one of the three largest granite outdoor “Ocean Gwaneum” statues in Korea, a mere 45-years-young and still looking flawless, in comparison to the slightly weathered three-story stone pagoda next to it which is over 1,000 years old. This pagoda is a national treasure and the true guardian of the site as sarira ­ relics of the Buddha brought from India ­ are enshrined in it. I felt blessed just to be there! Bori-am has yet another highlight worth mentioning, a cave in a ridge of Mt. Geumsan, left of Bori-am Hermitage, where Yi Seong-gye, the Joseon dynasty’s future King Taejo, dwelt and prayed for 100 days. I have always been fascinated by the spectacular landscapes of the special Korean temples that have these Ocean Gwaneum statues. I hope those who read this article will take the time to visit these sacred places and get in touch with nature, as well as open and refresh their mind and lift their weary spirit. Here are some brief comments on five other sites along Korea’s coast:

Naksan-sa Temple Yangyang, Gangwon-do
Photos by Bo-hae

I highly recommend that first-time visitors to Korea visit colorful Yonggung-sa (“Dragon Palace Temple”), east of Busan city and not far up the coast. Gwaneum bodhisattva has a special connection to dragons, and according to legend, she saved the life of one of the Dragon King’s sons who had transformed into a fish and was caught by a fisherman. In addition to Bori-am Hermitage, I also love Hyangil-am Hermitage near Yeosu on the south coast. It too is located on a very high cliff above the sea and offers another vast and pure ocean view. I also appreciate its abundant and refreshing spring water. The atmosphere at Bomun-sa Temple on Seokmodo Island near Incheon is invigoratingly different. The temple can only be reached by boat, and the short ride offers a brief opportunity to become attuned to the ocean. There is no need to squeeze through narrow rock gates like those at Hyangil-am. The steps leading up to Bomun-sa are long and steep, but there are several platforms on the way up to provide visitors with expansive breathtaking views over the unfolding island coastline and sea. The temple features a giant outdoor Buddha rock carving and a cozy little cave that is ideally suited for meditating.

However, Naksan-sa’s Hongryeon-am (“Red Lotus Hermitage”) on the east coast is definitely my favorite place. Its architecture reminds me of the “Shrine to the Voice of Kuan Yin” on the Chinese island of Putuo Shan where the bodhisattva is said to have once dwelt and where she is now worshipped in many of its temples. Not far from Naksan-sa Temple and situated above a lower cliff, Hongryeon-am Hermitage is more directly exposed to the changing tides and power of the sea. Through a hole in the floor covered with glass one can see the ocean and the meditation cave of famous Master Uisang. It is recorded that he encountered Gwaneum in this area and received from her prayers and crystal prayer beads. For me, this is where I most strongly sensed the convergence of the human spirit, nature and the spiritual energies connected with Ocean Gwaneum. 

(left) Bori-am Hermitage, Namhae region
(right) Bomun-sa Temple in Ganghwa Island
Photos by Daniela Schenker

But who exactly is Gwaneum? In the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who has postponed their own enlightenment in order to help and support other sentient beings on their path to liberation from the ever-turning Wheel of Life. Originally known in Sanskrit as Avalokitesvara, (“Bodhisattva of Compassion”), belief in and veneration of her started to spread from India into East Asia around the 1st century, and she is highly praised in the 25th chapter of the famous Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra describes Gwaneum’s water-like ability to manifest in any form in order to provide support and protection; as male or female, as a buddha, as a mystical dragon king, a human or an animal. This is also the reason why, as her legend traveled from India to Asia, the iconography used to depict her (or him) was transformed and blended with the images of Taoist goddesses or even with the Christian Maria during the time of the Crusades. In Korea, paintings and statues of Gwaneum frequently show a beard and have rather more of a masculine appearance, but people often refer to Gwaneum as “Mother” in their prayers. The Surangama Sutra also infers one more water/ocean connection to Gwaneum, wherein she describes one of the most powerful paths to enlightenment by applying the practice of listening to the ocean surf, ultimately transcending the sense of hearing. As her Chinese name indicates – Kuan Yin, Hearer of the cries (of sentient beings) ­ the path of hearing seems to be her domain.

The last water connection to be mentioned is “The Bark”, a dragon boat that carries the deceased across an ocean or river to the Western Pure Land ruled by Buddha Amitabul where they gain the opportunity for further spiritual development. In this context Gwaneum acts like a guide and a compassionate assistant to Amitabul. The archetype of a river dividing as well as connecting the worlds of life and death is truly universal and can also be found in Western philosophy and psychology. Water as a connector of all sentient beings ­ including the moisture in the air we breathe ­ may at the same time represent the compassion through which we are all connected. And we may become more aware of this while visiting some of these sacred sites beside the ocean. 

Daniela Schenker from Germany is the author of the book “Kuan Yin-Accessing the Power of the Feminine Spirit”, an introduction about the Gwaneum traditions in the East and West. She has been studying Asian culture and travelling the world for over 30 years.

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