Icons of Korean Buddhism │ Palsang-do Pictures __ Chun Ock-bae

Palsang-do Pictures:
Eight Scenes of Buddha’s life

Most of us are interested to learn more about the lives of people we admire, which is why the illustrated series of large-scale paintings depicting the eight phases of Sakyamuni the original Buddha’s life is often found in Buddhist temples. In Korea, simplified versions of these artworks showing scenes from his conception to his death are very often painted directly onto the outer-walls of the Main Halls, while the formal, elaborate icons are found decorating the interiors of special Palsang-jeon (Eight Pictures Hall) in the larger monasteries.

Ever since Sakyamuni Buddha entered nirvana around 483 BCE, the story of his life has been of great interest to Buddhists. Thus, the series entitled “Eight Phases of the Buddha’s Life” was developed in pictorial story form for just this reason. These paintings were first created approximately 2,000 years ago and they are still central to Buddhist Art today. The themes of these eight artworks are as follows:

1. Announcement of the imminent birth

One night, Queen Mayadevi dreamed that a white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb. This vision of a white elephant entering her womb indicated that on that very night she had conceived a child who was a pure and powerful being. The king and queen consulted a Brahmin wise priest to interpret the dream. The sage predicted that “a great son will be born and, if he renounces the world and embraces a religious life, he will attain perfect enlightenment and become the savior of this world.”

2. Birth

Sakyamuni was born as a royal prince in 624 BCE in a small township called Lumbini, which was then located in northern India but is now part of Nepal. The newborn is said to have emerged from the right side of his mother who is depicted in this painting standing upright and holding the branch of a fig tree. When the king saw the child he felt the  fulfillment of all his wishes and he named the young prince Siddhartha. The king invited another Brahmin seer to offer predictions about the course of this prince’s future, and after that clairvoyant sage examined the child he reported to the king, “There are signs that the boy could become either a chakravatin king, a ruler of the entire world, or a fully enlightened Buddha.”

3. Four sufferings of human existence

As a boy, sometimes Prince Siddhartha would sneak out from the palace and go into the city at the heart of his father’s kingdom in order to see how other people lived. During these visits he came into contact with various people who were sick and elderly, and on one occasion he witnessed a corpse. These encounters left him with a deep impression and he came to realize that all living beings without exception must experience the sufferings of birth, sickness, aging and death. Seeing that all living beings are trapped in this vicious circle of suffering, his observations gave rise to deep compassion, and he developed a sincere wish to free all from suffering.

4. Renunciation

Realizing that only a fully-enlightened Buddha has the wisdom and power to help all living beings, the young Siddhartha resolved to leave the palace and retire to the solitude of the forest where he would engage in profound meditation until he attained enlightenment. His father, learning of his intentions to abscond, placed extra guards by the gates to watch over his son at all times in order to prevent him from leaving the idyllic safety of the palace. But Siddhartha, with the aid of the four heavenly guardians and other spirits, was able to make his escape over the wall, mounted on his favorite white horse.

5. Asceticism

For six years he studied and meditated, seeking to find the truth about life and death. As was the custom in those days, he engaged in severe ascetic practices to discipline and punish his body and mind. Finally, verging on the edge of death he realized this was not the way to attain enlightenment and thus resolved to maintain a healthy body and find a more moderate path in his quest for understanding.

6. Temptations and Rejection of them

The demon Mara, symbolizing the delusions which arise during meditation, tried to disturb Siddhartha’s practice. Mara sought to break the spirit of the ascetic and sent various sensory distractions to tempt him to stray from his path. His first taunt was an offer of worldly pleasures, which had no impact on Siddhartha’s determined concentration. Seeing this fail, Mara next sent his army of monsters, but the power of the soon-to-be enlightened meditator was easily able to stop these monsters, transforming their weapons into lotus blossoms. Evil, in the guise of Mara and his tricks, was defeated and goodness prevailed as Siddhartha resisted the three voluptuous women sent to seduce him, finally defeating all temptations and then attaining enlightenment.

Eight Scenes of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life
© The Korea Times

7. Teaching After Enlightenment

Thus, after attaining complete enlightenment, the former Prince Siddhartha became known as Sakyamuni (Sage of the Sakya Clan) the historical Buddha (Awake One). In the “Deer Park” picture, the Buddha is seen preaching his first sermon to a group of five earlier colleagues he had practiced extreme Hindu asceticism with before his enlightenment. For 45 years following this first teaching, known as the First Turning of the Wheel, the Buddha wandered around northern India and offered his teachings to anyone who was interested.

8. Passing away – Attainment of Nirvana

At the age of 80 the Buddha passed away as he lay on his side between two Sala trees. He was surrounded by many of his disciples and countless animals and spirits that had gathered around the bier to mourn his passing. In the elaborate paintings of this story there is often a colorful shower of relics released from the burning casket, while crowds of both heavenly and earthly mourners surround the body. 

Chun Ock-bae is presently the Director of Korea Institute of Buddhist English Translation (KIBET), where he is working primarily at translating Korean Buddhist materials into English. He studied Buddhism in the graduate school of Dongguk University. His main area is about Korean Buddhist thought and culture.

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