"Hall of Infinite Life"
2nd oldest wooden building in South Korea, a grand Main Hall
"Muryangsu-jeon" [무량수전, 無量壽殿, Immeasurable Life Hall] is an alternative rendering of
the name for a Geungnak-jeon (極樂殿, Extreme Bliss Hall or Paradise Hall). It is a building
sometimes found in a larger temple complex, usually on the eastern side of the main courtyard in
front of the beopdang [法堂, Main Dharma Hall], facing to the west. It is dedicated to Amita-bul
[阿彌陀佛, Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise] and enshrines his image along with
related Bodhisattvas, and symbolically replicates his Western Paradise (a heaven where spirits
of the departed can hear him continuously preaching the entire Dharma without worldly difficulties
or distractions / temptation, and so can easily progress towards enlightenment). Amita-bul and
the Western Paradise are especially important in the Pure Land School of Mahayana Buddhism,
which has often reached cult-like intensity of popularity in the various East Asian nations.
This Muryangsu-jeon of Taebaek-san Buseok-sa is the most famous one in the entire nation.
Quite unusually, it serves as the beopdang [法堂, Main Dharma Hall] of this august monastery.
It was originally built in 676 under direction of Master Uisang, and Great Master Wonyung (964-
1053) renovated it in 1016, under orders of Goryeo King Hyeonjong (r. 1010-31). This entire
temple was burned by a rebel army in 1358, and the present structure was re-constructed in
1376 under patronage of Goryeo King Gongmin, and is therefore considered the oldest major
intact wooden building in all Korea; it is registered as National Treasure #18. The Josa-dang
sited above it is second-oldest by just a year.
That the main hall of this temple so famously dedicated to the Hwaeom School would later enshrine
the main deity of the Jeongto-jong [淨土宗, Pure Land School] only demonstrates the historical
alteration and typical blending of characters and sects that is often found in Korean temples. This
hall probably originally contained a main statue of Birojana-bul [Vairocana the Buddha of Infinite
Cosmic Light], main deity of Hwaeom Buddhism, enshrined against the northern wall and facing
south, and the hall would have been entitled a Daejeokgwang-jeon [대적광전, 大寂光殿, Great
Peace and Light Hall] or Biro-jeon [Vairocana Hall]; but was converted to the present form and
name in the 1358 rebuilding -- as the Pure Land Sect enjoyed great popularity in that century.
Anyway, the great statue of Amita-bul sits in the west side of the hall facing towards the east (not south
as is usual) because it is the Buddha of Western Paradise. It is the oldest clay statue in Korea, and is
designated as National Treasure #45; although it is a late Goryeo Dynasty statue, it is said by experts
to faithfully reflect the style of late Shilla Kingdom statues. I have always regarded it as one of the
'handsomest' Buddhas in Korea; many visitors find it a sublime and evocative work of spiritual art.
The dramatically flaming bronze dae-gwangbae body & head halos that contain other subtle deities
suggests the Hwaeom school, not the Pure Land. The su-in [mudra, hand-position] of this figure is
that of Sakyamuni the historical Buddha "touching the earth" just after he achieved enlightenment, not
the "teaching" su-in of Amita-bul, a clear fact that only adds to the mysterious ambiguity of this image.
Also quite unusual is that there are no Bodhisattva statues attending him, which would aid identification.
I have always regarded this statue as representing Sakyamuni, myself. The main reasons that the
government cultural-heritage designators and some other scholars have declared it to be Amita-bul
appear to be that the Hall is entitled a Muryangsu-jeon and that he sits in the western sector facing
east. Even though this temple was founded by Uisang and has operated as a center of Hwaeom
teachings that focus on Birojana-bul... Perhaps, our conclusion from all the identity-ambiguity of
this great statue and the hall it is enshrined within could be that this is by now a "universal Buddha"
representing the best of all Korean Buddhist artworks and the Dharmic truth that runs through all
of the schools that have flourished in this nation for 1700 years.
|it only appears as one climbs the steep stone steps beneath the Anyang-ru Pavilion -- photo by Robert Koehler
|a good look at the intricate wooden canopy and rafters above
|on the old slot-wood floor and between the massive ancient interior pillars, I bow with two friends in 2007
|the modern Shinjung-taenghwa [Assembly of Guardian Spirits Altar-Painting]
that sits to the left behind the statue (in the SW corner of the hall)
|Sanshin sports an unusual government-official's cap and very full white
beard, holds a very stylized spiralic bullocho sprig, and looks annoyed.
|...while the Yong-wang looks quite confused, as he holds a coral sprig.
|Korean postage-stamp issued around 1977