Buddhist Painting is not meant to pursue mere beauty, but rather, is a holy and divine art of drawing the subjects and themes of Buddhist principles. Accordingly, good Buddhist paintings depend on how well Buddhist principles are depicted and delivered rather than on revolutionary techniques and skills applied in the paintings. For example, if the liberation from all the sufferings is the main purpose of Buddhism, the most successful Buddhist painting is the one which depicts the scene that helps one to be liberated from all these sufferings.
Buddhist paintings have various purposes; First of all, they are used for decoration. Also, they are used to create solemnity. Secondly, they have the educational purpose of delivering the teachings of the Buddha more easily. Thirdly, they are used for worship.
Korean; Taenghwa (탱화, 幀畫 ,Thangka )
Byukhwas (벽화, Temple Murals)
There are three types of temple ‘Byukhwas’ (벽화, temple murals), based on whether they are painted on clay, wood or stone. ; clay, stone and wooden board. Most of the historical temples before the Choseon Dynasty were made of wood and clay, and were decorated with murals.
However, a majority of the paintings disappeared over time due to the destruction or restoration of the temples and so they are now hard to find.
In the case of murals painted on the wood surface, the boards are put on the outside walls of a wooden temple to protect the walls and murals are painted on them. These murals do not last long and it is hard to find ones from long ago. Stone wall paintings are done on the walls of cave temples. In Korea, there are no remaining examples and only a record of that they existed. However, many cave murals have survived many centuries in other parts of the world, for example in Ajanta, India, in Donhuan, Ungang and Daedong in China and throughout Central Asia.
‘Gamro’ means the sweet teachings of the Buddha and ‘do’ means paintings and pictures. Gamro-dos (감로도) are also called Taenghwas for the spirits of the dead, or Gamrowang-do (Paintings of King Gamro) since it mainly depicts the Sutra of ‘Bulseoluranbunkyung’.(불설우란분경) King Gamro represents the Amitabul(아미타불, Amitahba), the main Buddha of the Western Paradise.
The paintings depict the manner of worship to ancestors and other spirits. The upper portion illustrates the scene of the Amitabul and the heavenly beings appearing before sentient beings at the purgatory, and the scene of a Bodhisattva taking those beings to the Western Paradise (the Pure Land). The bottom portion depicts the many different forms of sufferings in Hell and in the realms of sentient beings.
Byunsang-do’ (변상도) are the paintings of the life of the Buddha Seokgamoni (Sakyamuni) and of various Buddhist stories. There are the main subjects; Bonsaeng-dos (본생도) which depict the former lives of the Buddha, Buljeon-dos(불전도), which show the panoramic depiction of his life and Jangeom-dos (장엄도), which feature the Western Paradise. Complicated sutras or profound doctrines are summarized in a painted form. These paintings are used as a means of edification for sentient beings by inspiring them to study the meanings of
Palsang-do (팔상도, Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life)
(1) Scene of the Buddha’s descent from ‘Dosolcheon’ (도솔천, Tusita heaven).
This painting illustrates the Buhhda Seokamoni(Sakyamuni) waiting in Dosolcheon and then descending from heaven to earth as the son of King Shuddhodana Gautama and Queen Maya; Queen Maya dreams of Homyoung Bosal (Bodhisattva Homyoung, 호명보살) riding an elephant and entering her between the right ribs. The King and the Queen listen to the interpretation of the dream from a Brahmin who is an expert in physiognomy. He predicts “A great son will be born. If he renounces the world and embraces a religious life, he will attain perfect Enlightenment and become the Savior of the three realms(삼계, Samgye, San.: triloka).
(2) Scene of the Buddha’s Birth in Lumbini Park
This painting depicts the aspects of nature which are associated with the Buddha’s birth; On a warm spring day, Queen Maya walks up the Lumbini Park with royal ladies in waiting who leave the palace to accompany her. The prince emerges from the right side of his mother who is standing upright and holding a branch of an Ashoka tree. Jeseokcheon (제석천, King Sacra, King of devas) attends the prince’s birth and wraps him in silk brought from the Heaven and all the heavenly kings make offerings of treasures. The prince, immediately after birth, takes seven steps and at each step, a lotus grows out of the ground to receive the Buddha-to-be. He steps from blossom to blossom and stops. With one hand pointing to Heaven and the other pointing to the earth, he exclaims “Above heaven and below heaven (In the heavens and on earth), I alone am the Honored One. (San.: wnaggo ham asmi lokassa). Nine dragons wash the prince with the clean water from their mouth and take the prince on their backs. Asita, an old hermit sage is called in the palace in order to read the physiognomy of the prince.
(3) Scene of Gautama’s Observation outside Four Gates
This scene shows the prince observing all the sufferings
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