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Gwaebul: Korea's Monumental Thangkas
by Lou Morrison
In November 2001, I carried the Buddha and witnessed his advent. A yongsan chae, or Vulutre Peak Assembly was held at Gap-sa, in south Chungcheong province. I had come to Korea in September of that year to research and write my doctoral dissertation on gwaebul taenghwa, which are large scroll paintings - some as large as ten by seven meters - which have been deployed for mass rituals on the peninsula since the mid-Joseon period.
The Vulture Peak ritual is intended to succor the karmically-deprived souls of the dead through a replication of the Buddha's sermon on Vulture Peak. This "replication" or evokation is achieved through framing the ritual space with a large image of that assembly, hence, the gwabul taenghwa, or "hanging thangka." Such rites begin early in the morning, so I made my way from Seoul to Gongju city, and the village of Chungjang the evening before, and before dawn, found my way through the frosty darkness to the temple, where preparations were being made.
The huge painting is stored in a long wooden box behind the main altar of the main image hall of the temple. When asked if I would like to help arry the box from behind the altar to the base of its frame, which is in front of the main hall, I readily accepted.
I joined a group of perhaps thirsty laymen and monks who were making preparations to life the box from its armature behind the altar. I found a space among them and joined in the effort. Upon our first heft, and heave, and yank, I realized the full weight of the object. The painting, and the box inside of which it is rolled for safekeeping, weighs about as much as a small truck. As we slid the monstrous object into our grasp, and began to kneel to crouch under it to lift it, at first, there was no response from the stubborn collusion between weight and gravity, and I realized that this honor had become something of a danger, as well, there at seven in the morning. For I was certain we would be crushed.
The perils of life during Korea's early history disposed her tribal cultures to exhibit a high ritual density. Shamanistic ceremonies to manipulate the spirits of nature and the dead condensed religion, politics, and art into a unified and necessary social dynamic. Lavish, large-scaled religious festivals during the harvest and planting seasons entailed feasting, dancing, singing, and the playing of drums on the part of whole communities. Moreover, during the pre-Buddhist period, the inculsion of burials (like those in China) suggest a belief in an afterlife in spirit form, and the provisioning of these spirits.
Buddhist metaphysics - deriving from Brahmanistic cosmology - entailed a process of birth/rebirth (samsara) and an impersonal but retributive karmic process. This delivered souls to one of six realms: hell; the realm of wandering ghostsl animals; fighting spirit(asuras); the human; or the heavenly, ie., the realm of devas. Buddhist ritual afforded a performative mechanism for manipulating the trajectories of spirits in and along this hierarchy, and ultimate trnscendence beyond, to Buddhahood.
Morever, the Chinese monk Shantao (who is generally held to have introduced Buddhism to Goguryo in 372) promoted the religion as powerful national-protection magic. Thus, the aims of Buddhism and its ritual during the Three Kingdoms period were devoted to national protection, and the legitimacy of kingship through identification of the sovereign with the Buddha as king and protector par excellence.
In the United Shilla and Goryo periods, more speculative forms of Buddhism were introduced from China and developed, such as Son and Hwaom, bur rites of national protection and rainmaking rituals were still the most salient aspects of Buddhism from the perspective of the general populace. Gradually, however, temple design changed. Three Kingdoms and Unified Shilla temples had crisp, paltial symmetries, following the Chinese model-aligning main gate, pagoda, golden hall, and lecture hall in a straight line along a north-south axis.
Toward the Joseon temples began to formulate a large courtyard for outdoor assemblies, this space framed by the main hall and other ritual halls, and this space became the "high altar" of the temple. The ritual core of the temple thus shirted from the pagoda to the ritual hall itself, and the courtyard in front of the ritual hall. Mass rituals provided the performative template for the Vulture Peak rite as it would be developed in the Joseon period, and the redesign and new ritual priorities of the temple complex would create a space for the deployment of the large scroll paintings, gwaebul taenghwa.
But the development of these large paintings seems hinged to the catastrophic Hideoshi invasions of 1592 and 1597, which would see nearly every building on the peninsula as far north as Pyongyang burned to the ground, and tens of thousands killed. For such large scale paintings, and the proliferation of post-mortem rites such as the water-land ritual and Vulture Peak ritual, do not appear with such great frequency until immediately following these invasions. Indeed, these rituals are designed to address the very real national anxiety concerning the millions of wandering ghosts - those who met violent and lonely deaths without proper mortuary rites - which haunted the countryside following the invasion.
All modern historical surveys of gwaebul begin with the 1622 painting at Chuklim Temple in South Jeolla Province. It is a small painting, compared to other gwaebul, and quite simple in composition, depicting a lone Shakyamuni performing the earth-touching gesture. However, 23 gwaebul were produced in the 17th century, and 22 in the 18th. 13 were produced in the 19th, and 4 in the early 20th. The production of these large paintings long after the Hideoshi invasions suggest that the paintings were seen as an enhancement of a temple's ritual apparatus, and drew large crowds of worshippers and revenue to the temple.
Gwaebul also mark a historical shift in Buddhist patronage in Korea. Whereas the Confucian hegemony of the Josun had distanced itself from Buddhism, it was no longer patronized by the government as an agency of national protection, and these rites fell by the wayside. The manufacture of gwaebul became an effort of the local community and clergy, and the rituals for which it serves as visual aid tended to address local, rather than national concerns: rainmaking for the local farmers, and feeding the souls of the locally-deceased.
The compositional and iconographic drama of gwaebul as it unfolds over the years of their production is a richer and deeper subject than can be addressed in this space. Suffice to say that the most evident trend is that while early compositions were quite crowded - rather more like altar paintings of the Buddha's sermon on Vulture Peak - in the 18th C, the compositions become narrower, and taller, and simplified. In many cases, later images tend to condense the Buddha's presence as protector and teacher into a single image of the standing Buddha, or in Hwaom temples, Rosana, the ornate bodhisattva like figure which represents the reward body of the three bodies - the dharma, transformation, and reward bodies - of Avatamsaka doctrine. These issues themselves are philosophically and art - historically complex, but as I urge readers to look out for gwaebul rituals and partake of them, I also suggest considering the iconographic of the image you might behold at one of these rites. Ultimately, whatever iconograohy you might see, bear in mind the aim of the iconographer is this: to evoke in monumental terms the presence of the Buddha, to evoke the Buddha's sermon and to bring the ritual participant into the presence of the Buddha.
At Gap-sa, we finally struggled the long box off of its armature, and with sagging strength then had to negotiate the object through a narrow door at the side of the ritual hall. Tricky and daunting business. And once outside, the challenge was before us to then carry the box up and along a stone wall, then down again, to place it at the base of its large frame in front of the hall. And on the way, something amazing happened. We found that this weight that had stunned us at first effort, and had seemed to work against us until we had it outside, became somehow light as a feather, and we were carrying this monstrous weight over our heads, as if it were lifting itself in to the clear, blue morning sky. Finally, we managed to establish the box at the base of its frame, and then the image of the Buddha was scrolled open from its box into the sunlight by hand with ropes and winches. Thus the open courtyard, clogged with worshippers and clergy, was fully activated as the "high altar". The Buddha had arrived among us. The sense of joy and purely spiritual awe was intense, breathtaking in the crisp morning light, with the sound of gongs and moktak welcoming the Tathagata. This, ultiately, is the moment for which such large and colorful images are designed: To bring the Buddha among us, with the sense of release and relief that attend that miracle.