Essay by Ryun Kyunghee
The four Buddhas depicted in this small painting are intended to symbolize the entire world of Buddhahood. The painting was commissioned in 1562 by Yi Jongrin, a member of the Joseon royal family, who was mourning the loss of his maternal grandfather. Yi had the painting produced as an offering to pray that his late grandfather would be reborn in the Pure Land, and for the peace and happiness of his maternal grandmother and other living family members.
In Buddhism, all of the enlightened Buddhas and bodhisattvas—having escaped the cycle of life, death, and rebirth—go to reside in the Pure Land, also known as the Western Paradise. Thus, all Buddhists hope to be guided to the Pure Land by Amitabha Buddha after death.
The four Buddhas in this painting are (clockwise from upper left) Amitabha Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru Buddha (the Buddha of the eastern realm of the “Pure Lapis Lazuli”), Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha), and Shakyamuni Buddha. Amitabha Buddha is surrounded by eight bodhisattvas, while Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, who holds a medicine bowl to cure the sick, is surrounded by twelve guardian deities. Both Maitreya Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha are surrounded by disciples and bodhisattvas who are similarly depicted, reflecting the belief that Maitreya Buddha will appear 5,670,000,000 years after Shakyamuni Buddha entered nirvana, to save all sentient beings. Shakyamuni Buddha, who is shown making his characteristic “earth-touching” mudra with his hands, gave up his prestigious life as a prince after realizing that the path to enlightenment and the end of suffering lay in asceticism and the cessation of desire.
While Amitabha Buddha and Bhaisajyaguru Buddha represent the space of west and east (respectively), Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha represent the time of the past and future. As such, the four Buddhas in this painting symbolically represent the idea that Buddha exists in every space and time. Beneath the Buddhas, the Four Heavenly Kings, clad in armor, are kneeling with clasped hands, vigilant in their duty to protect the world of Buddha.
At the bottom of the painting is a red rectangular bar bearing a gold inscription that records when, why, and by whom the painting was produced. The inscription reads as follows:
In June 1562, I, Yi Jongrin, with the deepest grief, sincerely pray for the repose of my late father, Lady Yi, Bak Gan and his wife, and my late daughter and son. I wish for them to be released from the misdeeds of their lifetime and to be reborn in the Pure Land, breaking free from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. I also wish for my living family members—my grandmother, my parents, Seong Sun and his wife, Bak, Yi Baekchun, Yi Gyeongchun, and Yi Yeonchun—to stay safe from disasters and to enjoy good fortune and longevity. Finally, I wish that I can also escape disaster, avoid hundreds of harms, and have thousands of blessed events each day, and that I do not die suddenly at a young age, but instead live long enough to become an old man . . .
According to the inscription, the painting was commissioned and donated by Yi Jongrin, the son of Prince Deokyang and grandson of King Jungjong, eleventh king of the Joseon Dynasty. Yi Jongrin was raised in the home of his maternal grandparents, including his grandfather Gwon Chan. When Gwon Chan passed away in 1560, Prince Deokyang (Yi Jongrin’s father) wrote to the king, requesting that Yi Jongrin be allowed to serve as the chief mourner at the funeral, a position that was traditionally filled by the eldest son of the deceased, or the eldest son of the eldest son.
My father-in-law Gwon Chan has no sons from either his wife or his mistresses. Thus, from the moment my son Yi Jongrin was born, my father-in-law took him in and raised him, and asked my son to take care of the memorial services after his death. On his deathbed, he told my son, ‘I cared for you as deeply as if you were my own son. After I die, I ask you to be the chief mourner and to oversee the memorial services. Please do not allow me to be a lonely spirit with no sons.’ This was his desperate final wish, for which my son felt immense gratitude. Thus, to fulfill his grandfather’s sincere wish, my son cries sorrowfully and wears the funeral clothes as the chief mourner. Since my son’s will is so ardent, I must allow my son to serve in the position.
(妻父權纉,嫡妾俱無子, 小臣子豐山正 宗麟, 自其初生, 奉巢長養, 倚托身後之事. 又於臨死, 撫而語之曰: ‘我之有汝, 情重親子. 吾死之後, 汝當服喪, 無使我竟爲孤魂’ 云. 非徒言甚哀惻, 宗麟亦念恩義深重, 哀傷號痛, 欲服衰絰, 以答外祖平生願意, 情甚哀切, 未忍禁止) from Annals of King Myeongjong, Volume 26, “Ninth Month, Twenty-eighth Day of the Fifteenth Year of King Myeongjong (i.e., 1560).
After the funeral, Yi Jongrin had this painting produced to pray for the repose of his late grandfather.
Notably, in the inscription, Yi Jongrin refers to his grandfather Gwon Chan as his “late father.” By commissioning this painting, he wished that many of his deceased family members—including Gwon Chan, Lady Yi (his late paternal grandmother), and his own daughter and son, who died young—to be reborn in the Pure Land. Furthermore, he wished for the peace and well-being of living family members, including his maternal grandmother, his wife, and himself. Finally, he expressed his wish to remain free from harm, to enjoy many blessings, and to live long, reflecting the same basic desires that people have dreamt of from time immemorial.
How was it painted?
The four Buddhas, each magnificently rendered, are precisely arranged in the four quadrants of the canvas, for a highly stable composition. The bodhisattvas depicted below the Buddhas look slender and elegant. While the faces of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are painted in gold, the faces of Brahma, Indra, the Four Heavenly Kings, and the disciples have an apricot color. This color difference indicates the hierarchy of the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities.
In addition to the faces of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, various other elements are also painted gold, including the main patterns, the outlines of the halos, and the inscription at the bottom. Harmonizing with the red and green colors, the gold paint exemplifies the resplendence of a Buddhist painting commissioned by a member of the royal family. Beneath arched eyebrows, the eyes, nose, and tiny mouth of the Buddhas are concentrated in the center of the face.
Each Buddha has a cintamani (auspicious jewel) balanced upon the ushnisha, a protrusion of flesh on the top of the head. Many of these details can also be seen in other sixteenth-century Buddhist paintings commissioned and donated by the Joseon royal court. However, the circle patterns on the Buddhas’ robes are a traditional motif of Buddhist paintings from the earlier Goryeo period. While maintaining some aspects of earlier works, this painting also shows changes that characterized Buddhist paintings of the Joseon era, such as the composition of bodhisattvas encircling a central Buddha.
Dreaming of the Pure Land
During the Joseon period, the official government policy was to suppress Buddhism in favor of Neo-Confucianism. Paradoxically, however, queens, consorts, and other members of the royal court frequently commissioned Buddhist dedications and offerings. In the sixteenth century, for example, numerous Buddhist paintings were commissioned by female members of the royal court, such as Queen Munjeong, the second queen of King Jungjong; Queen Inseong, the queen of King Injong; and other royal consorts and female devotees, including Buddhist nuns.
Like Yi Jongrin, these women commissioned the paintings in order to pray for the repose of deceased kings, queens, and royal children, and to wish for their rebirth in the Pure Land. As the representative example of a sixteenth-century Buddhist painting commissioned by the royal court, this splendid work reminds us that members of Joseon royalty with elite social status shared the same wishes and desires as ordinary people. Indeed, it is only natural that weak and mortal beings such as humans would incessantly wish for health, prosperity, longevity, freedom from suffering, and entrance into some version of heaven after death.
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