When you first enter a temple, you’re typically greeted by the paintings or the statues of the “Sacheonwang” in Korean, or the “Four Heavenly Kings” in English, inside the Cheonwangmun Gate. However, there are two other guardians that you can find at the entry of a Korean Buddhist temple. They can either be painted on the front entry doors to the temple, or they can take up residence inside the Geumgangmun Gate. As I’ve already written a post about the Sacheonwang, I thought I would now write about the other two guardians that you might encounter at the entry of a Korean temple. So who are these two guardians? What do they look like? And why are they at the entry of a Korean Buddhist temple.
The History of Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang
The twin guardians at the entry of a Korean Buddhist temple are known as “Narayeon Geumgang – 나라연금강” and “Miljeok Geumgang – 밀적 금강” in Korean. Both are manifestations of Vajrapani (Protector and Guide to Siddhartha Gautama). Additionally, they are seen as a manifestation of Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul), and in Pure Land Buddhism, or “Jeongto-jong – 정토종” in Korean, the image of Daesaeji-bosal will appear flanking Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
In Chinese Buddhism, where these two figures originate, and then migrate eastward to the Korean peninsula and then onto Japan, they are known as Heng and Ha. At a Chinese Buddhist temple, you’ll typically find them housed inside the Shanmen (The Gate of Three Liberations), which is the most important gate at a Chan (Seon – 선) Buddhist temple. They typically hold vajras (short metal weapons symbolic of the indestructibility of a diamond). In Korean a vajra is known as “Geumgang-jeo – 금강저.” Both are believed to protect the dharma (Buddha’s teachings), so they are known as dharmapala (dharma protector).
Originally when these two guardians appeared in Indian Buddhism, there was only one of them. However, as Buddhism migrated eastward and appeared in China, the influence of Chinese traditional culture and folk customs took hold. So instead of having just one of these guardians, and appealing to the Chinese custom of the importance of pairs, these two guardians multiplied and became Heng and Ha.
The Appearance of Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang
As for the appearance of Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang, they can be wearing a crown and they have enormous physical strength made evident by their rippling upper body muscles. They have graceful, light clothes with their upper bodies exposed. However, during the conservatism of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the upper body was later clothed. They can have wild hair, coloured skin, and fierce and intimidating expressions on their faces. They also appear with their eyes wide open and their noses protruding outward. Most commonly, and the greatest giveaway as to their identity, are the vajras that they hold in their hands.
More specifically, the guardian on the right is traditionally Miljeok Geumgang, and it has its mouth open to pronounce the sound “a.” This sound represents the vocalization of the first grapheme (a grapheme is a letter or a number of letters that represent a sound in a word) of Sanskrit Devanagari. This is “अ” and it’s pronounced “a.” Miljeok Geumgang symbolizes unconcealed strength, which is physically made evident with the geumgang-jeo (diamond club), thunderbolt stick, or sun symbol he holds. It’s also made plain by Miljeok Geumgang baring his teeth.
The guardian on the left, Narayeon Geumgang, has its mouth closed to utter the “heng” sound. This sound represents the vocalization of the last grapheme of Devanāgarī, which is “ह.” This is pronounced like a “heng.” Furthermore, Narayeon Geumgang symbolizes a dormant sense of strength, which is physically made evident with his mouth firmly clenched, and he’s either barehanded or wielding a geumgang-jeo (diamond club).
Together, these two characters of “a” and “heng” are meant to symbolize the birth and death of all things. According to myth, all people are born speaking the “a” sound with their mouths open. And when a person dies, they are saying “heng” with their mouths closed. Similar to Jaya-Vijaya in Hinduism, Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang in Buddhism are meant to signify “everything” or “all creation.” And the contraction for both, which is “Om – ॐ,” which in Sanskrit symbolizes The Absolute.
As for their powers, they can use deadly rays of light to defeat those that want to harm the dharma. So Narayeon Geumgang shoots deadly rays of light from its nostrils, while it makes the “heng” sound. While Miljeok Geumgang shoots rays of light from his mouth, while it makes the “ha” sound with its mouth. So while Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang protect the physical world of the temple, they also protect wisdom from ignorance.
There are numerous wonderful examples of Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang both as paintings and statues throughout Korea. As for paintings, you can see some great examples at Nojeonam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do; the famed Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju; Silleuksa Temple in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do; and Beopjangsa Temple in Gyeongju, as well.
As for statues of Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang, you can typically find them inside the Geumgangmun Gate at the entry of the temple grounds. Great examples of these can be found at Magoksa Temple in the Haetalmun Gate in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do; the entry to the Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju; and inside the historic Haetalmun Gate at Dogapsa Temple in Yeongam, Jeollanam-do.