A Study on the Abhisekha S?tra: The Bhai?ajyaguru Buddha Faith in Korean Buddhism*

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    Early Esoteric Buddhism was known on the Korean peninsula by its incantations for curing disease, repulsing national enemies and preventing natural disasters. Ever since Buddhism was first adopted by the early Korean kingdoms, Esoteric Buddhist beliefs had been embraced for the purpose of curing disease, which resulted in the faith’s mass popularity among Korean Buddhists. The Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith also had a major role in protecting the country and its people from outer invasions and disasters, and many religious rites were executed by the Korean peninsula dynasties, culminating in the founding of religious orders of Esoteric Buddhism, such as the Chongi Order and the Sinin Order. The Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith, which was known both for its capacity to cure disease and for protecting nations, was one of the main Buddhist faiths in Korean Buddhism and survived until the late Joseon dynasty. This paper examines the influence of Esoteric Buddhism with a specific focus on the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith tradition of Samguk yusa, in an attempt to find a unique trend of Esoteric Buddhism in Korean Buddhism.


    Esoteric Buddhism , Silla Buddhism , Bhai?ajyaguru Buddha , Sinin Order , Abhisekha S?tra.

  • I. Introduction

    Historically, the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith was a popular belief among Korean Buddhists. An examination of the Samguk yusa reveals that Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith was regarded with importance since early Buddhist influences reached the Korean peninsula. The Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith was influential in promoting the religious power of incantation in Buddhism and a significant number of relics and materials associated with the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith display the unique characteristics that are seen in other Buddhist traditions.

    Two interesting characteristics of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith in early Korean Buddhism, were its capacity to harmonize with local traditions and beliefs and its emerging role as a faith entrusted to guard the nation. The Samguk yusa and similar writings reveal that the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith was introduced by dynasties across the peninsula since the early Silla days, and that the combined functions of curing disease and guarding the nation are unique to the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith, not found in other areas of Buddhism.

    Srimitra’s Abhisekha Sūtra 12 vols is equivalent to the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra that was translted by Xuanzang. An examination of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith scriptures reveals that Xuanzang and Ṣrimitra differ in their translations. These differences may explain the versatility of trends in early Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith, and also provide us with some clues to the various beliefs at that time.

    This paper examines the historical development of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith in Korean Buddhism and highlights some of the unique characteristics of Esoteric Buddhism which became pervasive throughout the Korean peninsula.

    II. Textual Foundation of the Bhai?ajyaguru Buddha Faith

    A central focus of religions generally is to relieve the suffering of sentient beings, hence we can find a plethora of religious rituals and expedients to support this purpose. During Shakyamuni Buddha’s time in this world there were many accepted incantations, which had originated in earlier Indian religious traditions, that were used for curing various ailments, such as dental ills, diseases and stomach pains, to name a few. The Buddha soon replaced these incantational expedients with other measures such as the Three Refugees and Satya-vacana (declaration of truth). Satya-vacana is a pledge which is made by Arhats or monks to fulfil wishes made by believers, on the basis of merit attained through their practice of Buddhist asceticism. In the Angulimala Sutta we find the story of how Angulimala helped a woman give birth to a child by the miraculous power of his satya-vacana. So we see that curing disease was important to Buddhists from early times and has always been a significant expedient to promote Buddhist religiosity.

    The importance of curing disease continued with the advent of Mahayana Buddhism and many references to such examples can be found in the early Sūtras and in later independent Sūtras and Sadhanas. The main Buddha of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith is known as ‘Bhaiṣajyaguru-Vaiḍūrya,’ which means “medicinal master of glass light ‘Tathagata’ or ‘great medical king Buddha,’ as Buddha is regarded as founder of the ‘purified glass world in the east.’

    It is said in the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra, that when Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha was practicing Bodhisattva conduct in the early days of Mahayāna Buddhism, he proposed ‘twelve great vows’ as found in general ‘pureland belief.’ In the age of Tantric Buddhism, Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha was depicted sitting on a lotus flower seat while holding a healing bowl in his left hand and demonstrating the Mudra for ‘Dana of no fear,’ which is to say, he was raising up his right hand while at the same time balancing a healing bowl on his left hand.

    Below is a list of extant translations of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra :

    The 12th volume of Fó shuō guàn dǐng bá chú guò zuì shēng sǐ dé tuō jīng, translated by Ṣrimitra is thought to have originated in the 4th century CE and the Yào shī liú lí guāng rú lái běn yuàn gōng dé jīng was translated by Xuanzang in the 7th century CE. There are no fundamental differences identified in respect of the two translations of Ṣrimitra and Xuanzangg, however Ṣrimitra’s version includes ‘five directional gods,’ “seven major heavenly gods” and Dharanis, whereas the translation of Xuanzang includes ‘twelve vows of Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha’ and 12 Yaksas as guarding gods. The translation by Yìjìng is the first to include ‘six past Buddha’s vows’ which is why it is titled Seven Buddha’s Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra.

    Dharanis of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra appear in both the Abhisekha Sūtra and the Seven Buddha’s Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra but the Dharani in the former is somewhat larger than the latter. In respect of the Seven Buddha’s Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra, the term ‘Vajra’ is appeared in the Dharani, meaning ‘diamond as a ritual device’; this was employed by Esoteric Buddhists in later ages.

      >  III. Bhai?ajyaguru Buddha Faith in Early Buddhism

    A number of articles concerned with the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Faith is found in the Samguk yusa. For example, in the article about “Dharma Master Wongwang’s studies abroad to the west,” the mountain god of Samgi Mountain recommends that Wongwang go to study abroad in China, confessing that a monk reciting incantational Mantras so disturbs him that he may likely kill the monk that night (Seungga Daehakwon 1998, 212-13). Around the 4th century CE, Buddhist Sūtras with incantational dharani sūtras had already landed on the Korean peninsula so it is assumed that Buddhist incantations were known at that time. The same article concerning Dharma Master Wongwang also tells of a ‘regional religion’ which arose from cooperation between Silla Buddhism and local shamanic folk beliefs. Followers of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith adopted such practices as mantra incantation, dharanis, fortune telling, curing disease and eliminating disasters, which are thought to reflect an embracing of the folk beliefs of Silla society.

    Another case of Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith can be found in the article, “Milbon’s elimination of demons,” which tells of how Dharma Master Milbon recited Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra and thereby cured diseases of both Queen Seondeok (善德女王) and Prime Minister Kim Yangdo (Seungga Daehakwon 1998, 253-54). In Queen Sundeok’s time the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra had already been translated by Ṣrimitra and Xuanzang, so it is these two versions which likely landed on the Korean peninsula. In Bonwon yaksagyeong gojeok (H. 3, 409-17) a commentary on the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra by Taehyeon, there is mention of an older version of the Bhasajyaguru Buddha Sūtra in existence which was probably a translation by Ṣrimitra, but the root text of Taehyeon’s commentary is cited as a translation by Xuanzang. In Ṣrimitra’s translation, Anan asks the Buddha the name of the Sūtra and the Buddha gives three titles for the Sūtra, namely “the virtue of vows by Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha’s glass light,” “vowing the Mantra of twelve heavenly kings in Abhiseka phrase,” and “eliminating the sin of life and death and attaining liberation” (T. 21, 536b). It is not certain whether these titles were added later or not, but the first title indicates a version of Xuanzang, whereas the second and third are indicative of Ṣrimitra. The division of Ṣrimitra’s translation into two titles implies two major characteristics of the Sūtra: a belief of 12 heavenly gods, and a ‘Pureland Buddhism.’

    There is a religious rite in the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra which involves praying to Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha in order to eliminate the wicked will and bad intentions of ghosts. And the Samguk yusa article, “Milbon’s elimination of demons,” tells of how Minister Kim Yangdo escaped from possession by wicked ghosts through Dharma Master Milbon’s miraculous power. (Seungga Daehakwon 1998, 253-54)

    The following is an excerpt from Ṣrimitra’s translation of the story:

    This excerpt is consistent with the Samguk yusa record which presents the miracle power of heavenly gods. Ṣrimitra’s translation shows the “heavenly god of five directions” presenting different suits of colour, spouting different colours of Prana and sitting in the five directions, respectively (T. 21, 515b). The five colours: green, red, white, black and yellow, accord with the Chinese Yīn yáng theory of wǔ xíng wherein these colours represent the major body organs, liver, heart, stomach, lung and kidney, it is believed that the heavenly gods can cure diseases of these organs. This same Sūtra details religious rites which can be used to eliminate the bad ghosts which cause disease (T. 21, 515c).

    Hence, adherents of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith were familiar with curing disease by drawing on medical knowledge and practice known at that time and combined with the miracle power of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith, and these rituals and practices came to pervade Silla society, consequently building a strong Buddhist foundation at that time.

    IV. Bhai?ajyaguru Buddha Faith’s Role as a Protector of the Nation

    As well as having a healing aim, the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith was charged with guarding and protecting the nation, as we find note in the scriptures. The idea of Buddhism as a faith which might be entrusted to guard and protect the nation was instrumental in rulers’ acceptance of Buddhism as a religion. An excerpt from Xuanzang’s translation of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra helps to illustrate this point:

    His eminence Anan! the Abhiṣeka Kṣatriya king, whenever disasters such as disease effect his people, or there is a disaster in his kingdom brought about by the invasion of other countries,...the Abhiṣekha’ Ksatriya king should promote compassionate mind to relieve imprisoned people, and make offerings to the Bhaiṣajyaguru Glass Light Buddha in the manner of the rite presented in the Sūtra. (T. 14, 407c)

    Hereby the Kṣatriya king is likened to the rulers of Silla dynasty. There are many references in the Sūtra to Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha and other heavenly gods expressing vows to protect the nation and its people. The Sūtra also records that the rulers and people united in spirit to resist disease and disasters caused by both inner and outer influences.

    And in the seventh volume of the Abhiṣeka Sūtra translated by Ṣrimitra, Fó shuō guàn dǐng fú mó fēng yìn dà shén zhòu jīng, we find the “Munduru Rite.” The Munduru Rite is a ritual of Esoteric Buddhism employed to demolish outer rebel armies; instances of execution of this rite are recorded in the Samguk yusa. As the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha Sūtra is equivalent to the 12th volume of the Abhiṣeka Sūtra, it’s probably safe to assume that the seventh volume Munduru Rite was known to the Silla dynasty at that time.

    In an excerpt from the Fó shuō guàn dǐng fú mó fēng yìn dà shén zhòu jīng the Buddha speaks of the heavenly gods of five directions:

    “Munduru” is ‘Mudra’ in sanskrit and is widely used as a symbol of Dharmas, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In the same Sūtra there are details of rites used for executing the Munduru Rite:

    According to the “Record of Myungrang Munduru” in the Samguk yusa, Myungnang Dharma Master executed the Munduru rite at Sacheonwangsa Temple which is located in the southern part of Sinyurim, Nangsan. (Seungga Daehakwon 1998, 258-59)

    In a comparison of the two Sūtras translated by Ṣrimitra and Xuanzang, we see that the former gives a clear and detailed description of executing the Munduru rite, whereas the idea of guarding and protecting the nation and its people is scant and only expressed in detail by later scholars.

    In the early Goryeo age, as we find recorded in the Samguk yusa, the Munduru tradition was handed down to its rulers. In fact, King Taejo, the first Goryeo king ordered the building of Hyeoseongsa Temple and designated it a foundation temple of the ‘Sinin Order’ and the ‘Chongji Order,’ as base for Esoteric Buddhism.

    V. Conclusion

    One of the religious functions of Buddhism is faith in the cure of disease and this practice of belief has been important in establishing the religious foundation of Buddhism. Incantational elements, wishing for religious affects and miracle powers, had merged in Buddhism from an earlier Indian religious ground, and were employed by Buddhists to raise up the prevailing populous beliefs and practices of the Indian masses to a more enlightened level. In Agama, for instance, populous religious beliefs were expressed in devotions to the Buddhas, Arhats and Seven Buddhas of the past, and it continued to thrive in the ages of Sectarial Buddhism and Mahayāna Buddhism with many surviving Tantras and rites of Esoteric Buddhism.

    Among the five extant translations of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra, Ṣrimitra’s Abhiṣeka Ṣutra translation was almost certainly the first to be transported to the Korean peninsula where it prevailed until the age of Queen Seondeok, and only a little later, it is presumed, did Xuanzang’s translation also reach the peninsula. In Samguk yusa we learn that the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith was widely practiced and dharani recitation was undoubtedly known to Silla society at that time. The Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith harmonized with traditional folk beliefs and promoted the religious miracle power of Buddhism to Silla society in order to build the foundation for a prosperous Buddhist culture.

    Along with the medical and healing benefits of the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha faith, it also served as a protector and guardian faith for the nation and its people through the execution of the Munduru rite; this lasted up until the Goryeo dynasty. Most of the religious rites of Esoteric Buddhism survived into the Joseon dynasty when the Medicine Buddha was also known for curing disease and guarding nations. Today, there are many remaining relics and historical materials which bear testament to the Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha’s role in establishing a foundation for Korean Buddhism.

      >  Glossary of Chinese Terms

    (S=Sanskrit, K=Korean, C=Chinese)

    Abhisekha Sūtra (S) 灌頂經

    Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha 藥師佛, 藥師如來

    Bonwon yaksagyeong gojeok (K) 本願藥師經古迹

    Chongjijong (K) 總持宗

    Dámójíduō (C) 達摩笈多

    Dana of no fear 施無畏

    Dharma Master Wongwang’s studies abroad to the west 圓光法師西學條

    Dōngjìn (C) 東晉

    Eliminating the sin of life and death and attaining liberation 拔除過罪生死得度

    Esoteric Buddhism 密敎

    Fó shuō guàn dǐng bá chú guò zuì shēng sǐ dé tuō jīng (C) 佛說灌頂拔除過罪生死得脫經

    Fó shuō yào shī rú lái běn yuàn jīng (C) 佛說藥師如來本願經

    Great medical king Buddha 大醫王佛

    Huìjiǎn (C) 慧簡

    Hyungseong Temple 現聖寺

    Joseon (K) 朝鮮

    Medicinal master of glass light Tathagata 藥師瑠璃光如來

    Milbon (K) 密本

    Milbon’s elimination of demons 密本法師催邪條

    Munduru Rite 文頭婁法

    Munduru 文頭婁

    Nangsan (K) 狼山

    Prana 氣

    Pureland 淨土

    Pureland belief 淨土信仰

    Purified glass world in the east 東方淨瑠璃世界

    Sacheonwang Temple 四天王寺

    Samgi Mountain 三岐山

    Samguk yusa (K) 三國遺事

    Sectarial Buddhism 部派佛敎

    Silla (K) 新羅

    Sininjong (K) 神印宗

    Sinyurim (K) 神遊林

    Sòng (C) 宋

    Stimulation 加持

    Suí (C) 隋

    Táng (C) 唐

    Tathagata of medicinal master with light of glass 藥師瑠璃光如來

    Three Refugees 三歸依

    Virtue of vows by Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha’s glass light 藥師琉璃光佛本願功德

    Vowing the Mantra of twelve heavenly kings in Abhiseka phrase 灌頂章句十二神王結願神咒

    Wongwang (K) 圓光

    Xuánzǎng (C) 玄獎

    Yào shī liú lí guāng jīng (C) 藥師瑠璃光經

    Yào shī liú lí guāng rú lái běn yuàn gōng dé jīng (C) 藥師瑠璃光如來本願功德經

    Yìjìng (C) 義淨

    Yīn yáng theory of wǔ xíng 陰陽五行

    Ṣrimitra (S) 帛尸梨蜜多羅

      >  Abbreviations

    H Hanguk Bulgyo Jeonseo (韓國佛敎全書, Collected works of Korean Buddhism) [followed by volume, page, and horizontal column]. (Seoul: Dongguk Univ. Press, 1977-2004)

    T Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo (大正新脩大藏經, Japanese edition of the Buddhist Canon) [followed by volume, page, and horizontal column]. (Tokyo: Taishō Issaikyō kankōkai, 1924-1935)

  • 1. Commentary of Vairocana S?tra’s Rituals 大毘盧遮那經次第法疏. T. 39, no. 1797. google
  • 2. Fo shu? guan d?ng ba chu guo zui sh?ng s? de 生死得脫經 tu? j?ng 佛說灌頂拔除過罪. T. 21, no. 1331. google
  • 3. Mahavairocana S?tra 大日經 (Orig. 大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經). T. 18, no. 848. google
  • 4. Y德a經o sh? liu li gu?ng ru lai b?n yuan g?ng de j?ng 藥師琉璃光如來本願功. T. 21, no. 450. google
  • 5. Heo Heungsik 1986 Goryeo Bulgyosa Yeongu 高麗佛敎史硏究. google
  • 6. Seungga Daehakwon 1998 Samguk yusa 三國遺事. google