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The Nimbus: Emanations of Wisdom and Authority

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An extremely ornate body nimbus  around Birojana-bul
(The Buddha of Cosmic Light) at Buseoksa Temple

 

Hello Again Everyone!!
 
Around the body or head of a Buddha or Bodhisattva will appear a round or boat-like shape. This shape has a lot of loaded spiritual meaning. So why does it appear in Buddhist artwork, whether it’s a painting, sculpture, or statue? And what does it mean exactly?
 
In Korean, the round or boat-like shape around the head of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva is called a Gwangbae, which translates into English as a light behind. In English, this round shape is better known as a nimbus. In India, the nimbus is placed almost exclusively around the head; however, in Korea, the nimbus can either appear around the head or body of the Buddha or Bodhisattva. In all cases, the nimbus symbolizes the light of wisdom and truth.
 
 
Both a head and rainbow body nimbus surrounding Seokgamoni-bul at Garamsa Temple.

 
In Korea, the light that shines forth from a Buddha or Bodhisattva is divided into two types: 1. Light from the Head, and 2. Light from the Body. Images that have a body nimbus will also include a head nimbus, as well. However, this isnt always the case with a head nimbus, as a head nimbus can sometimes be alone in its design. Of note, a head nimbus on the tuft of hair between the eyebrows is said to be the most powerful ray that can emanate from a Buddha or Bodhisattva. In Korean, a full body nimbus, both body and head, is referred to as a Geosingwang. The shape of the nimbus can be shaped like a flame flaring up. If this is the case, it is called a bojuhyeong in Korean, and translates as a precious gem type. However, if the shape of the nimbus simply looks like the front of a boat, its called a juhyeong in Korean. This shape usually consists of an outer loop filled with a honeysuckle or Chinese grass design with a lotus design in the centre.
 
The mid to late Unified Silla Dynasty Seokgamoni-bul statue with a full body nimbus, which can be found at Yonghwasa Temple.
 

In Buddhist scripture, the nimbus is referred to in The Lotus Sutra. In this sutra, it is said that a ray of light emitted from the tuft of white hair between his eyebrows. And from the Sutra on Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Light, the ray shining forth from the Buddha is the psychic energy of Enlightenment and a mark of wisdom. This mark is one of the thirty-two major marks that the Buddha is endowed with, as well as eighty other minor characteristics of a great being. This radiating mark of wisdom is known as an auspicious ray. It is also known as the mark of wisdom light.
 
A large painting of the Buddha and accompanying nimbus at Dongrimsa Temple.
 

So more specifically, what does the nimbus mean according to Buddhism? According to Buddhism, this light that radiates forth from the head or body of a Buddha or Bodhisattva is said to penetrate the darkness of delusion and falseness to reveal the Truth. In Korean, gwang means physical light, which shines on its own. The Korean word, Myeong, on the other hand, is the illumination of objects by light. And when these two words are put together for Buddhist purposes, they can mean the shining light that destroys all ignorance and reveals the Dharma. Furthermore, this light breaks through the delusion and false belief, relieving all sentient beings in the process from suffering Samsara and leading them towards the path of liberation.
 
The next time you see this head or body nimbus know that the light that radiates from the body of the Buddha or the Bodhisattva is meant to light your way towards the Truth. So not only is this design decorative, but its loaded with a lot of symbolic meaning, as well.
 
A full body nimbus around a Seokgamoni-bul statue at Unmunsa Temple.

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