Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece

Dedication Materials

Three bundles of dedication materials (bokjangmul 腹藏物) were found inside the sculpture: one in the head and two others in the lower body. The dedication materials in the head were likely put in place at the time of production and before the face was fixed to the head.

Materials found in the lower body are likely associated with a subsequent rededication since they include objects that date some two centuries later. We don’t know why the sculpture was opened, but it might have been damaged and required repair.

The dedication cavity inside the lower body was accessed and its contents disturbed more recently. The votive inscription is missing and the wooden piece that covers the opening in the bottom (bokjanggong 腹藏孔) is newly made. This disturbance may have happened in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when the sculpture was removed from religious worship.

Dedicating a sculpture

Excerpted from a longer program, these two videos show how Buddhist sculptures are prepared for dedication in Korea today. The videos were produced by the Buddhist True Network.

Watch this silent video to learn about image consecration.

Watch this Korean narrated video to learn about image consecration.


What was inside?

The dedication materials found in the sculpture fall into two groups: objects installed in the thirteenth century when the sculpture was first made, and items enshrined some two hundred years later.

photo of 3 fabric bundles, fabric colored with age and packed tightly

1: Small dedication bundle from the head wrapped in a printed dharani

The Mahapratisara Dharani sutra (Daesugu darani gyeong 大隨求陀羅尼經), bundles of colored threads, and a metal cylinder inside the head do not seem to have been disturbed since they were first installed in the thirteenth century. They were likely put in place when the image was made. The paper of the woodblock-printed text can be dated to the Goryeo period.

2: Bundle of thread and text pages found in the lower abdomen

Woodblock-printed pages from two different sutras, apparently added two hundred years after the sculpture was first placed into religious use, were found in the lower body. Two sheets from A Concise Commentary on the Lotus Sutra were printed in the fifteenth century using blocks carved in 1399. Two additional pages, also from the fifteenth century, come from chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra and specifically relate to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The sutra pages were wrapped around cotton threads in five colors.

3: Bundle containing symbols of the Five Directions and reliquary from the lower abdomen

This bundle of dedication materials was wrapped in a large piece of yellow hemp inscribed with four directional spells (sabangju四方呪). The contents included two important clusters: symbolic representations of the five Buddhist directions—east, south, west, north, and center—and the container for the main image relic (sarira).

Bundle at the left, unwrapped
Five treasure bottles from the bundle
Symbols of the Five Directions

In one of its simplest definitions, the Buddhist world is described as four quadrants surrounding a central axis. Like other world views, each of these five units possesses associations and is linked to symbols ranging from colors to seeds and other everyday objects. Packed together inside a religious object, they were thought to empower it spiritually.

Various representations of the five Buddhist directions were found inside the Avalokiteshvara sculpture. Directional mirrors and bottles shaped like a prunus vase (maebyeong 梅甁)—some still retain their original color—were wrapped together in pieces of both hemp and silk inscribed with the appropriate directional “seed syllables” written in Sanskrit. Additional directional emblems—grains, jewels, and medicinal herbs, for example—were individually wrapped in paper. Each of the five assemblages was placed in a large piece of paper or cloth. Together with the reliquary, the five were placed inside a yellow hemp wrapper and inserted into the sculpture.

None of the groups in the body cavity seems to be complete, which suggests the sculpture was opened in the past. The table below shows the contents found during the National Museum of Korea research project.

Symbols of the Five Directions in the 15th Century
East South West North Center
Colors Blue Red White Black Yellow
Mirrors Square Triangular Circular Semicircular Missing
Grains Missing White radish seed Rice Mung bean Missing
Jewels Pyrite Pearl White lead ore Missing Missing
Medicinal herbs Unidentified herb Elm bark Missing Unidentified herb (crumbled) Missing
True-mind seed syllables
Five-wheel seed syllables a navy blue symbol within a square in blue, a triangle with a symbol a character within a circle a character within a half circle (closed) a character within a circle

Materials associated with the five Buddhist directions are delineated in Josang gyeong (Sutras on the Production of Buddhist Images). The earliest surviving version of the text dates to 1575, although it likely reflects practices from previous centuries.​

The same associations are still made in dedication rituals to this day, yet Buddhism continues to evolve and adapt over time.

Some sixty-five objects in thirteen categories now might be deposited in an image. (Ten of the thirteen categories are shown in the table below.) An indication of changing practices is the realization that only portions of two categories (in light blue) align with the dedication materials from the fifteenth century. ​

Symbols of the Five Directions Today
East South West North Center
Grains Barley Millet Rice Mung bean Hemp
Treasures Gold Pearl Silver Glass Amber
Herbal medicines Ginseng Licorice Cinnamon Myrobalan Aconite
Fragrances Birthwort root Clove Betony Aloeswood Frankincense
Yellow things Rhubarb Orpiment Arsenic Gamboge Ox bezoar
Banners Blue Red White Black Yellow
Threads Blue Red White Black Yellow
Seasonal flowers Blue Red White Black Yellow
Tree leaves Juniper Catalpa Albizia Paulownia Willow
Auspcious grasses Gusa grass Maha grass Silli grass Simchu grass Sildang grass
The reliquary (sarira)

image of a metal cylinder a decorative folded lip or lid and a bundle of orange, blue, white and grey threadsThe small, cylindrical metal reliquary was made using a lead-tin alloy. It contained pearls and white beads shaped from the mineral aragonite. A short tube wrapped inside and out with five-color threads pierces the lid.

Although relic containers of this type appear in other early Joseon dedications, they are not found with wooden treasure bottles of the five Buddhist directions, which seems to be an earlier practice. This may reflect an unusual combination of old and new objects or may represent a rare transitional phase in dedication practice.



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