Kwanseum Bosal Chanting is a practice that comes from the Korean Buddhist tradition. I don’t know of any closely similar practices in any other East Asian Buddhist traditions (Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese). Nevertheless, it is an example of a very broad category of practices that are widespread in all Mahayana Buddhist traditions: the recitation of the names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In particular, and as the name of the practice implies, the heart of “Kwan Seum Bosal Chanting” is simply chanting the name of the Bodhisattva of compassion: “Kwan Seum Bosal”.
But the practice does not solely consist of repeating “Kwan Seum Bosal” over and over again. Instead, it is complete ritual in and of itself with a fairly sophisticated structure consisting of seven distinct parts. This seven part structure is highly reminiscent of the so-called “Seven Branch Practice” of Vajrayana (“Tibetan”) Buddhism, which the Vajrayanists attribute to the Indian sage Shantideva (in particular, his “Way of the Bodhisattva”).
In this series of blog posts I will go through each of these seven parts one by one. In each part I will show (1) a transliteration that can be used by English speakers, (2) a translation, (3) the “Hanja” (Chinese characters), (4) the “Hangul” (Korean) version, and (5) a character by character breakdown.
After finishing with Kwan Seum Bosal Chanting, there will also be some follow-up posts on Jijang Bosal chanting, which follows the same pattern, but has some important differences. There will also be some follow-up discussion of the seven part structure and how it compares with the “Seven Branch Practice” of Vajrayana. In the Korean tradition there are also similar practices for Shakyamuni Buddha (“Sogamuni Bul Chanting) and Amitabha Buddha (Amita Bul Chanting), which will warrant some discussion as well.
Part One: Homage / Refuge / Prostrations
na-mu bul-ta bu-jung gwang-nim bop-he
na-mu dal-ma bu-jung gwang-nim bop-he
na-mu sung-ga bu-jung gwang-nim bop-he
na-mu bo-mun shi-hyeon wol-lyok hong-shim
Homage to the Buddha and his attendants, who honor this Dharma assembly with their presence
Homage to the Dharma and its attendants, who honor this Dharma assembly with their presence
Homage to the Sangha and their attendants, who honor this Dharma assembly with their presence
Homage to the Universal Gate Manifestation of Kwan Seum Bosal, Whose Great Vows, Great Love, and Great Compassion are Wide and Deep
南無 佛陀 部衆 光臨 法會
南無 達摩 部衆 光臨 法會
南無 僧家 部衆 光臨 法會
南無 普門 示現 願力 弘深 大慈大悲
나무 보문시현 원력홍심 대자대비
• 南無 = na mu (pinyin: nán wú)
The literal meaning of these two characters is “south nothing”, but here they are being used as the standard Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit namaḥ (नमः), which means “bow to” or “homage to”.
• 佛陀 = bul ta (pinyin: fó tuó).
This is just Chinese for “Buddha”. Taken alone, the first character, 佛, can also be used to mean “Buddha”. The second character, 陀, literally means either “rough terrain” or “steep bank”, but is here used just for it’s phonetic value.
• 達摩 = dal ma (pinyin: dá mā)
Chinese for “Dharma”. One will also often find either the character 法 (fǎ) or 道 (dào) used for “Dharma” as well.
• 僧家 = sung ga (pinyin sēng jiā)
Chinese for “Sangha”. One will also often find the first character, 僧, used alone to mean “Sangha”.
• 部衆 = bu jung (pinyin: bù zhòng)
This two character combination is a Chinese word meaning “large group”, sometimes translated as “legion”. In Buddhism the term is often used (as it is here) to refer to the heavenly beings who serve as “attendants” to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
• 光臨 = gwang nim (pinyin: guāng lín)
This two character combination is a Chinese phrase that literally means something like “light” (光) “arrive” (臨), but in actual usage means “to honor with their/your presence”.
• 法會 = bop he (pinyin: fǎ huì)
This literally means “Dharma” (法) “assembly” (會).
• 普門 = bo mun (pinyin: pǔ mén)
Literally: “Universal gate”. This refers to Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, “The Universal Gate of Kwan Seum Bosal”. It’s interesting to consider that 普門 can be taken to mean both “a gate that is open to all“, and “a gateway to everything“.
• 示現 shi hyeon (pinyin: shì xiàn)
Literally: “to show” (示) “to manifest” (現). Taken together, the two characters 示現 make up a word meaning “manifestation”. In this instance it specifically refers to “The Universal Gate Manifestation” of Kwan Seum Bosal, that is, the “manifestation” of Avolikitesvara found in Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra.
• 願力 = wol leok (pinyin: yuàn lì)
Literally: “vow” (願) + “strong” (力). This is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term praṇidhānabala, which is one of the “ten powers of a Bodhisattva”.
• 弘深 = hong shim (pinyin: hóng shēn)
Literally: “great, wide, expansive” (弘) + “deep” (深). Note that the character 弘 is the character translated as “great” in “The Four Great Vows” (四弘誓願).
• 大慈大悲 dae ja dae bi (pinyin: dà cí dà bēi)
This four character combination is a traditional epithet of Kwan Seum Bosal: “Great Love Great Compassion”. It is also (perhaps even more) frequently used as an epithet for Amitabha Buddha.
Sources / Resources
★ Almost 90 years ago two Buddhist monks named Choe Chwiheo (崔就墟) and An Jinho (安震湖) compiled and systematized a collection of writings related to the practice of Buddhism in Korea. Just to make things interesting, the second author is sometimes given as An Sŏgyŏn (安錫淵), which is probably just a different name for the same person (Buddhists – especially Big Name Buddhists, often have multiple names). Their work is titled “The Essential Compendium for Buddhists” (Bulja pillam 佛子必覽). This was probably the first time that the chants, rituals, and other practices of Korean Buddhism were presented in such a widely accessible form, where both the traditional Chinese characters (Hanja) and the Korean alphabet (Hangul) were used side-by-side (far more Koreans, then as now, can read and write Hangul than Hanja). Fortunately for English speakers, this important work has been translated into English and is now available from the Jogye Buddhist order from their website: http://www.koreanbuddhism.net/bbs/board.php?bo_table=5040&wr_id=43
★ “Wiktionary, the free dictionary” (en.wiktionary.org/wiki) is an excellent resource for anyone learning about Chinese characters (or, as they are called in Korea: Hanja). If you simply cut and paste a character into the wiktionary search field, you will find (if an entry exists, which is usually the case) a great wealth of information. Of particular interest is the fact that both the Hangul and the romanized pronounciation of characters are given in the “Korean” section of the entry. For example, here is a direct link to the Korean section of the entry for the character Mu (無): https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/無#Korean. There you can see that the romanized pronunciation is “mu”, whereas in Hangul the character is transcribed as 무.
★ The “Digital Dictionary of Buddhism” (http://buddhism-dict.net/ddb/) is another invaluable online resource. If asked for a username and password, you can use “guest” and “guest” for both. There is also a specific subsection for Korean Buddhist terms: http://www.buddhism-dict.net/dealt/indexes/read-ko-mc.html.
★ You probably want to check out the 25th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra by now, don’t you? Well, here are three translations feely available online:
★ “The Dharma Mirror” is a collection of material related to Buddhist practice put together by students of the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. There are several different pdf versions of it floating around on the interwebs, here’s one: https://webdharma.com/ctzg/PDF/DharmaMirror_1994.pdf
★ Finally, if you want to hear what “Kwan Seum Bosal Chanting” actually sounds like, then check these out:
Here is a very nice solo version:
And here is a group of people doing the same chant: