The Fireplace King Spirit – Jowang-shin (조왕신)

Anjeokam2 - Jowangshin

A faded portrait of Jowangshin found at Anjeokam Hermitage in the mountains of Cheonseongsan.

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In the next few articles, I thought I would explore some of the lesser seen or known sites at Korean temples or hermitages. These are rare finds that you might encounter during your travels and simply don’t know what they’re supposed to represent or even depict.

In this article, I thought I would talk about Jowangshin. Traditionally, Jowangshin (조왕신) was thought of as the shaman deity of the fire and hearth. They were customarily found inside a Korean house, but in the past several decades, they have disappeared. One place you can still find them, however, is inside a Buddhist temple’s kitchen.

Jowangshin was worshipped in Korea for over a millennium, since the Three Kingdoms Period in Korean history (57 B.C. to 668 A.D.).

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Jowangshin inside the kitchen at Anjeokam Hermitage.

Traditionally, the way in which Jowangshin was embodied was in a bowl of water held on a clay altar above the hearth. The housewife would awake early in the morning and pour fresh water from a nearby well into the bowl. After doing this, she would kneel in front of the bowl and pray for good luck. Also, during important festivals, Jowangshin would be honoured with rice cakes and fruit.

There were five rules that a housewife would have to follow to ensure a happy and prosperous household. They were:

1. Do not curse while in the hearth.

2. Do not sit on the hearth.

3. Do not place your feet on the hearth.

4. Maintain a clean kitchen.

5. You can worship other deities in the kitchen.

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Jowangshin as seen inside the kitchen at Daewonam Hermitage.

Jowangshin would broadcast the happenings inside the house towards the heavens. If the rules were followed, Jowangshin would be a benevolent deity. However, if these rules weren’t followed, Jowangshin could be a vengeful deity.

In Korean Buddhism, Jowangshin is a shamanic tutelary deity. Inside the Buddhist temple, you’ll occasionally find this deity housed inside the kitchen. Jowangshin has a special altar inside the kitchen called a Jowang-dan. And you’ll often find a portrait on the wall above the altar depicting Jowangshin.

The kitchen was seen as being the symbol of prosperity for a home. A good fire signified a prosperous house, while a house without a fire represented poverty because traditionally all meals came from a fire. This also translated to a temple or hermitage.

As a shaman deity, he is considered a dharma protecting deity. But in the pantheon of shaman deities, Jowangshin is a minor folk-Buddhist deity below the likes of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Dokseong (The Recluse), Chilseong (The Seven Stars), and Yongwang (The Dragon King). Uniquely, there is a Jowangshin scripture that praises him in the Jowang-gyeong sutra (The Kitchen God Sutra).

Wonhyoam - Jowangshin

Jowangshin hanging inside the eating area at Wonhyoam Hermitage.

What does Jowangshin look like just in case you run across him? Jowangshin is middle aged, and he sports a long black beard. He holds it with his one hand, while either holding a fan or a wooden tablet in the other. He is dressed in royal-looking clothes, and he sits on a throne. Behind his throne are banners with Chinese text written on them. Of note, Jowangshin’s feet don’t touch the ground.

Examples of Jowangshin can be found at a few temples. There are beautiful paintings of him at Anjeokam Hermitage and Wonhyoam Hermitage on Mt. Cheonseongsan in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Another example can be found at a hermitage at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do called Daewonam Hermitage.

So the next time you’re at a Korean temple, and you decide to have a meal there, have a look around the kitchen because you might just be able to see this lesser seen and known shaman deity.

The Manja (or the Swastika) – 만자


The Manja, or swastika, that adorns a hall at Beopcheonsa Temple.

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I’m sure you’ve seen it everywhere at a Buddhist temple, whether it’s your first time at a Korean Buddhist temple, or it’s your 200th time, the swastika sign –   is quite prominent. For those of us from the west, the swastika sign, as we know it, has a more ominous feel to it, as it’s associated with people and ideas like Hitler, the Third Reich, and Nazism.

However, a closer look at the Nazi swastika, and the Korean Buddhist swastika, will reveal that they point in opposite directions. With all things, there are exceptions, but this tends to be the rule. First the Korean Buddhist sign looks like this:


While the Nazi swastika looks like this:


However, while the Nazi swastika symbolized the ideas of racism and the Aryan race, the Korean Buddhist swastika refers to good fortune and auspiciousness. I know, quite the contrast.

So let’s delve a bit deeper into what the Korean Buddhist swastika means. First of all, I call it a swastika because that’s what we know it as coming from the west; however, in Korea, it’s actually called a “Manja.” The word “Man”, or 만 in Korean, represents the sign, while “Manja” literally means “The letter Man.”

The first use of the Manja dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization that existed over 5,000 years ago. In Sanskirt, the Manja is called Srivatsalksana. And while there are four ways to express this Sanskrit word, the most common is “Srivatsa”, which literally means the shape of sea clouds where hair is curled, overlapped and intermingled. I know, it sounds a bit strange, but in context, it makes a lot more sense. Srivatsa, or Gilsanghwiseon (길상희선) or Gilsanghaewun (길상해운) in Korean, refers to one of the “Samsipisang” (삼십이상), which is just one of the thirty-two marks of excellence that existed on Seokgamoni-bul’s (The Historical Buddha) body. From his head to his toes, the Buddha was covered in these marks.

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The feet adorned with the Manja symbol on the toes of the Seokgamoni-bul statue at Manbulsa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

So where exactly can you find the Manja at a temple. Well, you can pretty much find it anywhere. In fact, even when you’re looking for a temple or hermitage either on a map or sign, the sign that they use is the Manja (swastika). As for the temple itself, well, you can pretty much find it on anything and everything. Some of the more common places are on top of the main hall’s roof. Another place is in the adornment of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas either as they are depicted in paintings or in stone statues.


The white Manja that adorns the chest of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) at Naewonsa Temple in Sancheong, Gyeongsangnam-do.


The Manja symbol that adorns the main hall at Daewonsa Temple in Sancheong, Gyeongsangnam-do.

So the next time you see a Manja (swastika) on a map denoting a temple, or you see it adorning the main hall or a stone sculpture at a temple, you’ll know that it’s a symbol of good fortune. And to a western mind, while this symbol has a long way to go to disassociate itself with Nazi German, it is slowly being reclaimed by Buddhism in East Asia; and Korean Buddhism, more specifically.


And finally, the large Manja symbol that adorns the main hall at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

The Canopy – Datjib


The amazingly ornate red datjib inside the main hall at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan.

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Inside all shrine halls at Korean Buddhist temples, and resting above the altar, is a canopy above the triad of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. While this canopy is brilliantly beautiful in design, the meaning behind the varying designs isn’t all that obvious. So why exactly is it above the heads of the different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas inside a shrine hall? And why are there varying designs?

The canopy that rests above the head of varying Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is made of wood. This wooden canopy structure is called a “datjib” in Korean. The “dat” means separate, while “jib” means house. Put together, the word “datjib” refers to a house inside a house. Another name for a “datjib” is a “celestial canopy,” which is in reference to the airy feeling that the roof-shaped structure possesses.


Probably one of the best historically designed datjib can be found at Eunhaesa Temple near Daegu. 


A closer look at the Eunhaesa Temple datjib with the uniquely designed dragon in the centre.

As for the design of the canopy itself, again, it is made of wood and the wood work consists of finely interconnected brackets that have been ornately decorated. The pillars of the canopy are usually thin, which helps contribute to the airy feeling of the design. Surrounding the usually red painted canopy are various things like dragons, phoenixes, lotuses, Biseon, which all provide a luxuriousness to the normally solemn structure. At a glance, the canopy looks like a mini-palace.

In total, there are three different types of canopies that take up residence inside a Korean temple hall. They are: 1. The Cloud Palace Type, 2. The Treasure Palace Type, 3. The Bejeweled Canopy Type.

The first of these three, The Cloud Palace Type, does not have any brackets in its construction. And overall, the design is very simple. However, while the design is simplistic, the canopied area directly above a Buddha or Bodhisattvas head is ornately designed with images of clouds, dragons, flowers, or phoenixes.


A good example of the Cloud Palace Type datjib from Botaam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple.

The second type is The Treasure Palace Type. This type of design appears as though it’s a completely separate structure. It seems that with the passage of time that this type of canopy became more and more elaborate. Good examples of this type of design can be found at  Buseoksa  Temple and  Beomeosa  Temple.


A look inside the main hall at Buseoksa Temple. It’s a fine example of the Treasure Palace Type of datjib.

The third, and final, type of design is The Bejeweled Canopy Type. This type of canopy is recessing into the ceiling. Additionally, the four sides are finely bracketed.

So why exactly do these canopies appear above the heads of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on altars inside Korean temple halls? The historical reference comes from the Amita sutra, where the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss (Sukhavati) is described. The canopy is said to represent a  Pure  Land image in order to conceal the unclean secular world which has endless cycles of birth and death. So the canopy acts as a piece of heaven for those that pray and live in a secular world tainted by Samsara.

At first glance, the canopy inside Korean Buddhist temple halls may seem like nothing more than decoration. However, this “decoration” is a little piece of heaven that attempts to wrench you clear from the secular world and Samsara. So not only are these canopies stunningly beautiful, but they are also loaded with a lot of religious meaning.


Saving the best for last. This awe-inspiring golden datjib can be found at Sujeongsa Temple in Ulsan.

The Nimbus: Emanations of Wisdom and Authority


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

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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.

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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 isn’t 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, it’s 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 it’s loaded with a lot of symbolic meaning, as well.


A full body nimbus around a Seokgamoni-bul statue at Unmunsa Temple.

The Bell Pavilion


One of the better examples of a two-storied bell pavilion is at Tongdosa Temple, which houses all four of the Buddhist instruments.

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One of the most universally found structures at a Korean Buddhist temple, other than the main hall, is a bell pavilion. Sometimes, these bell pavilions are nothing more than a smaller sized bell, and sometimes these bell pavilions are large and ornately designed. However, a standard Korean Buddhist bell pavilion should have four different percussion instructions. These four are all percussion instruments; and yet, they all have different meanings and designs. So what exactly do each of the four look like, and what is the meaning behind each of their designs?

When you visit a Korean Buddhist temple, you’ll be able to easily locate the bell pavilion. Usually, the bell pavilion, better known as the Brahma Bell Pavilion, is in front and to the right of the main hall. The bell pavilion should house four percussion instruments. The first is the Brahma Bell, and the second is the Dharma Bell, the third is a Wooden Fish Drum, and the fourth is the Cloud Shaped Drum. And the point of having the bell pavilion house all four of these instruments is to make offerings. What these offerings are, are completely dependent on the individual instrument.


The Brahma Bell from Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

1. The Brahma Bell and Dharma Bell:

The Brahma Bell is the larger sized bell inside the bell pavilion. It’s the most important instrument inside the bell pavilion, as well as the namesake of the structure. Another name for the Brahma Bell is the “Whale Bell,” in reference to the myth of Poroe. The bell itself is adorned with a dragon sculpture of Poroe at the top of the bell. The bell itself is adorned with various designs like Biseon, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, poems, or religious writing and is made of bronze. The bell is used for awakening to the great sound and the “Ultimate Way” within the Buddhist faith.


The richly coloured pavilion that houses the diminuitive Dharma Bell at Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.

Housed alongside the Brahma Bell is the smaller sized Dharma Bell. While not as large in size, it’s almost as important in meaning. The bell is almost identical in design as the larger Brahma Bell. It’s decorated with Biseon, Buddhas, poems, or anything else significant the designer of the bell might have thought to be important. Again, the crown of the bell is adorned with Poroe. The Dharma Bell is struck to tell the time or to call the monks or nuns of the temple or hermitage. In the morning, the bell is struck 28 times, which symbolizes the 28 Heavens. And in the evening, the Dharma Bell is struck 33 times, which stands for the Heaven of the thirty-three devas (Trayastrimas). However, the primary reason for having the Dharma Bell toll is to awaken all sentient beings to the truth of the Dharma and to rescue those who are suffering in hell. Great examples of these bells can be found at Tongdosa Temple and Beomeosa Temple.


The large turtle-based Dharma Drum from the world famous Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

2. The Dharma Drum:

The second instrument housed inside the Brahma Bell Pavilion is the large Dharma Drum. The Dharma Drum is usually made of wood with each end made of rawhide. Significantly, the leather on one side is from a cow, while the leather on the other side is made from a bull. This gesture is believed to be symbolic of the Yin and Yang of the universe and how it must be in harmony. And it is through this harmony that the drum can produce the perfect sound. The sound of the drum is said to be a metaphor for the spreading of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the world. It is also struck during various Buddhist rituals and lectures. The striking of this drum symbolizes the saving of all sentient beings, and it also relieves all sentient beings from anguish. A good example of this can be found at Bulguksa Temple.

The grotesquely original Wooden Fish Drum from Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.

3. The Wooden Fish Drum:

The third instrument found inside a Brahma Bell pavilion at a Korean Buddhist temple is the Wooden Fish Drum. Other names for the Wooden Fish Drum are the “fish plank” or more simply, the “fish drum.”

The Wooden Fish Drum is carved from a hallowed out log. It’s said to resemble a carp (a fish). Interestingly, there are two reasons as to why the drum is said to look like a carp (fish). The first reason is that a fish never closes their eyes. And much like the wind chime that adorn temples, the sound the drum makes is said to remind monks and nuns not to slack in their self-cultivation practices.

The second story, and the more interesting one, is that the fish was once a disciple that didn’t follow the instructions of his famous monk teacher. After the disciple died, he was reborn as a handicapped fish with a log stuck in its back as retribution for his errant ways. In rough seas, the waves that rocked the log back would cause the fish a lot of pain. One day, as the monk teacher was crossing over the sea in a boat, he spotted the fish and recognized him as his former disciple. As an act of mercy, the monk teacher performed the “rite of water and land,” which freed the fish from his physical pain. At that moment, the fish (and former disciple) repented for his past transgressions. The log that was taken from the back of the fish was then carved into a “wooden fish” by the monk. It was then used as a percussion instrument to warn others to remain diligent in their faith.

More recently, while the Wooden Fish Drum started off as a fish, its head slowly took the shape of a dragon-like creature with a pearl in its mouth. This transformation is said to symbolize freedom from all restraints and obstacles; namely, the independence of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Additionally, the Wooden Fish drum is used for saving all fish in the water. One other meaning for the Wooden Fish; particularly when it’s struck is to gather all members of a temple or hermitage for meals. A great example of this drum can be found at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.


A fine example of a Cloud Plate Gong from Haeinsa Temple.

4. The Cloud Plate Gong:

The fourth, and final, of the instruments that resides inside the Brahma Bell Pavilion is the Cloud Plate Gong. The Cloud Plate Gong perfectly describes what it looks like: it’s a copper or iron gong in the shape of a cloud. The images that adorn the face of the gong are the sun and the moon; however, it’s the cloud-like images that are dominant on the gong. Originally, the gong was simply used to announce meals for the monks and nuns. Now, however, it’s used as a ritual instrument for morning and evening worship. Still others say that the Cloud Plate Gong was initially conceived as a means to deliver the Dharma message to all creatures of the sky, as well as to lead wandering souls towards the correct path.

So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple have a look for the Brahma Bell Pavilion. It should be pretty easy to find either because of its size or proximity to the main hall. Once you’ve found it take a moment to have a look at all the beauty of the different instruments, both physically and symbolically.


Yet another fine example of a two-storied bell pavilion. This one can be found at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Yin and Yang: The Supreme Ultimate


The Yin and Yang symbol found at Tongdosa Temple.

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The Yin and Yang symbol is so ingrained in Korean society and culture that it even appears on the Korean national flag. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that it also appears in Korean Buddhism. So why exactly does it appear at Korean Buddhist temples? What does it mean? And what are its origins?


The Korean national flag with the Yin and Yang symbol squarely set in the centre.

It is commonly believed that the Yin and Yang (or Supreme Ultimate) was first associated with Korean Confucianism. However, this long held belief is false. The oldest example of the Yin and Yang sign in Korea appears at the remains of  Gameunsa Temple upon the remnants of the stone foundations. Interestingly, the temple was constructed in 682, which is a full 700 years before the earliest existence of Korean Confucianism in the 1390’s.

The Yin and Yang symbol in fact has two different renderings. The first, which also appears on the Korean flag, is The Dual Commas (or fish) Yin and Yang symbol. The Dual Commas symbol seems independent, and yet, they are dependent and fused together. This highlights how all things in the universe are interconnected.


A fading double comma Supreme Ultimate from Donghaksa Temple.

The other Yin and Yang symbol is the Triple Commas symbol. This symbol represents the Three Powers: Heaven, Earth, and humankind. It also symbolizes the Three Laws. The first of these three laws state that Yin + Yang = Heaven. The second law states that softness + hardness = the Way for Earth. And the third and final law states that Benevolence + Righteousness = the Way for Humankind. With all this in mind, the Triple Commas also having the same meaning as the Double Comma: that all things are interdependent. And that all forms of existence in the universe are equal, no matter their perceived insignificance. This idea is perhaps what appeals to Korean Buddhism the most.


A triple comma design from Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul.

For all the symbolic meaning stated above, it is no small wonder that the Yin and Yang symbol came to adorn Korean Buddhist temples. The symbol, whether it be a double comma or triple comma, embodies the principles and beliefs of reciprocity and interconnectedness which is central to Buddhism.

 So the next time you see the Korean national flag, or even the symbol with two or three commas, you’ll know the meaning of interconnectedness and reciprocity that the Yin and Yang symbol stands for. And it’s this idea of interconnectedness and reciprocity that appeals to the core beliefs of Korean Buddhism.


The Yin and Yang symbol is located on the fan of San shin (The Mountain Spirit) at the famous Buseoksa Temple.

The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas


The 1,000 bronze coloured Buddhas from Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.

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Another one of the halls, amongst the dozen or so halls at a larger Korean Buddhist temple, is The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas. This hall is easy to identify with the one thousand Buddha statues, but the meaning behind it isn’t all that clear. So why are there a thousand smaller Buddha statues in this hall, and why is this hall at a temple anyways?

The practice of worshipping these one thousand incarnations of the Buddha is strictly based on the Mahayana teachings, which Korean Buddhism largely ascribes to.

When you first walk into the Hall of 1,000 Buddhas, you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty of the various incarnations of the Buddha. These smaller sized statues can be made up of jade, granite, wood, or any number of raw materials. Originally, the number one thousand referred to the total number of Buddhas that will appear, or have appeared, during each of the “three Kalpas.” These Kalpas consist of three countless eons that stretch from the past, into the present, and well into the future. Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) is said to be the fourth incarnation of the present Kalpa.


The exterior of the massive Hall of 1,000 Buddhas at Girimsa Temple in Gyeongju.


And a look at just one of the walls inside The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas at Girimsa Temple.

So why exactly is there The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas at a Korean temple? Well, the one thousand Buddhas are prayed to for the power of protection or perfection. It is also believed that the myriad of Buddhas that appear inside the hall are there to help sentient beings towards liberation and Buddhahood, and they will appear in countless incarnations to make this happen. And while The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas is limited to just one thousand Buddhas, the number of the Buddha’s different manifestations is infinite. The reason for this need for an infinite amount of Buddhas is that human beings having cravings and appetites that are unending.

These one thousand Buddhas shouldn’t be confused with the five hundred Nahan that were the disciples of the Historical Buddha. The easiest way to differentiate between the two is that the Nahan are in various positions and postures, while the Buddhas inside The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas are almost always serenely seated in a mudra of Touching the Earth.

Great examples of The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas can be almost exclusively found at larger Buddhist temples throughout Korea. Such examples can be found at Girimsa Temple in Gyeongju, Jikjisa Temple in Gimcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do, and Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.


The very impressive Hall of 1,000 Buddhas at Jikjisa Temple.

Interestingly, it’s said that if you look at any one of the Buddhas, and you count out your age in any direction, that the Buddha that you land on will resemble you.

So the next time you’re at a larger Korean Buddhist Temple (or even a smaller one for that matter), have a look for The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas, because you certainly won’t be disappointed with the beauty of the hall. Also, you can say a little prayer asking for protection, or count out your age among the Buddhas to find a Buddha that looks a little like you.


Finally, inside The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas at Haeunjeongsa in Busan.

Korean Buddhist Temple Latticework


The wonderfully ornate Upright Diagonal Floral Grid latticework that adorns the doors of  Guryongsa  Temple in Buk-gu, Busan.

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All around  Korea, in the various Buddhist temples that dot the landscape, there are a countless amount of beautiful wooden latticework adorning entryways to the temple halls. The entryways that are adorned with various wooden lattice work are geometric and floral in design. And while the geometric and floral latticework are intricate and usually gorgeous in design, the exact meaning as to why the lattices are geometric and floral in design may not be as obvious.

In total, there are usually three kinds of designs for floral latticework at Korean Buddhist temples. The first is a Diagonal Grid, the second is an Upright Diagonal Grid, and the third is the Upright Diagonal Floral Grid. While there are still other designs at Korean Buddhist temples, these are the three most common that adorn Buddhist halls.


The wonderfully colourful latticework that adorns the main hall at Anyangam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

The Diagonal Grid sounds the way that it’s actually designed with intricate cross-hatching of vertical and horizontal wooden strips. In Korean, this design is called “jeongjamun.” The wooden lines run at a forty-five degree angle.


The stunning floral designs from the main hall at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Gijang, Busan.

The Upright Diagonal Grid, on the other hand, possesses the same diagonal pattern with vertical strips added at each intersection of the diagonal pattern. This mesh-like pattern is believed to ward off evil spirits as it does with the Diagonal Grid design.

Finally, the Upright Diagonal Floral Grid is a mix of floral and geometric designs. By far, this design is the most ornately designed of the three. The floral design is the main design that adorns the main hall at a temple. The flowers that adorn the main hall latticework are the lotus, peony, sunflower, and chrysanthemum. And yet, while these are said to be the flowers that make up the floral designs of the latticework, the flowers are usually too abstract to actually identify. Usually, the wooden flowers have six petals, but they can have four. The reason why the floral design decorates the wooden lattices at Korean Buddhist temples is that flowers are used to pay respect and reverence to the Buddha.


The uniquely stylized latticework from the Myeongbu-jeon shrine hall at Eunhasa Temple in Gimhae.

While there are countless examples of beautiful lattices throughout Korea, the best are situated at  Donghaksa  Temple,  Haedong  Yonggungsa  Temple, Mitaam Hermitage, Anyangam Hermitage in Yangsan, Eunhasa Temple in Gimhae, and Guryongsa in Busan.

Even the latticework at Korean Buddhist temples are filled with meaning. To the uninitiated eye, a lot of what is housed at a Korean Buddhist temple may seem like nothing; however, as the gorgeous latticework proves, this simply isn’t the case.

The potted flowers that grow on the front doors of the main hall at Mitaam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

The Korean Pagoda (Part 3)


The extremely ornate pagoda from Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

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Another interesting aspect to the Korean pagoda is the varying number of tiers that make up the height of the pagoda. And like all things related to the pagoda, the tiers also have a lot of symbolic meaning attached to them.

First, it must be stated that hardly any Korean pagodas have an even amount of tiers to its height like two, four, six, or eight tiers. They almost always have either three, five, seven, or nine tiers.


The three tiered pagoda from Unmunsa Temple.


A gorgeous lion-based three tiered pagoda from Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

Like all things historic, this meaning comes from the past. The reason why Korean pagoda tiers are oddly numbered comes from the East Asian worldview of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements Theory and not so much from Buddhist doctrinal thought. Traditionally, Asian thoughts were strongly influenced by the idea that heaven and humans were interconnected. An example is a thing like a natural disaster could result in good or bad luck for human society, as well. So those that could harness the power of natural laws were also believed to be equal with Heaven and Earth and could wield cosmic laws and principles. More specifically, Koreans attempted to strive to do this in their daily lives. And one way they attempted to do this was related to numbers, which were believed to correspond to cosmic principles. The numbers related to Heaven and Earth begin at one and end at ten: one, three, five, seven, and nine are Yang (hot, male, light), with nine being the culmination of the Yang principle. On the other hand, the even numbers of two, four, six, eight, and ten are Yin (cold, female, dark), with ten being the culmination of the Yin principle. Yang (the odd numbers) is considered to be above, in front of, or higher in human affairs; as a result, they are associated with the noble, respected, auspicious, and good fortune. Conversely, Yin (the even numbers) are seen as below, behind, and beneath. And in human affairs they are thought to be lowly, debased, inauspicious, and calamitous. With all this in mind, it’s obvious why the builders of pagodas would want the tiers of the pagoda to be even. That way, the pagoda could act as a symbol of things that were good and favorable.


And another five tiered pagoda from Geumsuam Hermitage.

More specifically, each of the Yang numbers, the odd numbers, has an individual meaning. The number three embodies the idea of completeness, and it’s considered as an auspicious number. The number five, on the other hand, is a mid-point number between one and ten; as a result, the number five is described as the “heavenly position.” Additionally, the number five is symbolic of the five elemental forces of fire, water, earth, metal, and wind. The number seven symbolizes heaven, earth, and humanity. It’s also used to represent the Big Dipper (Seven Stars), which is so prevalent in shaman worship in Korea like in the shaman deity Chilseong. Finally, the number nine is Yang at its fullest. And it’s believed that this number is also behind the “nine celestial bodies.” Nine is also similar in sound with the character meaning “a long time ”or“ long lasting”; as a result, nine is a symbol of nobility and good fortune.

As you can see, Korean pagodas not only have a long history accented by various designs, but the very design itself is packed with a lot of symbolic meaning, some of which is obvious and a lot of which is not so obvious. So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, keep an eye open for the hidden meaning housed in the design of the Korean pagoda.


And lastly, a nine tiered pagoda from Jogyeam Hermitage.

The Korean Pagoda (Part 2)


The ancient pagoda from Singyesa Temple in North Korea.

Hello Again Everyone!!

And continuing from where we left off last week, I thought I would continue to explore the Korean pagoda. This week I’ll look more closely at the pagoda’s body and finial.

B: The Pagoda Body:

The body of the pagoda is built upon the base. It has several tiers associated with it, each of which consists of a “body stone” and a “roof stone.” Much like the base, the body can be adorned with various images of the “benevolent king” or the Four Heavenly Kings. In addition to these kings, the body can be decorated with various Bodhisattvas.


A pair of the fiercely guarding Vajra from the pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.

The Benevolent Kings, like all things Buddhist, originated in India from the deity Vajrapani. The name, Vajrapani (or Vajra for short) mean enormous physical power. As a result, they are identified with Indra, the thunder bolt throwing Vedic god-king. In Korean, they are known as Geumgangsu-bosal(금강수보살). These Vajrapani are usually shown in a pair on either side of an entranceway. The Buddha on the left is called the Hidden Track Vajra, while the one on the right is called the Narayana Vajra. The Vajra warriors do not hold anything in their hands; instead, their hands are clenched in fists of rage. This gesture helps differentiate them from the Four Heavenly Kings, who can also adorn Korean pagodas. Perhaps the greatest example of these Vajra warriors can be found at the famous Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.

Other figures that can appear on the side of the body to a Korean pagoda, other than Vajra warriors or the Four Heavenly Kings can be images of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are believed to have universal and unlimited powers, they appear on the pagoda.


If you look close enough you can see the image of a Buddha figure on the body of the pagoda at Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.


A better look at a Buddha on the body of the pagoda at Suwolseonwon Temple in Busan.

Two final images that can appear on a Korean pagoda can be a padlock-type image. This is placed on the side of the pagoda not only to protect the contents of the pagoda, but to also suggest that the pagoda body is a kind of dwelling. The other image that can appear on the side of a pagoda’s body is a floral design.


The flowery body of the pagoda at Cheonbulsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

C: Finial:

The final component to a Korean pagoda is the finial which sits on top of the pagoda. The finial has its own base, upon which rests a series of extremely ornate ornamental objects stacked on top of the other. In Korean, the finial name is “Sangnyun,” which refers to the “Sign of Wheels.” This is in reference to the design of the top of the pagoda which has “nine circular wheels,” or “sacred wheels.” When the wheels number nine at the top of the pagoda, historically, the pagoda is supposed to contain the remains of the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul.

In total, there are eight components that are stacked upon each other in a vertical shaft at the top of the finial. These eight are, from the finial base to the top, the base, the inverted bowl, the upturned lotus, the sacred wheels, the sacred canopy, the water flame, the dragon wheel, and the sacred pearl.


The extremely ornate finial from Seoknamsa Temple.

The first part of the decorative finial is the Base, which is called a “noban” in Korean, and it’s box-like in structure. The base is also called the “dew receiver.” The second part is an Inverted Bowl, which in Korean is called a “bokbal.” Some say this shape is a carry-over from the shape of the original Indian burial mound pagodas. The third component is the Upturned Lotus. In Korean, this Upturned Lotus is called an “Anghwa,” and it literally looks like an upturned flower. The fourth component is the Sacred Wheel. In Korean, this Sacred Wheel is called a “boryun.” This part is the central part of the finial. The fifth component is called the Sacred Canopy, and in Korean it’s called a “bogae.”  This canopy-shaped part of the pagoda is in reference to the gem-decorated canopy above the images and statues upon the altar inside a temple shrine hall. It is said to represent the state of nirvana. The sixth component is called the Water Flame, and in Korean it’s called a “suyeon.” The shape and name of this part of the finial literally means water and flame. The reason that the two are put together is that temple craftmen always feared fire and wanted to avoid anything to do solely with fire. The seventh component is called the Dragon Wheel/Vehicle. The shape of this component is the oval section of the pagoda. The eighth, and final component of a finial, is the Sacred Pearl. In Korean, this can either be called a “boju” or a “yongcha.” The word “boju” means a sacred pearl or a precious gem. This part of the finial is the uppermost part of the finial. Another name this Sacred Pearl goes by in Korean is “cintamani,” which is a talismanic pearl that is capable of responding to every wish asked of it. There’s no fixed form to the cintamani, but it’s thought to be clear, penetrating, light, and mysterious. It also shines on all objects in the universe and can eliminate all forms of disease and ailments.


An up-close look at the finial from the pagoda at Seokbulsa Temple in Busan.

The third and final part of Korean Pagoda will appear next week, so stay tuned…