Yin and Yang: The Supreme Ultimate

Tongdosa

The Yin and Yang symbol found at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Buseoksa

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

Geumsansa Temple – 금산사 (Busan, Gijang)

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A massive, and hollow, Amita-bul statue that lies inside the main hall at Geumsansa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

While out in Gijang doing the Yangsan Winter English Camp, I decided to do a bit of sightseeing during the numerous three hour breaks. And one of those sightseeing tours brought me to Geumsansa Temple. While not as amazing as I was anticipating, it certainly had a few surprises.

Geumsansa Temple, in English, literally means Golden Mountain Temple. You’ll first approach Geumsansa Temple down a one lane country road that takes a few twists and turns along the way. When you finally do arrive, you’ll see a compact temple courtyard. Immediately to your left is the visitors’ centre. Continue straight, and you’ll see the very busy temple courtyard. In front of the main hall are numerous statues, including a beautiful pink stoned twin fish statue. Unfortunately, the front of the main hall is covered in an ugly Plexiglas set-up. To the right of the main hall are the monks’ dorms, the monks’ prayer hall, and the temple kitchen. To the left of the main hall is a very rustic-looking wooden fish gong pavilion with an equally rustic fish gong. The gong is half log and half fish. To the side of the wooden fish gong pavilion are two ornately designed dragon sculptures. Additionally, there are two uniquely designed turtles that you can place coins on their back that are placed below the wooden fish gong.

As for the exterior of the main hall, other than the ugly Plexiglas shelter out in front, it is largely unadorned. Now, as for the interior of the main hall, I’m not too sure how to explain it. To say that the interior was a surprise is a gross understatement. When you first step inside the main hall, there’s a massive Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) statue laying on his side. This massive Amita-bul statue takes up nearly the entire interior of the main hall. In front of Amita-bul are various Nahan (the disciples of the Historical Buddha) statues, as well as a large sized white-clad Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) laying on her side, as well. At the feet of Amita-bul are a set of wooden stairs that lead up inside the lying statue. Inside Amita-bul are various wooden sculptures and golden statues. At the entrance are the four Cheonwang guardians. On the left wall are various seated statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, while on the right are wooden carved murals depicting various religious figures and scenes. And straight ahead are a triad of standing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which is centred by Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Light).

Out the back exit, near the head of the massive Amita-bul statue, you’ll be surrounded by walls of various Buddha and Bodhisattva statues that people can pay a fee of a million won to have their names attached to a statue to be prayed over by the temple’s monks. Surprisingly, this is more than it costs at the famous Beopjusa Temple.

After exiting out of the main hall, you can follow the sign next to the bell pavilion that leads you towards the Samseong-gak shrine hall. A forested path that leads through a bamboo grove leads you to the other side of the walled off temple compound. On the right side of the temple compound only the Samseong-gak shrine hall sits. The exterior of the hall is decorated with a painting of Dokseong (The Recluse) on the right side and a painting of San shin (The Mountain Spirit) to the left. Inside, once more, are the various Nahan statues. These statues sit below the three paintings of the shaman deities. Uniquely, there’s a painting of San shin in the centre, with a painting of Dokseong to the left, and Yongwang (The Dragon King) to the right. Absent is a painting of Chilseong that usually makes up the triad of deities inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall. All three paintings, while simplistic, are beautifully rendered, especially the painting of Yongwang.

HOW TO GET THERE: The least complicated way to get to Geumsansa Temple is to first go to Jangansa Temple by taking a city bus. This temple is rather difficult to get to by public transportation, but if you take City Bus #181 at Centum City Subway Station, Haeundae Subway Station, or Bexco, you’ll be able to catch a connecting bus to Jangansa Temple. From City Bus #181, get off at Gijang Sijang Station. From here, board the Town Bus #9 called the Maeul Bus. This bus will drop you off on your first leg of your journey: Jangansa Temple. From Jangansa Temple you can either walk the 6 km distance between the temples (which I don’t recommend) or you can catch a taxi that will cost you about 5,000 won to Geumsansa Temple from Jangansa Temple.

View 금산사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10. The highlight of this temple, by far, is the massively laying Amita-bul statue inside the main hall at Geumsansa Temple. And while the exterior is inspiring, the interior is awe-inspiring. Other than this massive golden statue, the other highlights of the temple are the wooden fish gong, the bamboo grove, as well as the Nahan statues inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall and the painting of Yongwang. If you’re visiting the neighbouring, and much larger, Jangansa Temple, Geumsansa Temple makes a nice little addition to your temple adventures.

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The entrance that leads up to Geumsansa Temple.
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The not so outwardly attractive main hall that has numerous stone statues in front of the Plexiglass shelter.
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The twin fish statue in front of the main hall.
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A look inside the wooden fish gong pavilion at Geumsansa Temple.
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And a better look at the highly original wooden fish gong inside the bell pavilion.
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Finally, a look at the lying Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) inside the main hall. In front are the 16 beautifully rendered Nahan (Disciples of the Historical Buddha) statues.
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A better look at the face of Amita-bul.
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And below the belly of Amita-bul is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
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A look inside the Amita-bul statue. It truly is amazingly adorned.
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A look at just one of the cartoonish looking Cheonwang (Heavenly Kings) that stands at the entrance of the lying Amita-bul statue.
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At the end of the inner hall is a triad of statues with Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Light) in the middle.
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The golden interior behind Amita-bul. There are literally hundreds of Buddhist statues with Korean names attached to them.
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The stairs that lead to a trail that skirts the outside of the temple grounds.
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A look at the main hall from the temple’s woods.
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Probably my favourite picture from the set. This one is the path that leads through a bamboo forest and onto the Samseong-gak shrine hall.
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A look at the exterior of the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall.
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A look upon the altar inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Geumsansa Temple.
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Just one of the smiling Nahan that surround the main altar.
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The Lonely Saint, Dokseong (The Recluse).
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And a look at Yongwang (The Dragon King) that also rests on the main altar inside the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall.

A Mysterious Korean War Temple Case

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A Mysterious Korean War Temple Case fit for Sherlock Holmes.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The other day I received an interesting email from a man named G. In it he told me how his father had served in the Korean War and how he had a couple pictures he wondered if I could help identify for him:

“Hi Dale,

Came across your website in doing research on my father’s military service during the Korean War. I have a few pictures of temples/shrines he took, was wondering if you would be willing to look at them and possibly tell me what they are?

Thanks, G.”

It was definitely an interesting proposal, and I honestly wondered if I could identify what he hoped I could do for him. There were a couple reasons for my initial hesitation. First, a lot of Korea was destroyed during the Korean War, so I didn’t even know if the temples or shrines even existed anymore. Another concern was a lot of Korea has undergone a lot of extensive reconstruction. But having a brother and father that have served in the military, I thought the least I could do was try and help G. with any information I could provide. So I told him to send the pictures that he had and that I would do my best.

“Hello G.,

If there is any way that I can help you, I’m more than willing to help. With the pictures, if there’s any information that you could send that would be appreciated like the area they were taken ex. city, province. It would go a long way in helping me help you. Sincerely, Dale.”

After initially looking at the pictures, I was unable to immediately identify either of the two pictures. At first, I thought one might be the famous Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. But after closer scrutiny, I dismissed this temple as a potential location.

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G.’s father during the Korean War in front of an unknown pavilion.

So after eye-balling the two pictures thoroughly once more, I decided to look at the places that G. provided for the movements of his father during the Korean War:

“…I can give you a summary of his movements across Korea in the early fluid years of the war. Landed at Inchon [Incheon] in October of 1950, then was convoyed down to Pusan [Busan]. From Pusan [Busan] he was shipped to another landing at Wonson. From Wonson went by road up to Hamhung/Hungnam area. After the Chinese entered the war, he was evacuated back to Ulsan. He spent the rest of his tour riding rail security on the eastern lines based around these towns as far as I know:
Kyongju [Gyeongju]
Yongchon [Yeongcheon]
Tague [Daegu]
He also would make runs up to Andong and Wonju.”

Unfortunately, because of the large amount of area that G.’s father covered during the Korean War, which included two countries and three separate provinces, the location of G’s father’s movements didn’t help me all that much.

So the next thing I decided to do was more closely scrutinize the details of the pavilion in the first picture. Instantly, I was drawn to the Chinese characters that hung on the second floor of the pavilion. At first, my wife attempted to read these Chinese characters, but she said they seemed a bit off. So the next thing I did was send the pictures off to a friend, who just so happens to be a Buddhist monk in Korea. With his colleagues, he was able to read two of the three characters. He was able to read the characters as __ 경 루. However, he was unsure that the pavilion matched the only pavilion with a similar name in Gyeongsang-do. The pavilion’s name that he thought it might be was: 찬경루 (Changyeongru). So plugging this result into Google Image, I came back with only one pavilion with a similar name in the entire two provinces of Gyeongsangnam-do and Gyeongsangbuk-do, which were the two provinces that G.’s father moved the most in during the Korean War. And while a lot had changed around the Changyeongru Pavilion, which I later found out was due to extensive renovations and reconstruction by the Shim family, it was the pavilion that I was looking for.

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The modern looking Changyeong-ru pavilion in Cheongsong, Gyeongsangbuk-do. So much has changed in and around this pavilion in present day Korea.

With this knowledge in hand, I was able to provide G. with the following information:

“Hello G,

Wow, that was a difficult one, but I think I was able to one hundred percent identify the structure in the first picture. With a little help I was able to identify it as Changyeongru (Chan gyeong ru) or 찬경루 in Korean script. The first picture is not a temple, but instead, it’s a pavilion.

The pavilion is in the city of Cheongsong in Gyeongsangbuk-do province.

This pavilion was built by Magistrate Ha Dam in 1428, the 10th year of Joseon King Sejong’s reign. According to the chronicle of the pavilion’s construction, the pavilion was made and named in tribute to the progenitor of the Cheongsong Shim clan. It was built by her sons and is still currently owned by the family. The pavilion has undergone a lot of reconstruction and renovation through the years.

From the Busan train station, it would take three hours and forty minutes by car. This is a distance of 188 kilometres.

From Daegu it would take two hours and twenty minutes by car. This is a distance of 117 kilometres.

I am less sure of the second picture. But I do believe that the two pictures were taken at two different places. However, if I’m to guess the proximity of Changyeongru to notable or even famous temples in the area, the only one that sticks out is Bogwangsa Temple (Bo gwang sa). The temple is only 2.9 kilometres away from Changyeongru pavilion, and it takes 13 minutes by car.

Cheongsong Geungnakjeon Hall of Bogwangsa Temple,pg[6]

A look at the main hall at modern day Bogwangsa Temple in Cheongsong, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Here’s a little history on the temple. It was built in the 7th century by the famous monk Uisang-daesa, who is a leading figure in Korean Buddhism.

In the second picture that you sent me, it’s probably a main altar inside of the main hall. Sitting on the main altar, in the centre, is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise ).

KT

An amazing look into Korea’s past. This is possibly the main altar at Bogwangsa Temple during the Korean War with Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) in the centre of the triad.

I hope that helps you in knowing more about your father’s service.

Sincerely, Dale.”

G. was extremely happy that I was able to identify the pictures his father had taken some 60 years ago in a Korea that is barely recognizable to modern day Koreans. Perhaps his father didn’t even know the places he had travelled and the places he had taken pictures of so long ago.

I asked G. to share his story to which he agreed. I’m glad he did because it’s a really unique story about how much foreign powers helped Korea, as well as to show just how much Korea has been able to pull itself up “by its bootstraps” to become the beautiful and modern country it is today.

Jangansa Temple – 장안사 (Busan, Gijang)

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The golden Amita-bul laying on a main altar at Jangansa Temple in Busan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Again, being out in the Gijang area of Busan, I decided to visit Jangansa Temple, a temple I had long wanted to visit ever since 2003, with my in-laws. Fortunately, during my winter vacation, I was able to visit Jangansa Temple.

Jangansa Temple dates back to as early as the reign of King Munmu in 673. Jangansa Temple was founded by the legendary monk, Wonhyo-daesa. Originally, the temple was called Ssangyesa Temple, but it was later changed by King Chungjang sometime around 1350. In 1592, much like the rest of Korea, Jangansa Temple was burned to the ground by the invading Japanese. It was later rebuilt in 1638 by the great priest Tae Ur. It was later restored in 1654, and recoloured in 1975.

As you approach the large-sized parking lot, and cross a wooden bridge, you’ll stand in front of a beautiful two-storied front gate that also acts as a bell pavilion on the second level. To the left of the entrance gate is a stoic statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Uniquely, as you pass through the entrance gate at the temple, you’ll notice that the Four Heavenly Kings that protect the temple aren’t statues, nor are they even paintings; but instead, there are four bronze plaques of the Cheonwang.

Having passed through the Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll enter into the large temple courtyard. To your immediate right is a gorgeous golden statue of what looks to be Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) in a small shrine. And to your immediate right is a fat dharma statue sitting above a stone pond of water. Straight ahead is the squarely shaped main hall. The exterior of this main hall is distinctively adorned with 15 Shim-u-do paintings. This is distinct because the Shim-u-do, Ox-Herding murals, usually only consist of ten. There are also some very beautiful murals of children monk playing much like at Samyeongam Hermitage. The interior of the main hall is gorgeously decorated with some older looking murals. Sitting on the main altar is the triad of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre, he’s flanked by Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) on the right and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) on the left. On the far right wall, as you enter the main hall, you’ll notice two beautiful murals. The one on the left is a painting of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and the one on the right is the guardian painting. On the far left wall is a gorgeously painted, perhaps one of the best in all of Korea, of Yongwang (The Dragon King). Next to this painting is a highly original painting of Jijang-bosal holding a baby in his arms. This is definitely a first for me.

Outside, to the right of the main hall, is the San shin-gak shrine hall dedicated to San shin (The Mountain Spirit). Inside this hall is an older looking wood carving dedicated to San shin. The exterior of this hall is decorated with some interestingly designed, and disproportionately painted, Biseon. And still to the right of the main hall, and in front of the San shin-gak, is a compactly designed Nahan-jeon shrine hall dedicated to the disciples of Seokgamoni-bul. The exterior of this hall is decorated with the standard paintings of the Nahan in various poses; however, the inside of the hall is rather interesting, especially the main altar. Sitting on the main altar are three white statues of three various Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Sitting in the centre is Seokgamoni-bul (which represents the present). Sitting to his right is Mireuk-bosal (The Future Buddha), and on the left is Jaehwagalra-bosal (The Past Buddha). Flanking this triad on either side of the three are the sixteen Nahan.

To the left of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon shrine hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal and the dead. This hall, much like the San shin-gak, is adorned with some uniquely disproportionate Biseon. However, inside, the hall is gorgeous designed. Sitting on the main hall is a white clad Jijang-bosal. Flanking Jijang-bosal on either side are the Ten Kings of the Underworld. They are all seated and accompanied by some assistants.

Behind this hall, and perhaps one of Jangansa Temple’s most beautiful halls, is a hall dedicated to Amita-bul and the Western Paradise that he represents. Inside, the hall is a golden hue with a statue of Amita-bul lying down on the main altar. He’s flanked by two regal looking Bodhisattvas. Behind you, as you face the altar, are large paintings of the Nahan.

HOW TO GET THERE: The least complicated way to get to this temple is to take a city bus. This temple is rather difficult to get to by public transportation, but if you take City Bus #181 at Centum City Subway Station, Haeundae Subway Station, or Bexco, you’ll be able to catch a connecting bus to Jangansa Temple. From City Bus #181, get off at Gijang Sijang Station. From here, board the Town Bus #9 called the Maeul Bus. From this bus you’ll be able to arrive at the beautiful Jangansa Temple.

View 장안사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. I was actually quite surprised at how good this temple was. I wasn’t expecting much, and was pleased that this temple had a lot to offer. The bronze Cheonwang, as well as the golden Gwanseeum-bosal are definitely a highlight to Jangansa Temple. A couple other highlights are the Yongwang portrait as well as the lying Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). If you’re in the area, and looking for a temple to see in Gijang, Jangansa Temple is definitely one to experience.

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The bridge you cross as you near the main entrance of Jangansa Temple.
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A look through the multi-purpose main entrance.
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A look out at the neighbouring mountain from the entrance at Jangansa Temple.
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A look at just Damun Cheonwang, who is one of the Cheonwang (Heavenly Kings) inside the Cheonwangmun Gate.
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The altar with a golden statue inside.
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And upon closer inspection it appears to be Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
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A look at the courtyard and main hall at Jangansa Temple.
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One of the highly original Shimu-do murals that adorns the main hall.
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A look at the main altar inside the main hall at the triad of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre, he’s flanked by Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) on the right and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) on the left.
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The guardian painting to the right of the main altar.
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And a look at one of the more stylized paintings of Yongwang (The Dragon King) to the left of the main altar.
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The highly original painting of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) that hangs to the left of the Yongwang painting.
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The San shin-gak shrine hall to the right rear of the main hall.
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A look at the San shin (The Mountain Spirit) wood carving that rests upon the altar inside the San shin-gak shrine hall at Jangansa Temple.
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Next to the San shin-gak shrine hall is the Nahan-jeon with a white clad Seokgamoni-bul in the centre of the past and future Bodhisattvas: Jaehwagaltra-bosal and Mireuk-bosal. And this triad is flanked by 16 Nahan (The Disciples of the Buddha) statues.
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To the left of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon shrine hall with a white-clad statue of Jijang-bosal on the altar. He’s flanked by the 10 Kings of the Underworld.
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Just five of the 10 Kings of the Underworld that flank Jijang-bosal to the left.
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A look past the Myeongbu-jeon shrine hall at the hall dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
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And a look inside the golden shrine hall with Amita-bul lying on the main altar.

The Hall of 1,000 Buddhas

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

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

Gilsangam Hermitage – 길상암 (Nearby Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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A view of the main hall from the mountainside Gilsangam Hermitage near Haeinsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I had long since wanted to visit this hermitage, that’s in associate with Haeinsa Temple, ever since I first visited Gaya-san National Park back in 2004. This hermitage is the first that you see as you near Haeinsa Temple. And this time, while visiting Haeinsa Temple, I took the time to visit this unique hermitage.

When you first approach Gilsangam Hermitage (길상암) from the parking lot, you’ll first notice a stone courtyard with two tall statues and a pagoda. It’s only after a second glance that you’ll actually notice the hermitage spread out over the face of the neighbouring mountainside. The first ten metre tall stone statue is Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). He is surrounded by a semi-circle of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas including Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Up a small set of stairs to the right is the next ten metre tall stone Buddha. This Buddha looks to be Yaksayorae-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) as he’s holding a jar in his left hand. Again, Yaksayorae-bul is surrounded by another semi-circle of larger stone statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And the far right side of this imposing stone courtyard is a five-tier stone pagoda. Next to this massive structure is a gentle statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).

Left of this stone courtyard of statues and a pagoda are the brown stairs that lead up to the clinging hermitage buildings and grounds. Halfway up the first set of stairs, both to the right and left, are the monks’ facilities, which include the dorms and kitchen. These are strictly off-limits. As you ascend the rest of the first set of stairs, you’ll be greeted by the hermitage’s main hall. The exterior of the hall is largely unadorned. Believing the neighbouring shrine hall on the right, perched above the main hall on the next mountain terrace, to be that of either a Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall or the San shin-gak Mountain spirit hall, I decided to hold off on entering the main hall.

The shrine hall perched slightly above the main hall to the right isn’t in fact a shaman shrine hall; but instead, it’s an odd little building. Again, the exterior of this hall, much like the main hall, is unadorned with any paintings; however, the interior is quite different. The triad sitting on the main altar is centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Now, that isn’t the strange part about the hall. What is strange is that the triad is surrounded by a hall of stone statues both big and small. These statues are almost always the Nahan (The disciples of the Historical Buddha). But these stone statues certainly didn’t look like the Nahan. Instead, they simply seemed to be decorative statues. But upon closer inspection, these atypical statues that almost have Buddha-like features, were in fact the Nahan. Confusing, but true.

In front of this hall is a beautifully ornate seven-tier stone pagoda with tiny bells on each angle. And it was out in front of the this Nahan-jeon that I noticed a rock staircase to the right of the shrine hall that led further up the mountain’s face. I must have taken about five minutes just eye-balling the mountainside to see if these stairs were nothing more than a hiking trail, or in fact an extension of Gilsangam Hermitage.

Chancing it, I decided to see where the stairs led me. If I thought that the first flight of stairs were steep and plentiful that led me up to the main hall, this second set of stairs put the first to shame. Halfway up the set of stairs, I came to a watering hole. I guess even the people that built the stone staircase realized it was quite a climb. But it’s from this vantage point that you finally realize there is actually a shrine hall further up the mountain. Another amazing thing at this watering hole is a sign marker written in Chinese characters that translates as “Big Awakening Spring.” The title of the stone marker is self-explanatory inside the hermitage grounds.

Climbing the second half of the steep second set of stairs, and near the peak of the granite mountain, you’ll finally arrive at the crowning shrine hall at Gilsangam Hermitage. Sitting outside this hall is a compact bronze bell. And again, the exterior of this hall is unadorned. But inside this hall weren’t the shaman deities, like I expected; but instead, there was a triad of foreign looking Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the main altar. The central Buddha was adorned with a golden cape. And without being able to see his mudra, it’s impossible to indentify which Buddha he is meant to represent. Surrounding this main altar are more traditional looking miniature figures on each of the three walls of the hall.

A bit disappointed that there wasn’t a shaman shrine hall, I descended down the steep set of stairs on rubbery legs. Remembering I had yet to visit the interior of the main hall, I decided to catch the rest of my breath before descending the second set of equally numerous stairs. To my surprise, I found the set of three shaman deities on the left wall. The first painting is of San shin (The Mountain Spirit). Next to San shin is Dokseong (The Recluse), and Chilseong (The Seven Stars) is on the far right. All three paintings are old and in rough shape. Sitting on the main altar, in the centre of the triad, appears to be Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). There are two additional unknown Bodhisattvas on either side of this triad. Behind each of these two statues are sixteen Nahan paintings that look to be just as old as the three shaman paintings.  And on the far right side of the altar is a uniquely designed, and multi-armed, Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Gilsangam Hermitage, you’ll first have to get to Haeinsa Temple. And to get to Haeinsa Temple from Busan, you’ll first have to get to Seobu Bus Terminal. The easiest way to get to Seobu is from Sasang subway stop, which is #227 on the second line. Once you get to the Hapcheon Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll have to get on another bus for Haeinsa Temple, which is about 4,000 Won. From where the bus lets you off, you’ll have to backtrack down the road for about 500 metres until you get to Gilsangam Hermitage. Don’t worry, you’ll see the hermitage to your left when you first enter the park from the large stone Buddhas and pagoda across a brigde.

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OVERALL RATING: 7/10. The continually unfolding depth of buildings and structures at this hermitage was a nice surprise. It has a lot of hidden treasures, both inside the main hall with the gorgeous and old shaman deity paintings, as well as the shrine hall hidden near the summit of the mountain peak. Added to this secrecy is the ornate stone courtyard of statues and pagodas that not only welcome to you Gilsangam Hermitage, but also welcome you to Gaya-san National Park. This hermitage, much like what it hides on its mountainside grounds, is a nice little hidden gem near Haeinsa Temple.

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The stone courtyard with two large statues and a pagoda that welcome you to Gilsangam Hermitage.
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The frozen stream you have to cross to get closer to the hermitage grounds.
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The large statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) on the left and Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) on the right.
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The large five tier pagoda in the stone courtyard.
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A look up at the main hermitage courtyard from the first set of long stairs.
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The Nahan-jeon shrine hall to the right rear of the main hall.
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The uniquely designed seven tier pagoda that sits out in front of the Nahan-jeon shrine hall.
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A look at the main altar with Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre. He’s flanked by hundreds of atypical Nahan stone statues.
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The second set of long stairs that lead up to the mountainside shrine hall.
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A look down from the midway point of the second set of steep stairs.
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Continuing up the second set. Yep, still more stairs.
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The spring with the stone marker that reads “Big Awakening Spring.”
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The third and final set of stairs that leads up to the shrine hall that neighbours with the peak of the mountain.
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A look up at the mountainside shrine hall, which is the one that I thought was either the San shin-gak or the Samseong-gak shaman shrine halls.
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A look over at the granite peak.
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A look in at the foreign looking main altar.
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The bell pavilion next to the main hall on the first terrace of the hermitage.
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A look in at the wonderfully old artwork inside the main hall.
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A unique statue of the multi-armed and faced Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
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A look to the left inside the main hall at the shaman and Nahan paintings.
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One of the individual Nahan paintings.
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And a look at the mold-laden San shin painting at Gilsangam Hermitage.
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Finally, the impressive and old Chilseong (The Seven Stars) painting.

Korean Buddhist Temple Latticework

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

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Mireuksa Temple – 미륵사 (Busan)

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The wintry view of Mireuksa Temple in Busan up on Geumjeongsan Mountain.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I had been to Mireuksa Temple two times in the past, but it had been four years since I last went during Buddha’s Birthday. And even though the temperature was -9 degrees Celsius up in the mountains, nothing would stop me during my vacation.

Mireuksa Temple (미륵사) is named after Mireuk-bul, the Future Buddha indirectly. The reason that I say indirectly is that the mountain peak that Mireuksa Temple is situated under is called Mireuk-bong, which has an elevation of 712 metres. The peak of Mireuk-bong is said to resemble Mireuk-bosal wearing a laureate. As a result, it’s been long believed that Mireuk-bong has given people spiritual energy. Mireuksa Temple, formally known as Mireukam, was founded by the famous monk, Wonhyo-daesa, in 678. Interestingly, a local legend states that a dragon once lived inside a neighbouring cave around Mireuk-bong.

As you first approach Mireuksa Temple up a long, steep, stone staircase, you’ll see the visitors’ centre, as well as the temple kitchen, with a view of Mireuk-bong above this building. Passing by this building, as well as the adjacent monks’ dorm, you’ll arrive in the main courtyard at Mireuksa Temple. And the view up at the main hall, which is to the right, as well as the rock formation that is Mireuk-bong, is amazing.

Surrounding the exterior walls of the main hall, uniquely called Yeomhwajeon main hall, are fading Shim-u-do Ox-Herding murals, as well as a cracked painting of a white-clad Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Inside the main hall, and sitting on the main altar, is a common triad with Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre. And he’s flanked by Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power), as well as Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). On the far left side of the wall is the temple’s red guardian painting that is surrounded by hundreds of tiny white Buddha figures (as is most of the interior of the main hall). On the far right side of the wall is a beautiful red mural that depicts Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). The most unique feature of this main hall, by far, are the three murals in the right rear corner. The mural on the immediate right is a set of three soldiers that protect the 10 Kings of the Underworld. Straight ahead, are two additional murals that look similar in their composition. They depict two of the 10 Kings of the Underworld. They are older in design, and one wonders where the other eight murals might be.

Outside of the main hall, and straight ahead, is the Nahan-jeon shrine hall dedicated to the disciples of Seokgamoni-bul, The Historical Buddha. Surrounding the exterior of this hall are various Nahan, Wonhyo-daesa, The Bodhidharma and Dazu Huike, as well as a beautiful mural with a golden fish and a rainbow above its back. As for inside the main hall, there are two life-sized guardians protecting the two entrance ways to the hall, which surprised me (to put it mildly). Sitting on the main altar, again, much like the main hall, are Seokgamoni-bul, Bohyun-bosal, and Moonsu-bosal. This familiar triad is surrounded by five hundred gray Nahan with various facial and physical features. And to the left of the Nahan-jeon shrine hall is the temple’s bell pavilion. Rather ordinary in design, this bell pavilion protrudes out from the banks of the courtyard, and it’s one of the first things you’ll see when you first approach the temple.

Now, to the right rear of the main hall, and slightly up the banks of Mireuk-bong, is the shrine hall dedicated to both San shin (The Mountain Spirit), as well as Chilseong (The Seven Stars). This is a rather unique feature, as San shin and Chilseong are usually housed alongside a third shaman deity: Dokseong (more on him later). But for this temple, it’s just the two of them together. There are various murals in and around this shrine hall that are rather unique in their rendering. As for the two murals that depict San shin and Chilseong, they are simple, and yet older in age. Interestingly, there’s a sign to the left of San shin’s name that tells shamans not to hold rituals at the temple. I guess there must have been problems in the past.

To the immediate left of the main hall, as you face it, is a smaller sized shrine hall. This hall is decorated on the outside by various paintings that depict beautiful scenes from nature. Inside this hall sits a solitary, and rather stout, golden Buddha; this Buddha is Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). This statue is backed by a beautiful red mural of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see one of the more beautiful murals inside any shrine hall in Korea. On the ceiling is a large sized cherry blossom tree with a bird perched on one of the tree’s limbs.

Continuing up the set of narrow stone stairs to the left of the shrine hall dedicated to Mireuk-bul is another shrine hall that crowns both the temple as well as Mireuk-bong. From the heights of this shrine hall dedicated to Dokseong (The Recluse), to which the temple is famous, you can see the valley and Busan down below. And on really good days you can see the Gwangan Bridge that’s located all the way in Gwanali. So take your time up here, and enjoy the view, before entering the hall dedicated to Dokseong. The exterior of this hall is rather plain and ordinary; however, the exterior doesn’t prepare you for the beauty inside of this hall. Inside this hall, and sitting on the main altar, is a stone carved picture of Dokseong that’s carved out of the mountain’s face. It’s a beautiful altar that personifies and represents the beauty that is housed at this truly hidden gem of a temple.

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HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Mireuksa Temple, you’ll first have to travel to Hwamyeong subway station on the second line (#235). From here, you’ll have to catch a Busan city bus from the Deokcheon Rotary. Take the Busan city bus identified as “Sanseong – 산성”. Ride this bus until you get to the centre of the mountain community of Sanseong, which will probably take 15 to 20 minutes. Nearing the outskirts of this community, get off near a large bathroom complex (yes, you heard me correctly). Facing this community bathroom, head in the direction that your back faces. You’ll see a small brown marker sign that directs you towards the northern gate (북문) of the Busan Moutain Fortress (Geumjeongsanseong). Follow this road for 1.5 kilometres. Then, on a sign to your immediate right, and up a steep entry road, you’ll follow this gravel road for an additional 2 kilometres. Finally, past the barrier gate that blocks traffic, you’ll head up this unused road for 300 metres, until you see a silver sign marker that reads the temple’s name – 미륵사 – in Korean. Follow this forested path, up the moutain, for an additional 700 metres. The trail is rather easy to follow as there are several colourful paper lanterns that guide the way for you. In total, the walking part of the hike is about 4.5 kilometres.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10. Mireuksa Temple is truly a hidden gem amongst temples in Busan. While difficult to get to, this temple is well worth the effort to first find and then explore. The temple is literally placed on the side of Mireuk-bong with several of its shrine halls placed precariously on face of the peak. The highlights, besides the view, are the crowning Dokseong-shrine hall, the rare murals inside the main hall, as well as the older looking murals dedicated to the shaman San shin and Chilseong.

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The break in the road that heads left towards the temple grounds.
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The trail that leads up Geumjeongsan Mountain towards Mireuksa Temple.
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The first look at the face of the temple grounds.
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The visitors’ centre and kitchen are to the right with the main hall straight ahead.
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A look up at the shrine halls, including the main hall, that are strewn along the face of Mireuk-bong peak.
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One of the serene paintings of a monk that adorns the exterior of the main hall.
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A look inside the main hall at the altar and at the guardian painting.
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A better look at the Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) mural to the right of the main altar.
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And a better look at the protective soldiers mural in the right rear corner of the main hall.
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A look at the shaman shrine hall that houses both San shin (The Mountain Spirit) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars).
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A look inside the shrine hall at San shin.
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A tiger mural that adorns the left side of the shaman shrine hall.
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A look at the Nahan-jeon shrine to the left of the main hall in the temple courtyard.
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A painting of Wonhyo-daesa and Uisang-daesa as they worked their way towards enlightenment. This mural adorns the exterior of the Nahan-jeon shrine hall.
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A look at the main altar inside the Nahan-jeon shrine hall with Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre, and he’s surrounded by 500 Nahan (The Disciples of Buddha).
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A look at the temple courtyard from the Nahan-jeon shrine hall.
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A look up at the shrine halls that are suspended precariously across the face of Geumjeongsan and below Mireuk-bong.
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A look inside the shrine hall that is at the base of the mountain’s face from the previous picture. Sitting on the altar, not surprisingly, is a stout Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).
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A look outwards from the mountainside stairs at the shrine hall that houses Mireuk-bul.
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And a look up at the shrine hall that sits upon the highest heights at Mireuksa Temple.
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A look inside the Dokseong shrine hall: the highest shrine hall at Mireuksa Temple.
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And a look at the stone sculpted Dokseong that sits upon the main altar inside the shrine hall.
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A look down at the temple compound from the Dokseong shrine hall.
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And a look out upon the rolling mountains of Busan.

The Korean Pagoda (Part 3)

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The extremely ornate pagoda from Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.

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The three tiered pagoda from Unmunsa Temple.

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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.

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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.

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And lastly, a nine tiered pagoda from Jogyeam Hermitage.