King Suro’s Tomb – 수로왕릉 (Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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A look at King Suro’s tomb under a clear blue sky in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do

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Not wanting to go shopping with the wife and her sister, I decided to head over to the neighbouring King Suro’s Tomb. Much like Eunhasa Temple, also in Gimhae, I had visited King Suro’s Tomb in 2008. And a few years later, it’s still as beautiful as ever.

King Suro is said to have founded the Gaya (or Garak) Kingdom in 42 A.D. in the south-eastern corner of the Korean peninsula. As the legend of King Suro goes, he was the first of six princes born from eggs that had descended down from the sky in a golden bowl wrapped in red cloth. Being the first born of the six, he helped lead in the formation and foundation of the Gaya Confederacy. He married an Indian princess from Ayodya, named Inhuh. After being married she changed her name to Queen Heo Hwang Ok, and she had ten children with her king. Purportedly, King Suro died in 199 A.D., and every fall and spring there’s a memorial ceremony for the king.

King Suro’s tomb occupies a central spot in the city of Gimhae. As you first approach the tomb, you’ll be greeted by a stately gate and traditional bricked wall. Passing through the gate with a Yin and Yang symbol on it, you’ll enter into beautifully manicured grounds. There is a red gate supported by two poles that have the royal crest on it. After passing through this you’ll come to another gate. This gate is a two storied gate with intricate paintings and wood carvings. After passing through this third gate, you’ll finally enter the main courtyard that houses the tomb of King Suro. Straight ahead, and walled behind another traditional wall with an ornately designed entrance gate, is King Suro’s tomb. The tomb is similar to the ones found in Gyeongju. Standing guard in front of the tomb are pairs of court officials and soldiers. And immediately in front of these four figures are animal figures of a bear, sheep and horses. At the front of the tomb is a stone table and memorial tablet with the words “Garaka King Suro” inscribed on it.

The tomb is surrounded by extensive grounds; however, most of the other buildings on the grounds are non-descript. The most memorable of these buildings is a building to the right of King Suro’s tomb. Inside are a pair of portraits depicting King Suro and his queen, Queen Heo. In addition to these portraits are the King and Queen’s spirit tablets. One noteworthy sculpture that sits in the courtyard at the tomb complex is a granite sculpture of six eggs surrounded by twin dragons and a watchful turtle. This sculpture was once housed near Queen Heo’s tomb, but was later moved to be closer to King Suro’s tomb. This sculpture symbolizes the imagery behind King Suro’s birth.

Other than the tomb and the hall that houses the portrait and memorial tablets of King Suro and Queen Heo, there’s a collection of buildings to the left of the tomb in an adjacent complex. Also, there’s a row of shrine halls to the right of the tomb that house the memorial tablets of the second through to the ninth kings of Gaya.

Admission to King Suro’s tomb was free for me, however, the official website says that the tomb is a mere 700 won to visit. Either way, it’s a pretty reasonable price to see Korean history.

HOW TO GET THERE: Now that the Gimhae subway is up and running it’s a lot easier to get to King Suro’s tomb. You can take the Busan subway line, and transfer over to the Gimhae light rail line. Get off at the King Suro stop. Follow the signs east for about 10 minutes. King Suro’s tomb will appear on your left.

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OVERALL RATING: 7/10. While not as artistically appealing, or religiously significant as a Korean temple, King Suro’s tomb is steeped in Korean history. The grounds that house the tomb are beautifully maintained as is the tomb itself. The stone sculptures out in front of the tomb are beautifully rendered as are the paintings inside the memorial hall that house Kin Suro and Queen Heo’s memorial tablets. While the tomb isn’t as extensive as the ones in Gyeongju, King Suro’s tomb certainly is well worth visiting.

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A look at the changing leaves from fall last year.
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The entrance gate that allows you entrance into the grounds.
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The uniquely designed tile work that lies at your feet.
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The beautiful walk towards the inner courtyard at King Suro’s Tomb.
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A look off to the left at the surrounding trees and mountains.
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And a look to the right at Gimhae in all of its natural splendour. Just too bad there isn’t more of it.
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A closer look as you approach the inner courtyard gate.
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Having finally passed in to the inner courtyard of the tomb, you’ll notice a few buildings off to the left in an adjoining courtyard, and a well out in front.
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A look through the protective railing that separates you from the stele.
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A look at the adjoining courtyard’s buildings.
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A different look out at the inner courtyard at King Suro’s Tomb.
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The closed off gate that allows you access to King Suro’s Tomb that lies off in the distance.
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Finally, a look at the tomb mound that houses King Suro’s earthly remains.
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A different look with all the obligatory statues out in front of the tomb.
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An elderly tree that is situated to the right of the tomb mound.
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A unique look at the tomb walls with the main inhabitant behind these guarded walls.
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The courtyard to the right of the inner courtyard that houses more kings’ memorial tablets.
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With a closer look at the buildings that house the memorial tablets for the 2nd to 9th kings of Gaya.

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.

Hongjeam Hermitage – 홍제암 (Nearby Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do)


The stele dedicated to the famous monk Samyeong at Hongjeam Hermitage near Haeinsa Temple.

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After visiting the neighbouring Haeinsa Temple, and knowing a bit about the hermitage’s history, we decided to visit Hongjeam Hermitage. And with the added bonus of knowing that Hongjeam Hermitage is the closest hermitage to Haeinsa Temple, it was a bit of a no brainer.

Hongjeam Hermitage (홍제암) was first built in 1608 for High Priest Samyeong by King Seonje. The King did this in appreciation for the Buddhist priest’s contribution in defending the country from the Japanese during the Imjin Invasion of 1592 by raising a Buddhist monks army. The famous priest would spend the remaining years of his life at Hongjeam Hermitage. And when he died a stupa and stele were made in 1610. The biography of the great priest is written on his stele, and the adjacent hillside stupa contains the sarira (remains) of Samyeong. Stupidly, the stele was damaged by the Japanese police chief in Hapcheon during Japanese colonial rule in 1943. Fortunately, it was repaired in 1958.

Inside the main hall are portraits of High Priest Samyeong, as well as Seosan and Yongkyu, who helped aid in the defence of Korea against the Japanese. The hermitage has been rebuilt seven times throughout the years; the most recent being 1979, when the hermitage was completely dismantled under the patronage of then president, Bak Chung Hee.

When you first approach the hermitage from Haeinsa, you’ll come across the area of the hermitage that houses a row of nine stupas and steles  with the turtle based stele in the centre that belongs to Sa-myeong’s. You’ll easily be able to recognize it because the body of the stele has been broken at the centre into four pieces. Amazingly, it was able to be repaired. To the right of this courtyard, and up a set of stairs, is another hillside courtyard that houses the remains of Samyeong inside the larger sized stupa. This hillside cemetery (budowon) overlooks Haeinsa Temple.

Adjacent to the cemetery that holds Samyeong’s stele, as well as many others, is the main courtyard to Hongjeam Hermitage. The main entrance to the hermitage has a beautiful gate. There are beautiful paintings adorning the flanking sides of the entrance. As you step inside the courtyard, you’ll instantly be greeted by row upon row of monk dorms. To say that this hermitage is active is an understatement. I was unable to enter any further into the hermitage because it was so busy when I visited, but the main hall is to the far left.

Admission to the hermitage is free as long as you pay your 3,000 won entrance fee to get into Gaya-san National Park.

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Hongjeam 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 find the trail that leads up to Haeinsa Temple for about a kilometre, which starts to the left of temple museum. From the Iljumun Gate, which is the first gate at Haeinsa Temple, you’ll have to continue left as you face this gate. Head towards the parking lots on your left and cross the narrow stone bridge where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the monk cemetery at Hongjeam Hermitage. In total, it’s about 300 metres from the Iljumun Gate at Haeinsa Temple to get to Hongjeam Hermitage.

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OVERALL RATING: 4/10. This hermitage doesn’t have the most for a visitor to see. The reason may be that it’s probably not meant for visitors, but that it’s more for the daily life of a Buddhist monk. With that being said, Hongjeam Hermitage has a lot of historical value with it being the final resting place of one of Korea’s most famous monks: Samyeong. Additionally, the entrance gate to the hermitage, as well as the beautiful views of Haeinsa from the hillside cemetery are another highlight to this small hermitage. So if you want a little Korean Buddhist history lesson, be sure to visit Hongjeam Hermitage.

The Iljumun Gate at Haeinsa Temple that you’ll have to pass by to get to Hongjeam Hermitage.
The road that leads into the historical hermitage.
A view of the icy ravine as you cross over the bridge.
A hiking trail and stele just east of Hongjeam Hermitage.
The cemetery (budowon) at Hongjeam Hermitage that is just to the right of the hermitage. In the centre, you can see the stele dedicated to the famous monk: Sa-myeong-daesa.
A better look at the row of stupas and steles.
A view of the cemetery (budowon) on the hill that houses Sa-myeong’s stupa as it looks out on to Haeinsa Temple and Gaya-san Mountain.
The main entrance gate to Hongjeam Hermitage.
The intricate and original design that adorns the main entrance gate.
And a look out upon some of the hermitage buildings at Hongjeam Hermitage.

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.

Sinbulsa Temple – 신불사 (Ulju-gun, Ulsan)

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The extremely rare image of Samshin Halmoni at Sinbulsa Temple in Ulsan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

After being told about this place from a friend, and seeing a couple pictures, I couldn’t help but visit Sinbulsa Temple (신불사) on the southwestern part of Ulsan. I’m not too sure how the friend found it, because it doesn’t show up on any map on the trusty GPS in my car, but Sinbulsa Temple was well worth the treasure hunt to find for a couple of unique features that it houses.

When you first arrive at the temple, after wandering around the outskirts of the Samsung factory, you’ll first see a stone sign that reads “신불사.” Down the elbowed road, the road splits to the right and the left. To the right is the temple compound and to the left are a row of buildings (more on that later).

Straight ahead, on the right road, is a newly built bell pavilion that houses a really large sized bell, especially for how small the temple is. Adorning the bell are beautifully large Biseon and Korean poetic writing. Walking past the bell pavilion, you’ll be greeted by the main hall to the left, and straight ahead is the monks’ dorm.

The exterior walls of the main hall are rather plain in their decoration. The four paintings that adorn the exterior walls seem rather childish in composition. However, inside the main hall, the hall is both colourful and beautiful. Sitting on the main altar is a set of six Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In the centre of the set is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). To the Buddha’s immediate right and left are statues of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). And next to these statues are statues of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light). And next to Amita-bul is Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power and Wisdom of Amita-bul). Left of this set of altar statues is a statue of a traditional looking Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). And next to this statue is an even more unique statue of Jijang-bosal: this time, he’s seated on an elephant and backed by individual paintings of the 10 Kings of the Underworld. On the far right wall is another statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, as well as a beautifully large guardian painting.

Just past the main hall is the monks’ dorm. And next to that is a shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King). Inside this shrine hall is a seated golden statue of Yongwang with a beautiful mural behind him. This mural has Yongwang to the left and a blue dragon to the right. Just in front of the golden statue of Yongwang is an open pit where the mountain water flows, and to the immediate left are rows upon rows of green jade statues of Buddhas. Next to this shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang is an open outdoor shrine dedicated to Dokseong (The Recluse). Again, this shrine is large and golden, much like Yongwang, and the mural that backs this statue is beautifully rendered.

Across the creek, and over the bridge, is a courtyard with a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal in the centre of the grounds. There are two beautiful flanking stone lanterns and a tiny stone statue of Gwanseeum-bosal to the right of the courtyard. It’s rather plain and cluttered, but the design of the stone sculptures and statues are beautiful.

Now, heading back through the temple grounds, and back to where you first began, you should now head left where the road originally forked. This part of the temple, and this row of shrine hall buildings, is definitely the highlight of Sinbulsa Temple. To the right of the shrine halls is an interesting little display case that opens. Inside is a painting of Samshin Halmoni. She is extremely rare to find at a Korean Buddhist temple, as she’s almost exclusively used in Korean shamanism. Inside the first shrine hall is the Sanshin-gak with a nice statue and painting of San shin (The Mountain Spirit). Uniquely, there’s a large stone boulder from the neighbouring mountain inside the hall. To the left of the Sanshin-gak shrine hall is yet another highly unique painting of Samshin Halmoni with Dangsan Cheonwang. Inside the final shrine hall are some older looking paintings of guardians I am unfamiliar with.

HOW TO GET THERE: To say that this temple isn’t the easiest one to find in Korea is to put it mildly. First, you will have to take a bus to Yangsan. From the Yangsan Health Centre, near the Intercity Bus Terminal, you can take either local city bus 63 or 67. The bus ride until your destination is about one hour. You will then have to get off at the SDI (Samsung Development Institute) factory. Take the first left that heads towards the main entrance gate at the factory. The road will fork to the left just before you arrive at the entrance gate. Follow this road, as it twists and turns for a good two to three kilometres. But don’t worry, there is good signage leading you towards the temple the entire way. On your way, you’ll pass by a forested area, as well as a few factories to the rear of the SDI facility.

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OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10. While the temple buildings themselves and temple statues are rather unimpressive, it’s the statues and halls dedicated to the shaman deities that make this temple so special. So if you have the time and the energy it takes to find this temple, it’s well worth the effort.

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The entrance to Sinbulsa Temple.
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The view of the temple complex as you approach down the winding road.
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The view of the newly built bell pavilion as you head right towards the temple complex.
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A better look at the rather large bell at Sinbulsa Temple.
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A vibrant look up at the main hall at the temple.
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A look at the shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang, as well as the outdoor shrine dedicated to Dokseong.
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Inside is this golden statue of Yongwang with an elaborate painting of Yongawang, as well.
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A closer look at a golden Dokseong.
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A statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) from the courtyard at the temple.
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Inside the beautiful and colourful main hall.
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A beautiful rendering of the guardian painting to the right of the main altar.
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A statue of Gwanseeum-bosal to the right of the main altar.
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A unique statue of Jijang-bosal riding an elephant with all ten of the Kings of the Underworld behind him.
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And next to one Jijang-bosal, is another statue of a more traditional statue of Jijang-bosal.
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The buildings to the left of the main courtyard. Inside these halls are some extremely unique paintings.
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Like this one inside the first shrine hall.
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As well as this one.
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The entrance to one of the most unique shrine halls I’ve ever seen at a Korean temple. This one is dedicated to Dangsan Cheonwang and Sam shin Halmoni.
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A better look at the two holding hands.
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Another shrine hall is the Sanshin-gak shrine hall dedicated to the shaman Mountain Spirit.
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Accompanying San shin are these two paintings to the side of the altar.
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Yet another interesting part of this temple was this altar dedicated to Samshin Halmoni.
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A picture of the painting of Samshin Halmoni inside the altar.

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.

Hello Again Everyone!!

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.

Hwaeomsa Temple – 화엄사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

DSC_0241The beautifully spacious main hall that buttresses up against the sides of Cheonseongsan Mountain.

Hello Again Everyone!!

My first attempt to get to Hwaeomsa Temple (not to be confused with the much more famous one in Jiri-san) was thwarted. The burning of a bit of rubber from my car as it tried to ascend the mountainous road didn’t allow me to get to the temple. So instead, I visited the neighbouring Mitaam Hermitage. This time, with a little preparation, I was able to see the beautifully situated Hwaeomsa Temple.

After making the long ascent up Cheonseongsan Mountain, along the east side of the mountain, you’ll come across the picturesque Hwaeomsa Temple. Hwaeomsa Temple is a very small temple with nothing more than the monks’ living quarters, the main hall, and the Samseong-gak shrine hall. However, the gorgeous views of the east side of Yangsan below, and the beautiful grays of Cheonseongsan Mountain all around it, allow the scenery to nearly outshine the temple.

When you first arrive at the temple, up the long steep road, you’ll be greeted by a twin set of temple buildings. The smaller one to the right is the Samseong-gak shrine hall dedicated to the three most popular shaman deities. Straight ahead is the rather large, but precariously placed, main hall. And to the far left, and a little further down the mountainous road is the monks’ dorms and kitchen. There is very little to see in this area except a beautiful spot to take pictures of the city and valley below and the mountains around you.

First, the Samseong-gak shrine hall is placed slightly ahead of the main hall, which is a unique feature to this temple. As you approach the entrance to this hall, you’ll notice the Korean writing –삼성각 – which helps you identify this hall. Around this hall are murals dedicated to the three shaman deities inside the hall. And inside this hall are three good examples of the fine shaman artistry that can be found at Korean temples. The best of the set is the golden and black mural of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) in the centre upon the main altar of this hall.

The main hall has a rather unique interior. The exterior, on the other hand, is adorned with some rather simplistic Palsang-do paintings that depict the eight stages of the Buddha’s life. The most alluring is the painting dedicated to the temptation of the Buddha by the three daughters of Mara. As you enter around back on the right side of the main hall, it almost seems as though you’re entering a cave. Instead, the mountainous walls of Cheonseongsan Mountain are so close in proximity to the main hall, that appearances can be deceiving.

As for when you enter into the main hall, the first thing to greet you is a spacious main hall. On the far right is a beautifully large guardian painting. It isn’t until you pass this painting that you realize just how unique the main altar of the hall truly is. Behind the triad of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to the right, and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) to the left, is an ornately designed pagoda. The pagoda is backed by a golden sun painting, and it’s surrounded by paintings of dragons and Nahan (The disciples of the Historical Buddha). As for the pagoda itself, it is a three-tiered pagoda that is highly original in its design. It’s adorned with various guardians, Biseon, and Bodhisattvas. Even more surprising than the main altar pagoda was the triangle window above the stone pagoda that looks out onto the neighbouring mountainside. I’m not sure why this window is there, other than to saw that it looks out onto a cluster of large granite rocks. And to the far left is a copy of the Dragon Ship of Wisdom from the neighbouring Tongdosa Temple. This is the surest indication that the head monk at the temple is a former student at Tongdosa Temple.

For more information on Hwaeomsa Temple, please follow the link.

HOW TO GET THERE: You can get to Hwaeomsa Temple in one of two ways. First, you can catch a bus to Yangsan Intercity Bus Terminal and catch city bus #2000. The bus ride will take you about 40 minutes, and you’ll have to get off at Jujin Village in Soju-dong. Either that, or you can catch city buses # 247 or 301 from the Busan City Bus Terminal in Nopo-dong. You’ll then have to get off at Jangheung. Wherever it is you get off, follow the sign markers leading you to the neighbouring Mitaam Hermitage, which are well placed. But instead of heading right towards the trail that leads towards Mitaam Hermitage, follow the road left for another 400 metres. Again, make sure you pack a good pair of hiking boots, because you’ll need them.

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OVERALL RATING: 7/10. While not as picturesque as the neighbouring Mitaam Hermitage, nor as amazing with what it has to show both inside and outside of the temple halls, it is beautiful and original in its own right. From the beautiful views from Cheonseongsan Mountain, to the beautiful Chilseong painting, or the pagoda that sits in the middle of the main hall, Hwaeomsa Temple has a lot to offer both the casual and more die-hard temple adventurer.

The beautiful view from the eastern side of Cheonseongsan Mountain.
The long narrow road that leads up to the temple.
The first look you’ll get of the main hall at Hwaeomsa Temple as you approach.
A look at just one of the Palsang-do paintings that adorns the exterior walls of the main hall.
The fierce looking Nathwi.
The spacious interior of the main hall at Hwaeomsa Temple.
The beautiful guardian painting to the right of the main altar.
The unique and gorgeous main altar at Hwaeomsa Temple.
A better look at the main altar pagoda with golden sunlight at its back.
A unique look at the triad upon the main altar from behind.
A look across the front facade of the main hall.
And a look at the forward protruding Samseong-gak shrine hall.
A look at the beautiful San shin (Mountain Spirit) painting inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall.
And a look at the golden Chilseong (Seven Stars) painting inside the Samseong-gak shrine hall.
The trail that leads left of the main hall towards the peak of Cheonseongsan Mountain.
And a look up at the cluster of boulders that the window inside the main hall looks out upon.