Now and Then: Tongdosa Temple

Tongdosa 1970s

Tongdosa Temple from the 1970s. 

Hello Again Everyone!!

Tongdosa Temple is situated on the southern slopes of the picturesque Mt. Chiseosan in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. The name Tongdosa Temple means “Transmission of the Way Temple,” in English, and it was first established in 643 A.D. by the famed monk, Jajang-yulsa. Tongdosa Temple is a noted temple for several reasons, but its greatest claim to fame is that it was the first temple in Korea to house the earthly remains of the historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. During his travels and studies in China, Jajang-yulsa visited the Yunjisi Temple. Here, he obtained the holy relics which included the Buddha’s robe, his begging bowl, a portion of his skull, and numerous sari (crystallized remains). Upon his return to the Korean peninsula, and through the support of Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647) he spread Buddhism throughout the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C to 935 A.D), and Jajang-yulsa established Tongdosa Temple to store the Buddha’s remains.

Like all great temples, Tongdosa Temple has an interesting creation myth. According to legend, at the time of the temple’s founding, there were nine dragons living in a pond on the grounds. Jajang attempted to make them leave so he could build the temple by reciting Buddhist scriptures. After they refused, and his previous attempt failed, Jajang inscribed the Chinese character for fire on a sheet of paper and tossed it in the air. He did this while splashing his long walking stick in the pond. The pond water began to boil. Unable to endure the heat, three dragons attempted to escape, but were too disoriented to do so; instead, they died by crashing into a cliff called Yonghyeolam (Dragon Blood Rock). An additional five dragons flew southwest towards a valley now called Oryong-gol (Five Dragon Valley). The final dragon of the lot, blinded by the boiling water, vowed to Jajang, if the monk spared his life, that the dragon would stay in the pond and protect the temple forever. Granting this wish, the dragon became the protector of Tongdosa Temple. And the Nine Dragons Pond, or “Guryong-ji,” in Korean, still remains to this day to the left of the main hall.

From its very creation, Tongdosa Temple thrived throughout its history. From state-sponsored Buddhism to the Confucian led Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Tongdosa Temple has always been at the forefront of Korean Buddhism. Unfortunately, the temple was completely destroyed in 1592 by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War. But in 1645, the temple was reconstructed, including the Daeung-jeon main hall. More recently, the temple has undergone numerous renovations and rebuilds including the new temple museum which houses several of the temple’s treasures.

Tongdosa Temple is known as one of the three Korean jewel temples (삼보사찰) alongside Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do and Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do. Specifically, Tongdosa Temple represents the “Bul” (Buddha) aspect of the three jewels. This focuses on the very spirit of the Buddha.

In total, there are nineteen associated hermitages spread throughout the Tongdosa Temple grounds. It also houses one national treasure, National Treasure #290, which just so happens to be the Daeung-jeon main hall and Ordination Platform (Geumgang Gyedan). It is also home to twenty-two additional treasures spread throughout the grounds, as well as the temple museum. Currently, Tongdosa Temple is attempting to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tongdosa Temple is Korea’s largest temple.

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Tongdosa Temple from the start of the last century.

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An early 20th century picture of the Daeung-jeon main hall at Tongdosa Temple.

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And part of the temple grounds today.

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A look towards the main hall at Tongdosa Temple.

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The Geumgang Gyedan with the Buddha’s remains housed inside the stone lotus bud.

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