The extremely ornate pagoda from Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.
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Another interesting aspect to the Korean pagoda is the varying number of tiers that make up the height of the pagoda. And like all things related to the pagoda, the tiers also have a lot of symbolic meaning attached to them.
First, it must be stated that hardly any Korean pagodas have an even amount of tiers to its height like two, four, six, or eight tiers. They almost always have either three, five, seven, or nine tiers.
A gorgeous lion-based three tiered pagoda from Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.
Like all things historic, this meaning comes from the past. The reason why Korean pagoda tiers are oddly numbered comes from the East Asian worldview of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements Theory and not so much from Buddhist doctrinal thought. Traditionally, Asian thoughts were strongly influenced by the idea that heaven and humans were interconnected. An example is a thing like a natural disaster could result in good or bad luck for human society, as well. So those that could harness the power of natural laws were also believed to be equal with Heaven and Earth and could wield cosmic laws and principles. More specifically, Koreans attempted to strive to do this in their daily lives. And one way they attempted to do this was related to numbers, which were believed to correspond to cosmic principles. The numbers related to Heaven and Earth begin at one and end at ten: one, three, five, seven, and nine are Yang (hot, male, light), with nine being the culmination of the Yang principle. On the other hand, the even numbers of two, four, six, eight, and ten are Yin (cold, female, dark), with ten being the culmination of the Yin principle. Yang (the odd numbers) is considered to be above, in front of, or higher in human affairs; as a result, they are associated with the noble, respected, auspicious, and good fortune. Conversely, Yin (the even numbers) are seen as below, behind, and beneath. And in human affairs they are thought to be lowly, debased, inauspicious, and calamitous. With all this in mind, it’s obvious why the builders of pagodas would want the tiers of the pagoda to be even. That way, the pagoda could act as a symbol of things that were good and favorable.
And another five tiered pagoda from Geumsuam Hermitage.
More specifically, each of the Yang numbers, the odd numbers, has an individual meaning. The number three embodies the idea of completeness, and it’s considered as an auspicious number. The number five, on the other hand, is a mid-point number between one and ten; as a result, the number five is described as the “heavenly position.” Additionally, the number five is symbolic of the five elemental forces of fire, water, earth, metal, and wind. The number seven symbolizes heaven, earth, and humanity. It’s also used to represent the Big Dipper (Seven Stars), which is so prevalent in shaman worship in Korea like in the shaman deity Chilseong. Finally, the number nine is Yang at its fullest. And it’s believed that this number is also behind the “nine celestial bodies.” Nine is also similar in sound with the character meaning “a long time ”or“ long lasting”; as a result, nine is a symbol of nobility and good fortune.
As you can see, Korean pagodas not only have a long history accented by various designs, but the very design itself is packed with a lot of symbolic meaning, some of which is obvious and a lot of which is not so obvious. So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, keep an eye open for the hidden meaning housed in the design of the Korean pagoda.