The Korean Pagoda (Part 2)


The ancient pagoda from Singyesa Temple in North Korea.

Hello Again Everyone!!

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

B: The Pagoda Body:

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

C: Finial:

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

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


The extremely ornate finial from Seoknamsa Temple.

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


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

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


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