The Stupa – Budo (부도)


An extremely ornate budo from Haeinsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

When you first enter a Korean temple or hermitage you might see a row of strangely designed stone markers that somewhat resemble headstones. These stupa, or “budo” in Korean, can also be found at the rear of a temple complex. So what exactly do they look like? Who are they for? And what is the meaning behind them?

In Buddhism, a pagoda historically enshrined the remains of the Buddha. However, in Korea, a budo contains the remains of a monk or nun. So when you see a budo at a temple or hermitage that you’re visiting, that budo houses the remains of a monk or nun that lived and practiced there at that temple.

These budo are sometimes large and elegantly designed, but most in Korea are usually simple and modest. Whatever the design may be, they are symbolic of the monk or nun whose remains are housed inside it.


A monk graveyard from Seoknamsa Temple with a relatively simplistic budo in the centre.

Most budo have five geometric shapes that make up their design: the square, the circle, the triangle, the crescent, and the diamond shape. Each has symbolic meaning, but before we can explore the hidden meaning behind these geometric shapes, the Buddhist idea of life and death must first be explored.

In Buddhsim, the idea of life and death are explained through the theory of “co-dependent arising.” This theory states that all things are dependent on various conditions. And what these casual conditions are, are completely dependent. To put it simply, all things in the world, including human beings, are made up of separate and unique elements. This theory is based on the Buddhist principle of “non-permanence” and “no self.” All these ideas have something in common: they espouse the concept that all states of things are subject to constant change such as birth and death.


This rather stout budo (centre left) is near the entrance of Beopjusa Temple.


This pair of budos in the foreground are from Eunhaesa Temple as you approach the temple compound.

So what then are these elements of change that make up the human condition? There are four elements in total; these elements are earth, water, fire, and wind. When the conditions of our existence change our body dies and the components of our condition disintegrate back into the four elements. Beyond the human condition, all four of these elements are present in all things. There is nothing that exists that doesn’t have some combination of these things. A fifth element, space, is often added to the four other elements. This results in the term “The five elements.”

The geometric shapes that make up a budo are symbols of the five elements. The square base is symbolic of the earth. The circular body represents water, while the triangle roof stands for fire. The crescent-shaped, and upturned flower on top of the budo, is a symbol for the wind. Finally, the solid diamond-shaped object at the top of the budo symbolizes space. The budo is symbolic of the five elements and the ongoing process of life and death and the process of non-permanence that resides in us all. Ulimately, the budo is a reminder to the living of the inevitability that awaits us all.

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One more budo from Seoknamsa Temple. This budo is dedicated to the founding monk Master Doui.

It’s truly amazing the amount of symbolism that’s packed into a modest looking budo at Korean Buddhist temples and hermitages. In fact, I would have to say that they are amongst the richest symbolic objects to be found at a temple. They simplistically reveal the ever changing condition of the human body that’s at the very core of all our existence. So with a humble heart and a respectful mind explore these lesser looked at stone objects at temples and hermitages throughout Korea.

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