A view of the main hall at Tongdosa Temple.
I couldn’t have thought of a better temple to first visit than Tongdosa Temple (통도사). It’s situated in Yangsan, just north of Busan. It was the very first place my wife and I had gone on for a date in 2003, and since only being back in Korea (after being away for nearly two years), it was the first temple we wanted to visit. It had only been three days since we had landed, but my wife and I decided to go to Tongdosa Temple with the in-laws. And like the first day I visited it, it still holds that same splendor and magic as the first time I ever saw it.
Tongdosa Temple (“Transmission of the Way Temple”) was first founded in 643 to house the holy relics of the historical Buddha (a bone from his skull, his robe, and his begging bowl). Master Jajang traveled to the temple Yunjisi, in China, where he obtained the relics of the historical Buddha. Tongdosa Temple is one of the three Korean treasure temples: the others being Haeinsa Temple and Songgwangsa Temple. Tongdosa Temple is the bul (Buddha) temple, which focuses on the spirit of the Buddha. Presently, Tongdosa Temple houses some three dozen temples and there are 19 associated hermitages in the neighbouring grounds.
When you first approach Tongdosa Temple, you’ll first notice ancient graffiti on the rock faces. As you continue to walk, you’ll first pass through a beautifully built four-post Iljumun gate. To the right are numerous stupa headstones honouring monks that resided and died at the temple. With so many stupas, it’s clear just how ancient the temple is. Continuing along, strolling beside a lazy stream, you’ll next pass by two beautiful bridges to your left and the two temple museums to your right. The one that contains all the temple’s ancient paintings is big and beautiful with numerous stone statues out in front. The stone statues and priceless artifacts are housed in the neighbouring museum next to the newer and bigger art museum. Next, you’ll approach Sacheongwang-mun gate, which houses the four fierce Heavenly Kings. Passing through this gate, you’ll enter into the outer courtyard of the temple. In this courtyard, you’ll be able to visit the two storied bell pavilion, and numerous halls for various Buddha’s such as Geungnak-jeon, which is dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of Compassion). On the backside of this hall is a beautiful, and fading, painting of the wisdom dragon ship that brings people to the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Also in this area is Yaksa-jeon, which is a hall dedicated to Yaksa-bul (The Buddha of Medicine).
Passing through Bulimun gate, which is a gate that represents the division between the worldly and the spiritual realms, you’ll enter the inner courtyard and the spiritual realm of the temple. In the upper courtyard there are beautiful halls dedicated to even more Buddhas and Bodhisattavas. The halls to your right are dedicated to the white Buddha Mireuk-bul (The Buddha of Future Salvation), and behind this hall is a hall dedicated to Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Cosmic Light). Interestingly, the building that houses Biro Bul is believed to be the oldest wooden structure at the temple. And in front of Mireuk-jeon is a unique stone structure. A lot of people misinterpret what this stone structure is supposed to represent. Some believe it to be a pagoda, while others believe it to be a lantern. In actual fact, the stone structure is an alms bowl on a pedestal. This may seem strange at first, but the close proximity of the alms bowl to the Mireuk-jeon hall is a give away to its identity. The offering inside the alms bowl is to make ready and express the wishes for the Future Buddha’s coming. And since Mireuk-bul is the Future Buddha, the stone alms offering are to be offered to him when he returns in 5.67 billion years. As you walk from Mireuk-jeon to Daejeonkgwang-jeon, look around at the exterior of the buildings to see some of the most beautiful paintings at any temple in Korea, like the tiger and Biseon paintings.
Walking through the inner courtyard that houses an ancient stone lantern and stone pagoda, you’ll notice the weather worn brown main hall, Geumgang Daeung-jeon. Uniquely, this crowning structure does not face the front of the temple; instead, it faces to the south. And just as unique, the main altar houses no statues of the Buddha. Instead, behind the hall is Geumgang Gyedan, which houses the remains of Seokgomani-bul (The Historical Buddha). Because the temple houses the relics of the Historical Buddha, and there is a window that looks out onto the remains of the Buddha, there are no statues of the Buddha. Geumgang Gyedan is a two level square of stone. In the middle sits a stone carved lotus bud which supports the bell shaped sari budo (stupa). This stupa is the focal point of the entire temple, and it’s also probably the busiest place at the temple.
In front of this beautiful squared stoned altar that houses the remains of the Buddha is a shrine hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). To the immediate left of the Buddha’s remains is a shrine hall dedicated to Sanshin. Interestingly, there is a pond with a fascinating history. The story goes that in the pond, Guryong Shinji (“Nine Dragons Sacred Pool”), monk Jajang found nine dragons inhabiting a pond on the Tongdosa Temple grounds. In order to create the temple, he had to drive the dragons off the grounds. One dragon begged to stay in order to protect the temple from evil spirits. To house the dragon, the pool was dug for him to inhabit and protect the temple. Beside this pool is the hall dedicated to the Nahan (The Disciples of the Historical Buddha). As you can tell, there is a lot to see and experience at Tongdosa Temple!
HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Tongdosa, you can take an intercity bus from Busan, Eonyang or Ulsan. Specifically from Busan, you can take a bus or subway to Nopo-dong Intercity Bus Terminal. There, you can get a ticket for Tongdosa Temple. It leaves every 20 minutes. And if you leave from Yangsan Intercity Bus Terminal, the city where Tongdosa Temple is situated, you’ll have to make your way across the street from the terminal towards the Emart. From Emart, you can catch city bus #63 or 67. Once you arrive near Tongdosa Temple, and facing the very small bus terminal, you should walk left and then turn right at the first corner. The temple entrance is past the numerous restaurants and shops. Walk up a 1.5 km path, sprinkled with ancient graffiti, and you will eventually arrive at the outskirts of the temple grounds. Admission for adults is 3,000 won.
OVERALL RATING: 10/10. It is what you imagine when you think of the beauty of Korean temples. It has numerous buildings to view, dedicated to an equal amount of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It also has beautiful artwork on the buildings, as well as the partial remains of the Historical Buddha. For all these reasons it’s a must see for Korean temples!