Tongdosa Temple – 통도사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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A view of the main hall at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Everyone!!

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!

For more on 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.

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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!

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This is the first entrance gate that welcomes you to Tongdosa Temple.
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The creek that leads into Tongdosa Temple, with the first entrance gate to the right.
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The numerous monk headstones at Tongdosa Temple.
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The Chinese inscription on the first gate. It reads: Buddha taught two different books in this temple where it has three different schools in these crowded woods.
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The first, of many, gorgeous bridges spanning the creek that leads into Tongdosa Temple.
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The Heavenly Kings gate: the second gate leading into Tongdosa Temple.
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Inside the grounds of Tongdosa Temple.  On the left is the bell tower.
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A closer look at the beautiful bronze bell.
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A view of the lower courtyard at Tongdosa Temple.
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On the backside of Geungnak-jeon, which is dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light) is a beautiful, but fading, painting of the wisdom dragon ship that brings people to the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
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An ancient pagoda.
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The third, and final, entrance gate.  Through this gate one sheds all earthly desires and enters into the spiritual.  It is ornately decorated.
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A very Korean sign adorning the final gate.
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A decorative tiger on the inside of the final gate.
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And next to Mireuk-jeon hall is this uniquely painted tiger.
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The main temple hall at Tongdosa Temple: Geumggang Daeung-jeon (Diamond Great Excellence Hall).
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Another view of the main hall.
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Another beautiful view of the unique main hall at Tongdosa Temple.
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To the side of the main hall is this pool:  Guryong Shinji (“Nine Dragons Sacred Pool”) that houses the protective dragon.
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A view across the main hall with the pink paper lanterns adorning it.
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 A view into the Geumgang Gyedan Sari Budo, where the Buddha’s remains are housed inside stone lotus bud.
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A better look at Geumgang Gyedon with the Sari Budo that houses the historical Buddha’s earthly remains.
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A closer look at the stone lotus bud in black and white.
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A look at the surrounding mountainside and the dorms for monks at Tongdosa Temple.
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A winding walk-way that leads back to the neighbouring hermitages that are associated with Tongdosa Temple (more to come in future blogs).
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Another gorgeous bridge that spans the Tongdosa Temple creek.


26 thoughts on “Tongdosa Temple – 통도사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

  1. Tongdosa is my favorite temple too!! What a unique and beautiful temple. I’m just getting back from a tour of Korea that focused strongly on Buddhism; your blog is a phenomenal reminder of all the greatness Korea has to offer! What a beautiful country, eh? Your blog captures it wonderfully. Thanks so much for all that you do to share Korean Buddhism with the world!

  2. My wife and I discovered your site whilst preparing for a cruise in April which includes a one day stop at Busan (from 8am to 6pm). Your descriptions of the various temples together with your pictures are really helpful in getting a feel for what the place has to offer. One of the temples on our list of possible places to visit is Tongdosa Temple, could you please advise us if it is practicable to consider visiting this temple given the short duration of our stay and let us know how we would get there from the Cruise port by public transport?

  3. Hello Barry, I’m glad to hear that the new website is being helpful. Hope you enjoy the new design.

    As for getting to Tongdosa from the Busan port, I’m not sure there is a bus that directly goes from one destination to the other. Instead, the best solution would be to get on the subway and head towards Nopo-dong subway stop, where you can catch a bus to Tongdosa.

    All toll, this trip, one way, would probably take about two hours (minimum). So of your ten hours in Busan, you would probably spend four hours of that time simply travelling. I’m not sure if Tongdosa is your only destination, but if it isn’t, I would suggest other temples, as Tongdosa isn’t actually in Busan.

    I hope that helps. And enjoy your time in Busan!

  4. Thanks very much for your help. We are extremely impressed with the speed as well as the content of your reply. Given your information about the lengthy time travelling to Tongdosa we think perhaps we could forget that idea and visit Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in the morning and Beomeosa Temple in the afternoon. Do you think that is “do-able” without tiring ourselves out or risking missing the liner when she leaves Busan?

  5. I think both Haedong Yonggungsa Temple and Beomeosa Temple are do-able in one day; but depending on what transportation you’re taking, it might be tight.

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    • Thanks! They used to run a templestay program at Tongdosa, but I don’t believe they do any longer for foreigners. I believe they still run one for Koreans.

  8. Hi Dale,
    I have really enjoyed your web site the past few years, especially the beautiful photographs. I am in the process of writing a book on the major Korean temples of South Korea (about 50 in all) that will provide a useful summary of the history and cultural/architectural significance of each temple plus selected photographs. I have visited many of the temples myself, but was not able to always take good photos due to poor weather, inadequate equipment etc. I am asking permission to use some of your photos for the following temples: Donghak-sa, Eunhae-sa, Gap-sa, Gogul-sa, Pyochung-sa, Sinheung-sa, Songgwang-sa, Ssanggye-sa, Tongdo-sa, Unmun-sa, and Yongju-sa. Of course, I will provide full credit to you and your web site.

    • Hello Laren,

      Could you tell me more about your project before I say yes or no. Perhaps you could email so we could privately discuss it a bit more.


  9. Hi I have just found your video and photos of Tongdosa temple. My sister and iI were living in Japan in the early Seventies. We had come to Busan by overnight ferry and stayed at a Youth hostel . I wrote up that part of my story on my computer a few years back. Now I have Sway and am trying it out. I have added your video to my story. and other pictures to my story.. I thought I would let you know. This is for my own pleasure. I hope this is all right with you. Best wishes Rita Cobb

      • Hi Barry. All of a sudden the liitle video of Tongdosa has disappeared from my Sway story. I hadn’t got round to saving the story. I hope I can get it again. as the atmospere was as I remembered it. Best Wishes Rita

          • Hi Dale sorry i was just looking for a name… It should have been Dale Apologies I am a bit ancient. My letter is here on 7th March. The video of Tongdsoas has nw gone from my has now gone from my story saying….no longer available…… Best wishes Rita (Cobb)

          • Not a problem. I was just a little confused. Hope everything works out.

  10. Hi:
    I want to take the intercity bus at the Busan Central Bus Terminal to get to Tongdosa Temple, Yangsan. How would I purchase at the bus station? Would someone there know English? I did a little research and the only I found is from google maps. It gave me bus 12 to get to Tongdosa Temple Bus Station and bus 11 for going back. Apparently, there is only one bus per day early in the morning for both buses. If that’s the case, I will not make the trip in one day. Can you give me some insights as to how to make a day trip to Tongdosa Temple from Busan?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Hello Lee Ann,

      Good question. First you’ll need to get to Nopo subway station on the first line. From there go out exit 3 to towards the intercity bus terminal. You’ll need to get a bus for Tongdosa Shinpyeong Bus Terminal. To get to the Tongdosa Shinpyeong Bus Terminal, it’ll take 25 minutes. From this new terminal, you’ll need to take the Yangsan city bus called Jisan 1.From the Jisan 1 town bus, it’ll take 13 minutes or 16 stops. The bus stop name is 평산마을회관 Pyungsan maeulhoegwan. From this stop walk towards Tongdosa for 1 km. Hope that helps. Tongdosa is amazing!

      P.s. Bus terminal workees might speak English in Busan.

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