Colonial Korea: Tongdosa Temple – 통도사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)


Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do as it appeared in 1933.

Hello Again Everyone!!

This week, in the latest installment of the Colonial Korea series, I thought I would focus, instead, on a temple south of the DMZ. So this time, I thought I would focus on the famed Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Rather famously, Tongdosa Temple is part of the three Korean jewel temples (삼보사찰). Tongdosa Temple serves as the “Bul” or Buddha aspect of the three jewels. Tongdosa Temple is joined by Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do and Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do to comprise the three Korean jewel temples.

First founded in 643 A.D. on the southern slopes of the beautiful Mt. Chiseosan, Tongdosa Temple means “Transmission of the Way Temple,” in English. The temple was founded by Jajang-yulsa, and the reason that Tongdosa Temple is the “Bul” component of the three Korean jewel temples revolves around him. After traveling to China to further his Buddhist studies, Jajang-yulsa visited Yunjisi Temple. It was here that he obtained the holy relics of the Buddha. These holy relics included the Buddha’s begging bowl, a portion of his skull, as well as numerous sari (crystallized remains). After returning to the Korean peninsula, and through the support of Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647), Jajang-yulsa helped spread Buddhism throughout the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.). A part of Buddhism’s growth throughout Korea was helped by the establishment of Tongdosa Temple to store the Buddha’s partial remains.

From the very moment Tongdosa Temple was established, it has thrived throughout the centuries and millennia. From state-sponsored Buddhism to the Confucian led Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Tongdosa Temple has always been at the forefront of Korean Buddhism. However, in 1592, and much like the rest of the Korean peninsula, Tongdosa Temple was laid to waste by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War. Finally, in 1645, the temple was reconstructed, including the beautiful Daeung-jeon main hall. In more recent years, Tongdosa Temple has undergone numerous renovations and rebuilds, which includes the new temple museum. Tongdosa Temple is Korea’s largest temple.


The second of two Iljumun Gates at Tongdosa Temple as of 1933.


The stately Cheonwangmun Gate in 1933


The bell pavilion at Tongdosa Temple from 1933


The Yeongsan-jeon Hall in the lower courtyard in 1933.


A closer look at the intricate woodwork adorning the Yeongsan-jeon Hall.


The compact Yaksa-jeon in 1933.


A better look at the Yaksa-jeon Hall.


The three tier stone pagoda in the lower courtyard in 1916.


The Bulimun Gate in 1933, as you transition to the upper courtyard.


A closer look at the Bulimun Gate.


The highly popular Gwaneum-jeon Hall in 1933.


The stone lantern in front of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall from 1916.


A closer look at the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.


The Seokong from 1917, which purportedly houses some of the Buddha’s relics.


The Eungjin-jeon Hall in 1933.


The Eungjin-jeon Hall up close.


The famed Daeung-jeon main hall in 1933.


A look at one of the entrances of the Daeung-jeon Hall.


Some of the beautiful latticework that adorns the Daeung-jeon Hall.


A look around the eaves of the Daeung-jeon Hall.


And a look inside the Daeung-jeon.


How the second of two Iljumun Gates looks today.


The view from the Geukrak-jeon towards the Cheonwangmun Gate.


A look towards the temple’s bell pavilion.


The view of the three story stone pagoda and the Yeongsan-jeon Hall backing it.


The Yaksa-jeon Hall as it looks in 2015.


The back of the Gwaneum-jeon with the Seokong behind it. The Bulimun Gate lies in the background.


Both the Daeung-jeon Hall (right) and the Eungjin-jeon (left) together.


The view from the left of the main hall.

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.