The Korean Pagoda (Part 3)


The extremely ornate pagoda from Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Another interesting aspect to the Korean pagoda is the varying number of tiers that make up the height of the pagoda. And like all things related to the pagoda, the tiers also have a lot of symbolic meaning attached to them.

First, it must be stated that hardly any Korean pagodas have an even amount of tiers to its height like two, four, six, or eight tiers. They almost always have either three, five, seven, or nine tiers.


The three tiered pagoda from Unmunsa Temple.


A gorgeous lion-based three tiered pagoda from Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

Like all things historic, this meaning comes from the past. The reason why Korean pagoda tiers are oddly numbered comes from the East Asian worldview of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements Theory and not so much from Buddhist doctrinal thought. Traditionally, Asian thoughts were strongly influenced by the idea that heaven and humans were interconnected. An example is a thing like a natural disaster could result in good or bad luck for human society, as well. So those that could harness the power of natural laws were also believed to be equal with Heaven and Earth and could wield cosmic laws and principles. More specifically, Koreans attempted to strive to do this in their daily lives. And one way they attempted to do this was related to numbers, which were believed to correspond to cosmic principles. The numbers related to Heaven and Earth begin at one and end at ten: one, three, five, seven, and nine are Yang (hot, male, light), with nine being the culmination of the Yang principle. On the other hand, the even numbers of two, four, six, eight, and ten are Yin (cold, female, dark), with ten being the culmination of the Yin principle. Yang (the odd numbers) is considered to be above, in front of, or higher in human affairs; as a result, they are associated with the noble, respected, auspicious, and good fortune. Conversely, Yin (the even numbers) are seen as below, behind, and beneath. And in human affairs they are thought to be lowly, debased, inauspicious, and calamitous. With all this in mind, it’s obvious why the builders of pagodas would want the tiers of the pagoda to be even. That way, the pagoda could act as a symbol of things that were good and favorable.


And another five tiered pagoda from Geumsuam Hermitage.

More specifically, each of the Yang numbers, the odd numbers, has an individual meaning. The number three embodies the idea of completeness, and it’s considered as an auspicious number. The number five, on the other hand, is a mid-point number between one and ten; as a result, the number five is described as the “heavenly position.” Additionally, the number five is symbolic of the five elemental forces of fire, water, earth, metal, and wind. The number seven symbolizes heaven, earth, and humanity. It’s also used to represent the Big Dipper (Seven Stars), which is so prevalent in shaman worship in Korea like in the shaman deity Chilseong. Finally, the number nine is Yang at its fullest. And it’s believed that this number is also behind the “nine celestial bodies.” Nine is also similar in sound with the character meaning “a long time ”or“ long lasting”; as a result, nine is a symbol of nobility and good fortune.

As you can see, Korean pagodas not only have a long history accented by various designs, but the very design itself is packed with a lot of symbolic meaning, some of which is obvious and a lot of which is not so obvious. So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, keep an eye open for the hidden meaning housed in the design of the Korean pagoda.


And lastly, a nine tiered pagoda from Jogyeam Hermitage.

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…


The Korean Pagoda (Part 1)


The very famous Dabotap pagoda from Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the most noticeable, elegant, and beautiful things you will see at a Korean Buddhist temple is the pagoda. The history of the pagoda in Korea is as old as Buddhism is in Korea. And while the pagoda designs are both beautiful and elegant, the meaning of them may not be all that clear to the casual observer. So why are pagodas situated at Korean Buddhist temples, what do they look like, and why are they designed the way they are in Korea?

First, the Korean word for a pagoda is a “tap.” This word is an abbreviation of the word “tapa,” which is just one of the numerous ways that the Chinese translate the Sanskrit “stupa.” The original meaning of the Sanskrit stupa is “burial mound” or “tomb.” So it stands to reason that the very first pagodas were nothing more than mounds of raised earth with the base of the earth having a face of brick or stone surrounding it. As time progressed, and as the Buddhist tradition evolved, the stupa eventually would be topped with a pedestal with a stone peak. Historically, the pagoda was created to house the remains of the Buddha. Presently, and historically throughout Korean history, in the absence of the Buddha’s remains, they would house important artifacts and treasures related to Buddhism.


A black bricked pagoda from Songnimsa Temple.

Like all things in Asian Buddhism, traditions and teachings passed through China, from India, to the rest of the eastern side of the continent. As it did, the earth mounds disappeared, and the Chinese wooden pagoda structure emerged. Sometime in the Three Kingdoms Period in Korea, and with the emigration of all things Buddhist, the wooden structured pagoda found a home in Korea; however, in time, these wooden pagodas became uniquely stone. And while the design of a Korean pagoda has varied through the years, the structural components of the pagoda have remained the same with the base, the body, and the finial.

A: The Pagoda Base:

The base of the Korean pagoda is the lowest part of it. Usually, this is a four sided base that is decorated with a variety of Buddhist imagery. Some of the more common images that are sculpted into the base are the Twelve Spirit Generals, the Eight Dharma Protectors, or the Four Heavenly Kings.

The Four Heavenly Kings are the same Kings that appear in the Cheonwangmun entrance gate. These Four Heavenly Kings are easily recognizable. Damun Cheonwang (Vaisravana in Sanskrit) guards the North. And he’s the one that holds a pagoda in his hand. The second Heavenly King is Jonjang Cheonwang (or Virudhaka in Sanskrit). He holds a sword in his hand and guards the South. Jigook Cheonwang (Dhritarashtra in Sanskrit) holds a lute in his hands and protects the East. The last of the four Heavenly Kings is Gwangmok Cheonwang (Virupaksha in Sanskrit) is the guardian of the West, and he holds a dragon in one hand and a jewel in the other.


A zodiac base from the pagoda at Suwolseonwon Temple in Busan.

The Twelve Spirit Generals, on the other hand, are the exact same as the Chinese zodiac signs: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig. They are most often carved on the four sides of the base. Each side has three images of the zodiac signs like the tiger, dragon, and monkey. The twelve are mostly depicted with a human body dressed in armour or sacerdotal robes, and one of the twelve Chinese zodiac heads. These Twelve Spirit Generals adorn the stone pagoda because they carry out the Twelve Great Vows of Yaksa-bul (The Medicine Buddha), and as such, they protect the dharma as represented through the pagoda.

Finally, the Eight Dharma Protectors can also appear on the base of a Korean pagoda. These Eight Dharma Protectors were once seen as being evil, but they were later converted by the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. These eight are: 1. devas   2. nagas  3. yaksas   4. gandarvas  5. asuras  6. garudas  7. kinnaras  8. mahoragas. The first, Devas, are thought to be celestial beings that can control parts of nature such as fire, wind, or air. The second, Nagas, generally take the form of a great cobra like snake, and they have the power to transform into a human. The third, the Yaksas, are beings with lions on their heads and a rope around their waists. They are ugly, cruel and ghost-like creatures that were believed to fly around at night and bother humans. The fourth, Gandarvas, are figures with a sword in their right hand and a small bottle of perfume in their left. They live off the fragrance of this perfume.


An Asura, on the right, on the base of the pagoda at Gwaneunam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

 The fifth of the eight are Asuras. The Asuras have bird-like heads with three faces as well as six arms. Sometimes, they will appear with a monster mask on the centre of their stomachs. This monster mask symbolizes evil being suppressed.


 A Garuda, on the right, from the base of the pagoda from Gwaneumam Hermitage, as well.

The sixth, the Garudas, are figures with bird-like wings on the outer edges of their ears. In Indian myth, they are the king of the birds. The seventh, the Kinnaras, are long haired beings holding a trident in their left hands. This creature is depicted with a human head and a bird’s body. They are known as heavenly musicians. In some renderings, they are sometimes depicted as playing the drums with both hands, while also playing the flute. The eighth, and final, of the Eight Dharma Protectors are the Mahoragas. They hold a sword in their right hand, while their left palm is slightly crooked in its posture. The Mahoragas are supposed to symbolize the snake spirit as it has a human body and a snake’s head that slithers on the ground.

Anyone of these three groups of beings can appear on the base of a Korean pagoda and it’s always interesting to figure out which of the three are being depicted.

To be continued next week….