The Story Of…All Korean Temples Look the Same

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Just one of the scenic views at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone,

I thought I would finally write an opinion piece about Korean temples. In particular, I’d like to address a statement that has often been leveled at temples by expats in Korea. So without further ado, here it goes.

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The colourful Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

From time to time, whether it’s in person, on the internet, or through the blogosphere, I’ll hear or read the comment: all Korean temples look the same. But to make an analogy, that would be like going to an art gallery to see a painting by Van Gogh, only to close your eyes right before seeing it. And then, once you’ve closed your eyes, complain that all Van Gogh’s paintings look the same. There are subtle, and not so subtle, differences between temples. And sometimes, someone just needs to look to locate these differences. Perhaps you’ll have to educate yourself on these differences; but trust me, the differences are there waiting to be seen.

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The ocean-side temple in Busan: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

I guess the first response I would make is that you don’t know what you’re talking about, if you say all temples are the same. And my second response would be that you should educate yourself on the topic before coming up with such an opinion.

While there isn’t all that much out there on Korean Buddhism, at least in English, there’s enough. Also, there’s a lot of material out there in books and on the internet about Buddhism in general to answer a lot of the questions that might come up. Besides, my website, David Mason’s amazing website, and in part, the Korean government website, there should be more than enough material to educate an individual that simply shrugs off the supposed similarities between temples.

For arguments sake, I thought I would point out three examples about the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between temples here in Korea.

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A look at the Geumgang Gyedan at Tongdosa Temple.

The first comes from the main hall at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. If you’ve ever been, you’ll have noticed that there aren’t any Buddha or Bodhisattva statues on the main altar. Instead, there’s only a window that looks out onto a stone courtyard. To the uneducated, or uninitiated, this looks nothing more than a stone courtyard with some nice scenery and a rather strange window. But what this stone courtyard, the Geumgang Gyedan (Diamond Altar), houses are the partial remains of the historical Buddha. And the reason there are no statues on the main altar, which symbolize the presence of various Buddhist figures, is that the actual Buddha is housed just outside the window at Tongdosa Temple.

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The four-pillared Iljumun Gate at Beomeosa Temple.

Another example are the gates that you pass through on your way to a large temple’s courtyard. Perhaps some of the most beautiful gates at any temple in Korea can be found at Beomeosa Temple in Busan. To someone that simply doesn’t know, they are either artistically beautiful, or simply not noticed. In actual fact, the first of these gates is called the Iljumun Gate. The two to four pillared gate embodies an idea of the Buddha Dharma. When you look at the pillars in a row, they actually appear as one. This shows that things aren’t always what they seem. And this is symbolic because it’s the first step towards enlightenment.

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One of the fierce-looking Heavenly Kings inside the Cheonwangmun Gate at Naesosa Temple.

The second gate, the Cheonwangmun Gate, houses four Heavenly Kings. The purpose of this gate, and its four occupants, is to protect Buddhism and the Buddha’s teachings. The four Heavenly Kings’ ferocious looks aid in the suppression of unruly spirits. Their intensity also helps focus the mind of a temple visitor. So their ferocious expressions encourage people to bow to them, and to rid a visitor’s mind of bad thoughts. A great example of this gate can be found at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

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A look through the Bulimun Gate at Tongdosa Temple.

The third gate is the Bulimun Gate. This gate, in English, is known as the Gate of Non-Duality. This idea refers to a central belief in Buddhism; namely, that all things are one. That things like good and evil are not two separate ideas; but instead, they are one. By freeing ourselves of this binary discriminatory worldview, we rid ourselves of our ego and the selfishness that comes as a result of it. Instead, everything, and everyone, is one. So while beautiful in artistic design, these gates are packed full of meaning.

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The highly elaborate and original Sanshin mural at Daeheungsa Temple.

The third, and final example, are the Sanshin Taenghwa paintings that you can usually find either in the Samseong-gak or the Sanshin-gak halls. Sanshin, who is known as the Mountain Spirit, in English, can literally take on thousands of different forms. Almost no painting is identical. Instead, there are some obvious and not so obvious differences between paintings. In general, Sanshin is usually seated. He’s an older looking man with white flowing hair and beard that still looks full of life, even at his more advanced age. He’s situated in a beautiful scenic setting that is perfect for meditation. He’s joined on this outcropping by a beautiful twisted red pine that is indigenous to Korea, much like the indigenous shaman origins of Sanshin. He’s sometimes joined by one, two, or several attendants called “dongja.” The clothes that he wears can be Buddhist, Confucian, or Daoist in appearance. Almost always, he possesses something in one or both of his hands like a fan or a walking stick which symbolize health, longevity, virility, scholastics, or spiritual attainment. One of the easiest ways to identify Sanshin is that he’s always accompanied by at least one tiger. The reason that the tiger is there is that it’s the king of the mountain animals and the enforcer of Sanshin. Occasionally, Sanshin will be joined by a female figure. Also, Sanshin can be female. The variations are really limitless. In total, I have around 200 Sanshin paintings, and not one is the same as another. Some are noticeable, and others, you have to look a little closer.

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A female Sanshin at Ssangyesa Temple.

As you can see through these three simple examples, there is a world of differences that can be found in the smallest of details at a Korean temple. So much about a temple is packed with meaning. So before you say the words, “All temples look the same,” you really should educate yourself on the differences that can be found at the thousands of temples throughout the Korean peninsula. They can be seen in halls, paintings, statues, pagodas, and various structures. So the argument quickly becomes: if you’re willing to learn, the material is out there for you to learn. Otherwise, you have no excuse to make the ridiculous claim that all Korean temples look the same.

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A beautiful pink lotus flower at Gakwonsa Temple.

The Story of…Samyeongam Hermitage

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 The front facade to Samyeongam Hermitage at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

There are just so many beautiful and well kept hermitages at Tongdosa Temple. In this case, the Story Of… discusses Samyeongam Hermitage, which is part of a collection of hermitages that surrounds Tongdosa Temple.

When I first visited Samyeongam Hermitage back in 2004, I was blown away by its beauty. I’ve been to my fair share of smaller sized hermitages associated with much larger temples, but Samyeongam Hermitage surpasses most of them. With the twin Koi ponds out in front of the elevated hermitage courtyard, as well as the two pavilions that stretch out over these ponds and the mountains that frame Samyeongam Hermitage, and this hermitage has both natural and artificial beauty.

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 The beautiful pavilion that overlooks the equally beautiful Koi pond.

This beauty is re-affirmed to me each of the handful of times that I’ve re-visited the hermitage throughout the years. But the most memorable moment came in 2012, when I was out taking pictures of the hermitage’s courtyard. The head monk at the hermitage noticed me as he came out of the monks’ quarters. With a passing smile between us, he continued on his way, and I on mine. I continued onto the main hall, where I took some pictures inside the hall while there were no visitors. The head monk noticed this and nicely told me that I should hurry because his morning prayer service was about to start. After that, he disappeared for a bit.

Wanting to get a few more pictures from the hermitage’s courtyard, and down onto the twin Koi ponds, I hovered around one of the pavilions. Suddenly, the window to one of the monks’ quarters swung open. It just so happened to be the head monk, again, holding out a bowl of peanuts for my wife and I. After we took the bowl, he reached down and grabbed some bread, as well. He then motioned us towards the pavilion to enjoy the view and enjoy what he had given us. He then said that if we were still around after the hour long morning prayer, he would like to join us. Unfortunately, we already had plans; otherwise, I’m sure it would have been yet another great conversation with a Korean Buddhist monk.

It’s kind of funny that you set off in exploring a Korean temple or hermitage and you end up eating a bowl of peanuts provided to you by the head monk of a hermitage.

For more information on Samyeongam Hermitage.

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 The view from the restive pavilion. 

Banyaam Hermitage – 반야암 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

Picture 441The picturesque main hall, Banyabo-jeon, at Banyaam Hermitage at Tongdosa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

After visiting Seokbulsa Temple, and after dropping off the in-laws, my wife and I decided to visit one of the last hermitages we had yet to visit at the Tongdosa Temple complex: Banyaam Hermitage (반야암). Well actually, I’m lying a bit when I say that we haven’t visited Banyaam Hermitage before. We last visited Banyaam Hermitage in the winter of 2006. But we both figured that the hermitage would look a whole lot better during the summertime.  So off we went to Banyaam Hermitage!

Banyaam Hermitage is the merging of two words into one. “Banya” in Sanskrit is prajna. Prajna means wisdom or enlightenment, while “am” means hermitage. And these two words together mean wisdom or enlightenment hermitage. Banyaam Hermitage is a smaller sized hermitage at Tongdosa Temple.  It was built by monk Ji-an in 1999. Banyaam Hermitage is beautifully situated surrounded by a vibrant forest and towering mountains.  And the tablet that hangs at the main hall was written by the founding monk, Ji-an.

As you first approach the temple, you’ll first be greeted by a lion based stone lantern and a sign, written in Chinese characters, that reads Banyaam Hermitage. To the right is a serenely placed meditation pavilion next to a quiet stream. You can get to the other side of the stream by taking the hanging bridge. From either side of the banks, you can take some beautiful pictures of the stream, mountains, or lush forest around you. Walking your way up from the stream, you’ll notice three main buildings at the hermitage: the monk dorm, the main hall, and the study hall. The monk dorm isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing with the concrete base that surrounds it; however, there are a couple cute paintings of children monks playing on the exterior of the building.  To the right of the main hall is a non-descript study hall.  But making up for all this lack of appeal is the beautiful main hall and the beautifully manicured grounds at the hermitage. As you approach Banyabo-jeon, the main hall at the hermitage, you’ll see a beautiful lotus pond with a dharma playing on the rocks under a tree.  Next to the dancing dharma are several beautiful lotus pots containing some of the most colourful purple, pink, and white lotuses in all of Korea. Up the stone stairs, you’ll be greeted by a Chinese charactered tablet that adorns the entrance of the main hall. The exterior of the hall has the customary Palsang-do paintings of the Buddha’s earthly life, as well as paintings depicting the rearing of a child by his mother (which I’ve only seen at Biroam Hermitage). What really stood out about the exterior of this hermitage, as I walked around it, were the beautifully coloured and detailed dragon heads that protrude out from the depths of the main hall walls.  Behind the main hall, and on a ridge, is a newer looking pagoda.

Inside the main hall, you’ll be greeted by a triad of a Buddha and Bodhisattvas: Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light), Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion), and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). All three are beautifully rendered, with an accompanying four-tiered crystal lotus statue to the right. The ceiling and beams of the main hall are painted with ornate likenesses of dragons, phoenixes, and cranes. One of the more impressive features of the interior of the main hall are paintings of the Dharma, Buddha, and saints. And all these paintings are joined with Korean writing giving the names of the associated Dharma, Buddha, or saint. So if you can read Korean, you can know who exactly all those individuals are at all the other temples and hermitages you visit. There are also the accompanying tails, of the former heads of the dragons, protruding into the interior of the main hall. Lastly, there is a really descriptive guardian painting centred by Dongjin-bosal. You can identify him because he wears a helmet with wings on it.  He’s the protector of the Buddha’s teachings. And that’s why he’s almost always situated inside the main hall of a hermitage or temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll have to get to Yangsan; and more specifically, Tongdosa Temple. To get to Tongdosa Temple, 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.  Once you arrive in Yangsan, 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. From Tongdosa Temple, you’ll have to continue up the main road for another 700 metres until you come to a fork in the road.  Instead of heading straight, turn right and continue heading in that direction for 1.2 kilometres.  There are a cluster of hermitages. Find the sign that reads Banyaam Hermitage -반야암- and continue heading to the right in that direction until you arrive at the hermitage.

View 반야암 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING:  6/10. Banyaam Hermitage is rated slightly higher than the neighbouring Seochukam Hermitage simply because of the beautiful stream and meditation pavilion as well as the colourful main hall. Otherwise, it’s situated near the same towering moutains and lush forest. The highlights of this hermitage are the lotus ponds and pots, the named saints on the eaves of the interior of the main hall, as well as the four-tiered crystal lotus statue to the right of the triad of Amita-bul and the Bodhisattvas. If you have the time, and you’re visiting a couple of the hermitages at Tongdosa Temple, I would definitely rate Banyaam Hermitage as one of the more beautiful hermitages in the area.

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The road that leads into Banyaam Hermitage, and the beautiful view that awaits you!
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The lion-based stone lantern is the first thing to greet you as you approach the hermitage.
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The study hall at the hermitage.
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And the child-like monks that adorn the exterior of this hall.
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A view of the main hall with the monks dorms off in the distance, and the towering mountains framing them all.
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A view up at Banyabo-jeon, the colourful main hall at the hermitage.
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A better look at the intricate exterior of the main hall and the name tablet written by the founding monk, Ji-an.
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A unique mural on the exterior of the main hall. I’ve only ever seen it at the neighbouring Biroam Hermitage. In it the child is being raised by his mother.
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Off the child goes into the world leaving his mother behind.
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Only to return later when they’re both older.
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A beautiful view of Korean nature at its finest!
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The main altar inside Banyabo-jeon. In the centre is Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light). On his left is Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), and on the right is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This triad is very common in Korean main halls.
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What is not as common is this beautiful four-tiered crystal lotus statue.
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Up in the eaves were paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and saints. On the left is the Dharma, and on the right is Hyega Daesa (A saint whose job it is to make you laugh).
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An ornately painted twin pair of dragons, painted on the beams of the main hall, with red pearls near their mouths.
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And an equally beautiful phoenix that is painted on a beam inside the main hall.
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Just outside the main hall, on the well manicured grounds, is a lotus pond with a dancing Dharma under the shade of a tree.
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 Next to this lotus pond were several potted lotus flowers. They were some of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen in my life!
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 Another with a yellow sunset inside.
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The meditative pavilion that sits next to a quiet stream.
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The suspended bridge that spans the stream.
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A different look at the beautiful stream.
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One last look up the wandering stream as it makes its way down the valley.

Anyangam Hermitage – 안양암 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

Picture 663The foggy view from Anyangam Hermitage.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Yesterday, we weren’t planning on much after visiting Sinheungsa Temple besides visiting the in-laws. However, the visit to the in-laws quickly turned into a whirlwind temple tour.  In all, after Sinheungsa Temple, we visited three more temples and hermitages. After visiting Tongdosa Temple, we visited another smaller hermitage called Anyangam Hermitage (안양암). It’s on the Tongdosa Temple grounds, like so many other temples and hermitages in the area. I hadn’t been to Anyangam Hermitage in about seven years, and had wanted to go for some time.  So when my mother-in-law insisted we go, we went.

Anyangam Hermitage was built in 1295 by the Venerable Monk Chanin.  Like the stream beside Jajangam Hermitage, the view from Anyangam Hermitage has been designated one of the eight best scenic sights at Tongdosa Temple.

Anyangam Hermitage is an average sized hermitage for the hermitages associated with Tongdosa Temple. As you approach the hermitage, you walk down a nice mountain-side trail. The views below are amazing, as you stare down into the valley below Chiseosan Mountain. Be careful when walking, because one wrong move and you’re headed down the side of the mountain and a couple hundred metres below. Continuing along the path, you’ll be able to see the tops of the hermitage buildings just over the knoll. To the left is a gathering of rocks with various small Buddhist statues adorning it. There are even more great views of the valley below from this vantage point.  A fog was rolling in over the mountains when we were there, and it was pretty amazing. After you’ve had your fill of photo opportunities from this vantage point, head right, and towards the temple grounds. Uniquely, the hermitage is situated in a bit of a sink-hole. The mountain envelopes the hermitage, and the hermitage is nestled into a seeming hole. Down a row of stairs, you’ll have to step down to get to the hermitage. As you climb down these stairs, you’ll pass by the shrine hall dedicated to San Shin (the Mountain God). The hermitage is compactly situated, with a shrine hall to your immediate left, the monk dorms directly in front of you, and the larger sized main hall to your right. The main hall is dark and cavernous inside with a solitary Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) stoically and solitarily sitting at the altar of the main hall. To have a solitary Buddha figure on the altar of the main hall is an extremely unique feature to a temple or a hermitage. There were a couple interesting paintings adorning the inside of the main hall, but the more amazing paintings lay on the exterior of the hall walls. The paintings depicting the life of the Buddha as well as the ox-herding murals were cartoonish. Also, there were a couple other paintings on the far side of the main hall wall that were unique to the hermitage, like cranes flying with a floating feminine figure in between them. Equally interesting, and beautiful, are the wooden flowers adorning the front doors to the main hall.  They are both colourful and vibrant.

HOW TO GET THERE:  Just like all the other hermitages associated with Tongdosa Temple, you’ll have to first take a bus to Tongdosa Temple. To get to Tongdosa from the Gyeongsangnam-do area, you can take an intercity bus from Busan, Eonyang or Ulsan. And 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.  Once you arrive in Yangsan, 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.  Once you get to the parking lot for Tongdosa Temple, keep walking up the road for cars to the left.  Follow this road for about a kilometre.  Instead of continuing to head straight, like Seounam Hermitage, you’ll hang a right. Heading uphill, you’ll first pass by Sudoam Hermitage. Anyangam Hermitage is just another 500 metres up the road.

Again, you’ll have to pay the 3,000 won entrance fee at the Tongdosa Temple entrance gate, but Anyangam Hermitage, itself, is free of charge.

View 안양암 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 6/10. Just for the views alone of the Chiseosan Mountain range above, and the valley below, this hermitage rates as highly as it does. And while the hermitage itself is rather small and compact, the paintings inside and outside of the main hall add to the depth of this hermitage’s overall score. Furthermore, the uniqueness of having a solitary Seokgamoni-bul on the altar of the main hall only adds to the uniqueness of this beautiful hermitage. If you have the time and energy, add this to the list of things to see while visiting Tongdosa Temple.

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The stone sign that directs you towards Anyangam Hermitage.
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The pebbled path that leads you towards the hermitage.
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Over the rocky knoll is a first look at Anyangam Hermitage.
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And a great view down into the Chiseosan Mountain range and the valley down below.
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Another lookout over the valley below. On top of the large rocks some people have left Buddhist statues and souvenirs.
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A row of baby monks keeping each other company with their backs to the valley and mountains.
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A look up at the shrine hall dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain god).
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A look at the hermitage grounds as you descend down the stairs.
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A better look at one of the prayer halls at the hermitage.
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And the beautiful bell that hangs from its rooftop.
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A look at another prayer hall and the main hall at Anyangam Hermitage.
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A guardian painting inside the main hall.
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The solitary Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) all by his lonesome on the altar in the main hall.
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A statue of Jijang Bosal (The Boddhisattva of the Afterlife) with mural at her back.
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A painting with personality.
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Outside the main hall are these beautiful paintings. These cartoonish paintings of the Buddha’s life are second-to-none.
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Ladies trying to seduce the Buddha. If you look closely at the mirror that the Buddha is holding, you’ll see a demons face, instead of the faces of the beautiful women seductively staring at him.
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A painting filled with meaning. It’s just a meaning I don’t understand!
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One of the more beautiful paintings of a Biseon that I’ve seen adorning the exterior of a main hall.
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As are these ornamental flowers that adorn the front doors of the main hall.

Seochukam Hermitage – 서축암 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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The pagoda and main hall at Seochukam Hermitage in Yangsan.

Hello Again Everyone!

For my birthday, the wife, in-laws, and I all decided to go to a hermitage associated with Tongdosa Temple.  What was the occasion?  You might be asking?  Well, the wife and in-laws decided to treat me to a temple for my birthday.  Seochukam Hermitage (서축암) is a bit different than a traditional temple in that it’s very simplistic.  Also, it is void of any colourful adornment upon its hermitage walls.  But don’t let the colour deceive you, as the architecture and scenery are second to none in Korea. It was a small, quaint, and quiet hermitage off the beaten track.  It’s a bit of a trek for the casual temple seeker, but well worth it to the die-hard temple goers like me.

HOW TO GET THERE:  Seochukam Hermitage is located in Yangsan.  And like Tongdosa Temple, you can take an intercity bus from Busan, Eonyang, or Ulsan.  Once you’ve arrived at Tongdosa, there is a road that leads into the compound grounds.  If you follow this, you will come across quite a few hermitages.  You have to hang a right and follow the road past a couple hermitages.  Winding up and down the road, you will encounter a road that leads off to the left.  Follow this road and you will come to Seochukam Hermitage Hermitage.  In total, the walk can take you several hours, but with a car, just a couple of minutes. Admission to the hermitage is included in the entrance to Tongdosa Temple, which is 3,000 Won.


OVERALL RATING:  5/10.  Seochukam Hermitage is both beautiful in its simplicity and size.  However, because it is difficult to find and get to, it doesn’t rate as highly as its main temple: Tongdosa Temple.  But for the die-hard temple goer, any of the hermitages associated with Tongdosa Temple are well worth the adventure!

The following are a few pictures from our adventures to Seochukam Hermitage.

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The view from the parking lot towards the neighbouring mountains and the entrance gate to Seochukam Hermitage.
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 A better view.
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The main entrance gate, which you can’t actually enter.  The entrance to the hermitage grounds is actually just to the left of this main entrance gate.
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A close-up of the beautiful wood-work on the entrance gate.
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The beautiful mountains with a small taste of Korean traditional architecture.
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 One of the two dorms at the hermitage.
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The frozen water fountain.  How, might you ask, did I know it was frozen.  Well, the next picture gives that question away.
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Somehow, I think someone forgot to take out the pink bowl from the water fountain before it froze over.  Good luck getting a drink from that.
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Buddha basking in the sunshine.
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Another view of the courtyard.  This time, it’s from the main temple hall.
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A view of the two stone lanterns at the hermitage.
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A view along the main temple hall.  The wood-work adorning the hermitage are gorgeous.
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A view inside the main temple hall.  There were people praying inside, so I never like to disturb them.  Instead, I took a picture inside of the main hall without the flash.
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Another look at the pagoda and the main temple hall.  In total, there are only 5 buildings at this hermitage, compared to the 60 or so at Tongdosa Temple.
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One last look back at Seochukam Hermitage before we left.

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!

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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.
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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.