Do All Korean Temples Look the Same?

Written by on April 28, 2014 in Travel

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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 websiteDavid 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.

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About the Author

Dale Quarrington

Dale Quarrington has lived in the Busan and Gyeongsangnam-do Province area ever since arriving in Korea in 2003. He’s visited all of the Korean provinces, exploring both the known and unknown temples and hermitages around the Korean peninsula. While he’s not traveling, he enjoys reading books and learning about Korean history.