Gyeongsangnam-do

Tongdosa Temple – 통도사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

The Buddha’s Remains at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Much like my first post nearly ten years ago now, the famous Tongdosa Temple will be my very first blog post on my very new website. Once again, I’d like to thank you all for sticking with me all these years. And without further ado, here’s Tongdosa Temple!

Tongdosa Temple, which is located in northern Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do, is the largest temple in all of Korea with twenty hermitages spread throughout its vast grounds. Tongdosa Temple means “Passing Through to Enlightenment Temple,” in English. Tongdosa Temple was first founded in 646 A.D. by the famed monk Jajang-yulsa (590-658 A.D.). According to the “Tongdosa-sarigasa-sajeok-yannok,” the temple site was originally a large pond, but it was covered over by landfill so as to allow for Tongdosa Temple to be built. Also, according to the “Tongdosa-yakji,” the name of Mt. Yeongchuksan, which is where Tongdosa Temple is located, the mountain was named after the mountain in India where the Buddha (Seokgamoni-bul) gave his dharma talks. Mt. Yeongchuksan had the same rocky appearance as the original in India. So using Chinese characters (Hanja), the mountain was called Yeongchuksan.

According to the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), Jajang-yulsa founded Tongdosa Temple. Jajang-yulsa traveled to Tang China in 636 A.D. to study alongside ten other monks. Upon his return to Silla on the Korean peninsula, Jajang-yulsa brought with him Buddhist texts and holy relics of the Buddha that were given to him by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) during his travels in Tang China. Besides the Great Tripitaka (a collection of Buddhist sutras, laws, and treatises), Jajang-yulsa also returned to Silla with the Buddha’s (Seokgamoni-bul) robe, alms bowl, a tooth, and a part of his jaw bone. Jajang-yulsa acquired all these items in Tang China in 643 A.D. After its establishment, Tongdosa Temple gradually grew in size and became the centre for Korean Buddhism under the protection of the royal family.

So much of Tongdosa Temple’s history centres on the preservation of the sari of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). At the time of its founding by Jajang-yulsa, Tongdosa Temple had several buildings that surrounded the centrally located Geumgang Gyedan (The Diamond Altar), which housed the sari of the Buddha. Later, in 1085, during the reign of King Seonjong of Goryeo (r. 1083-1095), Tongdosa Temple was greatly expanded. According to the Samguk Yusa, again, Commander Kim Ri-saeng and Sirang Yuseok were commanding the troops on the east side of the Nakdong River under the orders of King Gojong of Goryeo (1213-1259) in 1235. Together, they visited Tongdosa Temple, where they lifted the stone lotus bud at the centre of the Geumgang Gyedan, where the sari of the Buddha are housed. They wanted to pay their respects to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) as devout Buddhists. One of the glass containers inside the stone lotus bud cracked, so Yuseok donated a crystal container he had to help store some of the sari. According to the Samguk Yusa, this was the first time that human hands touched the Buddha’s sari at Tongdosa Temple.

Several other buildings at Tongdosa Temple were built in 1340 and 1369 like the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, the Geukrak-jeon Hall, the Yaksa-jeon Hall, and Hwaeom-jeon Hall. Then, in 1377, when the Japanese trespassed on the temple grounds to steal the sari of the Buddha, Wolsong-daesa, who was the head monk at Tongdosa Temple at that time, hid the sari in safety, concealed from the Japanese. Then, in a second invasion by the Japanese in 1379, Wolsong-daesa took refuge in the capital of Gaegyeong (modern-day Kaeseong, North Korea) with the Buddha’s sari.

During the Imjin War (1592-1598), the sari at Tongdosa Temple were plundered by the Japanese army. However, Grhapati Baegok from Dongnae (in modern-day Busan), who was captured by the Japanese, recovered the sari and escaped to safety with the sari. Afterwards, the famed monk Samyeong-daesa (1544-1610) sent two sari cases to Mt. Geumgangsan (modern-day North Korea). Then, with the Imjin War at an end in 1603, the Geumgang Gyedan (Diamond Altar) was restored after being ruined, and the sari of the Buddha were enshrined once more at Tongdosa Temple in their original spot at the temple. Ever since the early 17th century, Tongdosa Temple has undergone numerous renovations and rebuilds. In total, the Geumgang Gyedan has been repaired seven times in 1379, 1603, 1652, 1705, 1743, 1823, and 1911.

An interesting creation myth centres on Jajang-yulsa. The large pond that was to become the future location of Tongdosa Temple was called Guryong-ji, or “Nine Dragons Pond,” in English. Legend has it that there were nine dragons that were living in Guryong-ji. These dragons didn’t want to leave Guryong-ji. Jajang-yulsa prayed, chanted, and wrote Buddhist scriptures in an attempt to get the dragons to leave; but in the end, and despite all Jajang-yulsa’s efforts, the nine dragons still refused to leave. Then Jajang-yulsa wrote the Chinese character (Hanja) for fire on a piece of paper and threw it into the air while swirling Guryong-ji with a stick. Mysteriously, the water in the lake began to boil. Three of the dragons flew out of the water to escape the heat. Disoriented, they crashed into the neighbouring hillside. The place where they died is called Yonghyeolam, or “Dragon Blood Rock,” in English, and can be found on the temple grounds to this day. The other five dragons flew to the south-west in a valley now known as Oryonggok, or “Five Dragon Valley,” in English. The last of the nine dragons stayed in Guryong-ji and was blinded by the boiling water. This ninth dragon promised Jajang-yulsa that if he could stay in Guryong-ji, he would help guard the temple. Jajang-yulsa agreed, and the dragon still takes up residence at Guryong-ji west of the present Daeung-jeon Hall.

Alongside Haeinsa Temple (The Dharma) in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do, Songgwangsa Temple (Sangha) in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do, Tongdosa Temple (Buddha) make up the Three Jewel Temples (삼보사찰, Eng. Sambosachal) in Korea. And in total, Tongdosa Temple is home to one National Treasure and eighteen Korean Treasures. Tongdosa Temple also participates in the popular Temple Stay program.

Tongdosa Temple is beautifully situated to the south of the towering Mt. Yeongchuksan (1082.2 m). Bisected by a stream that flows from the granite mountains, you’ll make your way up a trail shaded by the mature canopy of twisted red pines. Along the way, you’ll notice that the rock faces are covered in ancient carved graffiti. The first real sign that you’ve finally arrived at the temple is the large biseok (stupas) dedicated to centuries of monks that once called Tongdosa Temple home.

Just past the equally iconic and historic Banwol Bridge and the temple museum, is Tongdosa Temple’s Iljumun Gate. The pathway between this gate and the next, the Cheonwangmun Gate, is often filled with paper lanterns during Buddha’s birthday. Inside the Cheonwangmun Gate are the fierce-looking Four Heavenly Kings.

On the other side of this gate, you’ll enter into the lower courtyard at Tongdosa Temple. There are three shrine halls of importance inside the courtyard; namely, the Geukrak-jeon Hall, the Yaksa-jeon Hall, and the Yeongsan-jeon Hall (Vulture Peak Hall). Also found in the lower-courtyard is the two-story temple bell pavilion.

Passing through the Bulimun Gate (The Gate of Non-Duality), you’ll now find yourself in the upper courtyard. Straight ahead is the Gwaneum-jeon Hall, which is occupied by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Not only is this the first temple shrine hall visitors can explore, it’s probably the most popular next to the Daeung-jeon main hall. Behind this hall is the Yonghwa-jeon Hall, which is dedicated to Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). And behind that is the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall with a beautiful statue of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) inside.

More populated than the lower courtyard, the other shrine halls that visitors can explore in the upper courtyard is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) out in front of the Daeung-jeon Hall, the Nahan-jeon to the side of the main hall, as well as the Samseong-gak and Sanshin-gak (dedicated to Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit).

The most important hall, however, is the Daeung-jeon Hall. Without a Buddha sitting on the main altar, which they typically do at Korean Buddhist temples, there’s a window instead that looks out onto an outdoor stone shrine. This is known as the Geumgang Gyedan, or the “Diamond Altar,” in English. This altar houses the partial remains of the Buddha at the centre of the shrine in a stone lotus bud. The Geumgang Gyedan, at least now, is only opened to visitors during Buddha’s birthday. It’ll be busy, but also well worth it. To the immediate left of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Guryong-ji pond from the temple’s creation myth.

Admission to the temple is 3,000 won for adults and 1,000 won for children.

HOW TO GET THERE: From Busan, you’ll first need to get to the Nopo subway stop, which is stop #134. From there, go to the inter-city bus terminal. From the inter-city bus terminal get a bus bound for Tongdosa Temple. The ride should last about 25 minutes. The buses leave every 20 minutes from 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. From where the bus drops you off at the Tongdosa Bus stop, you’ll need to walk an additional 10 minutes to the temple grounds west of the bus stop.

OVERALL RATING: 10/10. What isn’t to love about Tongdosa Temple? It’s filled with a dozen temple shrine halls, the temple is 1,500 years old, it’s the largest in Korea, and it has 20 hermitages that one can explore with the price of admission to Tongdosa Temple. To top it off, you get to view the partial remains of the Buddha, which is only one of a handful of authentic shrines in all of Korea to house them. Without a doubt, Tongdosa Temple is an absolute must see. In fact, if you were only to see one temple in Korea, this would be the temple to see!

Some of the paper lanterns during Buddha’s birthday.
And some more of the beautiful paper lanterns.
The Banwol Bridge at Tongdosa Temple.
The beautiful view of the stream that flows at Tongdosa Temple.
The Geukrak-jeon Hall in the lower courtyard.
Behind the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
The Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Guryong-ji Pond at Tongdosa Temple.
And the Geumgang Gyedan with the stone lotus bud in the centre that contains the Buddha’s, Seokgamoni-bul’s, partial remains.

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