Korean Buddhist temples

From New World Encyclopedia

A mountain temple

In Korea, Buddhist temples are abundant. Many of the oldest and most famous temples are located high up in the mountains, where Buddhist monks and nuns live, meditate and study. Others are located in urban areas where they can be visited regularly by lay Buddhists. Buddhists go to temples to spend time in quiet meditation, for Dharma (study), to offer prayers and donations, to share in Sangha (community) and to celebrate important dates in the Buddhist calendar. Many temples have beautiful architecture, statues, paintings and pagodas, some dating back more than 1000 years. Most Korean temples have names ending in -sa (사), which means "temple."

Brief History of Korean Buddhism

See Korean Buddhism for more information.
Monk praying in the Main Buddha Hall of the temple.

Buddhism originated in India and came to Korea by way of China. A distinctive form of Buddhism evolved in Korea. This was facilitated by the geographical location and cultural conditions. Buddhism first arrived in Korea in 372 in the Goguryeo Kingdom. In 374 the influential Chinese monk Ado arrived in the kingdom and inspired the King Sosurim in the following year. The first two temples Seongmunsa and Ilbullansa were built in 375 on the order of the king. Buddhism soon became the national religion of the Goguryeo. Although it suffered for a time in the seventh century when Taoism gained influence Buddhism grew and flourished for many centuries, up through the Goryeo Dynasty. Throughout the country pagodas and other Buddhist structures were built.

Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul

Later in the Goryeo period Buddhism became linked with the corruption of the regime. A great number of monks were involved in politics. Bit by bit anti-Buddhist sentiments grew, and by the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty Confucianism came to replace Buddhism as the state ideology. During the long Joseon period, Buddhism steadily declined and it was not until after the Korean War that Buddhism began to flourish again. Today, about one-third of the South Korean population is Buddhist, and there are more than 3,000 active temples throughout the country. Buddhist heritage can be found all over the country in the form of temples, pagodas, sculptures, paintings, handicrafts and buildings. Modern Korean Buddhism contains several sects, the largest of which is Chogye, a Seon (Zen) order, along with others including Esoteric Buddhism, Taego, Cheontae, Chinkak, Pure Land, Won. They have the same basic teaching and practices, with slight differences in emphasis.

Fundamentals of Buddhism

A Buddhist is a person who takes refuge in the three jewels of Buddhism: The Buddha, or enlightenment, the Dharma, or teaching and the Sangha, or community of faithful, and who seeks to adhere to the five precepts:

  1. Practicing loving kindness and abstaining from taking life.
  2. Practicing generosity and not taking things which have not been given.
  3. Practicing awareness and controlling sensual and sexual desire.
  4. Practicing wholesome speech; not lying, gossiping or speaking harshly.
  5. Practicing clear-mindedness and refraining from taking intoxicants.

Main component of Buddhist practice are meditation, studying sutras, and chanting. Through meditation, Buddhists look within to find their True Nature, and with that knowledge, transcend the difficulties of everyday life.

Typical Features of Korean Buddhist Temples

A Guardian Statue at Tongdosa Temple

Although Korean temples have many features in common, each one is unique, affected by the location and era when the temple was built, as well as the purpose for which it is used. One common element is that all temples are built following principles of geomancy, taking into account the topography of the land on which the temple is built. The overall layout of the temple should draw an image of the Buddhist paradise. Very often the approach to the front gate of the main temple compound is a winding path that crosses a stream.

Arriving at the end of the path, you find a series of gates, reflecting Buddhist teachings. The first gate, often called the One-Pillar gate, which is built with just two posts, and thus will appear to be only one post when viewed from the side. This represents the unity of mind that is needed to enter the temple. The second gate is often a Vajra Guardian Gate protecting the temple or a Celestial.

Stele from Taejasa. National Museum of Korea, Seoul

Often this gate houses four statues of guardians carved from wood. In a smaller temple, guardians may be painted on the doors instead of statues. The guardians represent the power of wisdom over ignorance. A third gate will usually be a Gate of Non-duality, which represents the nonduality of all things in Buddhist teaching. This gate is often elevated and directly facing the temple's main hall. In some temples, you will find a fourth gate, the Gate of Liberation, for the liberation that Buddha's teachings can bring.

As you pass from gate to gate, you may also pass large polished stones called 'Stele' recounting the temple's history, or names of those who made donations for the temple's construction. These are sometimes standing on top of stone turtles. There may also be 'pubo', large stones, sometimes adorned with hats where the remains of revered monks are located.

Entering the compound, you face the Main Buddha Hall, where ceremonies are held. Very often, in front of the Main Hall you will find one or two pagodas and stone lamps. In India, there was a simple stele in front of the main hall, but in China transformed into a pagoda, and this tradition came to Korea as well. The pagoda represents the Buddha and the teaching, and houses some important symbol; a relic of the Buddha, an important sutra or other religious artifacts. Pagodas have been built from a variety of materials, including wood, brick, marble, granite, other stone materials, and even mud. Over the centuries Korean pagodas have developed a style distinct from the pagodas of China.

Painted roof timbers on a Korean Temple

In addition to the principal pagoda in front of the Main Buddha Hall, there may also be pagodas in other places in the compound. You may also find small shrines to different Bodhisattvas, or to indigenous gods. Sometimes there is a small hall at each side of the main compound, named for the Buddha enshrined inside. These may include:

  • The Hall of the Great Hero (”Daeungjeon”) for the historical Buddha Sakyamuni
  • The Hall of Great Tranquility and Light (“Daejeokgwangjeon”), for the Cosmic Buddha Vairocana
  • Hall of Paradise (“Kungnakjeon”), dedicated to the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light

There may be two large stone posts, used to hang large paintings in order to make an outdoor shrine for special events. Study facilities, the college and library for the bhikkus and bhikkunis (monks & nuns) are usually near the Main Hall, as well as their living quarters. There is also an eating hall nearby where the residents and community of faithful take meals. Meditation halls are usually in a more secluded area, separated from the Main Hall and living quarters. There may be a large hall, or a series of small cells. Some temples also have smaller temples or hermitages outside of the main compound. Many of the gates and buildings in Korean temples feature a distinctive multi-colored painting style that is meant to protect the area from bad spirits.

Life and activities at Korean Buddhist Temples

Monks at Tongdosa Temple

Men and women who have devoted themselves to the study of Sakyamuni Buddha live and practice in the temples, becoming bhikkus and bhikkunis. Those who wish to reach enlightenment and devote their lives to helping others enter the temple after finishing high school, to follow a life of communal living, meditation, study and service. In Korea, the bhikkus and bhikkunis live in separate temples. In order to symbolize separating from the outside world, they shave their heads and wear gray and brown clothes. For the bhikkus or bhikkunis who live in the temple, the day begins at 3:00 a.m. with morning chanting and meditate. Breakfast comes at 6:00 a.m., and is followed by cleaning the temple grounds, study of the sutras and meditation. The midday meal is at 10:30 a.m. and the evening meal at 5:00 p.m. After another session of chanting and meditation, the day finishes about 9:00 p.m. Meditation is a key element in Korean Buddhism. Three month meditation retreats are held at temples during the summer and winter months. These include four sessions of meditation each day—pre-dawn, morning, afternoon and evening.

Festivals are held on important dates in the Buddhist calendar. The most important is Buddha's birthday, held on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. Many followers go to the temple to participate in a ceremony to bath the Buddha, and then they hang a lantern in the shape of a lotus flower, often including wishes or a favorite person’s name on a white piece of paper attached to the lantern. The lanterns represent the Dharma and the quest to find one's True Nature. There are cultural festivities inside and outside the temple during the week leading up to Buddha's birthday.

History and Special Features of Temples

The names of some of Korea's temples are inspired by the legendary, almost mystical stories about their founding. For example, it is said that paulownia trees blossomed during the winter while Donghwasa was being built, so it was named the Temple of the Winter (dong) Flowers (hwa). Other temples are special because they fulfill a special purpose. Three Korean temples located near the sea have been dedicated to Avalokitesvara, who saves people from the sea of suffering. These are Hongnyeonam Hermitage at Naksansa Temple on the East Coast; Bomunsa Temple on Mt. Nakgasan on the West Coast island of Ganghwado; and Boriam Hermitage on Mt. Geumsan along the South Coast.

There are also three special Jewel Temples, which represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism; Tongdosa Temple has been chosen to represent the Buddha because it is one of the few 'relic' temples, having enshrined relics of the Buddha, brought back from China by Master Jajang, Haeinsa Temple was chosen to represent Dharma or teachings, because it houses the 81,258 woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana, and Songgwangsa Temple has been chosen to symbolize Sangha or community because of its heritage of training monks since the Goryeo period.

In addition to Tongdosa, there are four other 'relic' temples, which have relics of Buddha, rather than a statue to represent Buddha: the four are all located in Gangwon Province—Sangwonsa Temple on Mt. Odaesan; Bongjongam Hermitage at Mt. Sorak; Beopheungsa Temple on Mt. Sajasan; and Jeongamsa Temple on Mt. Daebaeksan. There are also a number of temples that are distinguished by offering full monastic training, with meditation centers, sutra study centers and precepts centers. Some of these are Haein at Haeinsa Temple; Jogye at Songgwangsa Temple; Yeongchuk at Tongdosa Temple; Deoksung at Sudeoksa Temple; and Gobul at Baekyangsa Temple.

Some Korean temples are on UNESCO's prestigious World Heritage Site List. These include Haeinsa Temple, with the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks, and Bulguksa, with a fine collection of national and artistic treasures.

List of Major Temples

South Korea

These temples are grouped by province.

Seoul Gwanneumsa Doseonsa Bongeunsa] Bongwonsa
Yeonghwasa Jogyesa Jingwansa
Gyeonggi Bomunsa Jeondeungsa Bongnyeongsa Bongseonsa
Silleuksa Yeonjuam Yongjusa Jajaeam
Gangwon Guryingsa Naksansa Deungmyeong-nakgasa Samhwasa
Sinheungsa Oseam Woljeongsa Cheongpyeongsa
North Chungcheong Beopjusa Guinsa
South Chungcheong Magoksa Sudeoksa
North Gyeongsang Donghwasa] Pagyesa Bogyeongsa Gounsa]
Buseoksa Bulguksa (including Seokguram) Hwangnyongsa Jikjisa
South Gyeongsang Ssanggyesa Tongdosa Haeinsa temple4
Busan Beomeosa
North Jeolla Geumsansa Miruk-sa Naesosa
Seonunsa Silsangsa
South Jeolla Daedunsa Mihwangsa Baengnyeonsa Baekyungsa
Ssonggwangsa Hwaeomsa
Jeju Island Gwaneumsa Yakcheonsa
Three Jewel Temples Tongdosa Haeinsa Ssonggwangsa

North Korea

It is reported, that many churches and temples have been taken over by the state. Once the government controls these buildings, they are used for secular use. Only a few temples are still in use, but they are considered national treasures. There are also some temples in remote areas. All in all, there are 300 temples,[1] but only in a few are religious services permitted.

  • Pohyonsa at Myohyang-san keeps a translation of the Tripitaka Koreana
  • Sangwon Hermitage, Kumgang Hermitage, Habiro Hermitage at Myohyang-san
  • Kwangpo temple in Pyongyang
  • Kaesong temple
  • Kaesim temple at Chilbo-san
  • Sungnyong temple and Sungin temple in Pyongyang
  • Shingyesa in the Kŭmgangsan area
  • Songbulsa
  • Shimwonsa
  • Podoksa
  • Wŏljŏngsa on Kuwol-san
  • Japok temple
  • Ankuk temple
  • Chunghŭng temple
  • Hongbok temple


See also

  • List of Korea-related topics
  • Three Jewel Temples of Korea


  1. Human Rights Practices Retrieved April 9, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hanʼguk Kwanʼgwang Kongsa. 1996. Exploring Korean Buddhist temples. Seoul, Korea: Korea National Tourism Organization. OCLC: 53022956
  • International Dharma Instructors Association. 1995. Guide to Korean Buddhist temples. Seoul, Korea: Jogye Order Pub. ISBN 9788986821130
  • Wilkinson, Philip, and Steve Teague. 2003. Buddhism. DK eyewitness guides. New York: DK Pub. ISBN 9780789498342

External Links

All links retrieved April 23, 2018.


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