There are around Buddhist 7,300 temples and monasteries in Korea, many of which are located in the forests and mountains. There are two reason for their remote locations: first, mountains and forest have always been associated with spiritual purity, and second, Buddhist monks were often persecuted by Korea's rulers and remote location gave them some safety. All Korean temples are built without nails so that they can be dismantled and moved to new locations. In China, Japan and Thailand temples are often in the middle of town. Now more Buddhist temples are being erected in urban areas.

The oldest Buddhist temples date to the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. - A.D. 668) and Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. - A.D. 935) Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Hwangnyongsa, the biggest Silla temple, was destroyed long ago but its site was uncovered in 1976 and archaeologists were able to find traces of some of the remarkable buildings described in Kim Pusik's twelfth-century History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi), including a 250-foot-high ninestory pagoda. Silk's second biggest temple, Pulguksa (Temple of the Buddha-Land), has been preserved and reconstructed many times on its hillside location outside the ancient capital of Kyongju. Much of Pulguksa was made of stone, and while its wooden buildings have been replaced many times, much of the stonework on the front of the temple and around the staircases is from the eighth century. Inside the front courtyard of the temple stand two of Korea's finest stone pagodas. The first, known as the Tabo Pagoda, is an intricate assembly of stone roofs, columns, railings, and steps. Its companion, the Sokt'ap Pagoda, also nicknamed "The Pagoda that Casts No Shadow," is of a simpler type, made of solid sections of stone.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

The “rectangular compounds” of Korean Buddhist temples “house a main hall, in which there are usually three large statues of different types of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Other buildings include memorial halls to former congregational members who have died, gates and buildings that guard and protect the temple and its believers from demons and other enemies, and living quarters for the resident clergy. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

A temple feature that is found in Korea and nowhere else in the Buddhist world is a shrine to the mountain god (sanshin) on the hillside above the temple. It usually contains a painting of a kindly old man with a white beard (the mountain spirit), a tiger (a mountain animal), and a pine tree (a symbol of long life). The shrine of the mountain god has nothing to do with Buddhism but more likely refers to the long period when Buddhist temples in Korea had to be hidden away in the mountains at the mercy of mountain forces including the fearsome tiger. Its presence at nearly every Buddhist temple suggests the continuing harmony between Korean Buddhism and other signs and symbols in Korean tradition. In Korea you will often see swastikas on temples. This does not mean the Koreans worship Nazis. In Asia the swastika represents good fortune, plus the lines are turned counterclockwise, while those on a Nazi swastika turn clockwise.

According to Buddhanet.net: “Most traditional buildings are built of wood. Usually no nails are used and the wood, often, whole tree trunks are merely interlocked. In this way, the buildings can be dismantled and moved to different locations. Each piece of the building depends on all of the others and the whole depends on each part. In the cities, cement is being more and more used, but much care is taken to make it look like the traditional wood complex. The temple builders are so keen to preserve the traditional atmosphere that they even go to the trouble of making the washing and toilet facilities in the same style as the other buildings. When you visit a temple, you will notice a lot of wood and stone used to make different objects.”

Features of Korean Buddhist Temples

Many Korean temples have outer gates and inner gates protected by fierce multi-colored guardian gods. The guardian gods on the outside gate sometime have lightning bolts coming out of their nostrils and a serrated swords in their hand. The inner gate at the antechamber to the temple complex is often guarded by four guardian kings, representing the four cardinal directions. The king in the north holds a pagoda representing earth, heaven and cosmic axis. The king in the east holds a sword with the power to evoke a black wind that produces tens of thousands of spears and golden serpents. The king in the west possesses a lute. And the king in the south holds a dragon and a wish-fulfilling jewel.

According to Buddhanet.net: “A temple compound includes many different buildings. Ranging from grandiose main Buddha Halls to tiny Mountain Spirit Shrines perched on the sides of mountains; no two temple buildings are alike. Each one is built so that the aerial view of the compound forms a mandala, and the main hall the focal point of the compound is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the other buildings. The main hall is the heart of a temple complex and so it is built with special care and ceremony. It is highly ornamented and decorated to enhance the beauty of its complex architecture. [Source: Buddhanet.net]

“Just about every temple includes a separate Mountain Spirit Shrine in its compound. The mountain spirit, the resident spirit long before Buddhism, arrived in Korea, has territorial rights to the mountain and consequently gets a higher place in the Bong am-sa Temple temple compound. Many temples also have separate buildings for the Seven Star Spirit (Big Dipper) and for the Recluse.

“One of the most important shrines is for Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who usually has green hair and waits to help tormented people. The Judges of the Hells are placed along the walls of the shrine. Often there is yet another hall dedicated to Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Sometimes a special shrine is dedicated to the Buddha's disciples who have attained enlightenment: the Disciple's Hall. Sometimes there are sixteen and sometimes there are as many as one thousand disciples.

“The roofs are of special interest. Layer upon layer of whole tree trunks of varying girth are interlaced to produce the strength necessary to support the heavy tiles. Sometimes tiered and gabled to an extreme degree, aesthetic proportions are always kept in mind. An interesting fact is that traditionally, people believed that evil travels in straight lines. In order to stop it from entering the building the ends of the roofs are curved up.”

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple (10 kilometers southeast of Gyeongju) is the most well known temple at Gyeongju, and perhaps in Korea. Originally built in A.D. 535 and enlarged in A.D. 751, it is admired by Westerners who like the bright colors used to paint the eaves and frames. The woodwork on the temple has been periodically replaced, but the stone bridges, pagodas and stairways are all seventh century originals. In 1995, Bulguksa was selected as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The stone block pagoda, erected in A.D. 634, is oldest Silla dynasty brick building in existence. The monks that live in the temple are woken up at 3:00am by the sounds of brass gongs, and bells. They begin their day with sacred chants which are spoken to the rhythm of drums and beating gourds.

Bulguksa, literally translating to Temple of the Land of Buddha, was built with the aspiration for Buddha's utopia. The temple was damaged in 1592 by the Japanese during the Imjin War, when all the wooden structures of the temple completely burned down. Luckily, the stone altars, bridges, pagodas, lanterns and bronze statues of the Buddha escaped the fire, and have been well preserved up until now. A partial restoration was conducted from 1969 to 1973, which resulted in the current structure. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

According to UNESCO: Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple complex that comprises a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces. The grounds of Bulguksa are divided into three areas – Birojeon (the Vairocana Buddha Hall), Daeungjeon (the Hall of Great Enlightenment) and Geungnakjeon (the Hall of Supreme Bliss). These areas and the stone terraces were designed to represent the land of Buddha. The stone terraces, bridges and the two pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – facing the Daeungjeon attest to the fine masonry work of the Silla.” [Source: UNESCO]

Bulguksa Temple Features

The Bonjonbul figure is a giant statue of the Buddha, 3.3 meters in height and 2.7 meters in width. While most statues of Buddha were carved in a standing position wearing a generous smile, the bonjonbul is seated on a pedestal, emanating a sense of grandeur. From the solemn and grave facial expression to wrinkles in the statue's dress, all details were meticulously carved, representing the splendid and prosperous Buddhist culture of the Unified Silla era.

The oldest woodblocks, dated to A.D. 704, were found in Bulguksa Temple in October 1966. The oldest existing work completely printed with woodblocks is the Mugujonggwang Taerdaranigyong (Pure Light Dharani Sutra), Buddhist scriptures (sutras) printed sometime before the Silla monarch King Kyongdok was enthroned in A.D. 751. The Great Dharani Sutra was discovered in October 1966 while repairing Seokgatap (the three-storied pagoda) in Bulguksa

A key point at Bukguksa is the relief of 10 disciples, a rarity in World Buddhist Art history. It is highly appreciated for its uniqueness and artistic characteristics for vividly capturing the disciples who are diligently carrying out their tasks as Buddha's followers. The smallest disciple is about 2.08 meters in height the tallest is about 2.2 meters.

Seokgatap (on the western side of the temple) has two stereobates (stone foundation levels) and is crafted in the traditional pagoda style of the Silla period. Dabotap, which is also called Muyeongtap, is quite simply designed, yet has an imposing appearance, radiating a feeling of stability. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Dabotap (on the east side of the yard before Daeungjeon), was distinctively different from other stone pagodas of the Silla era. Remaining completely intact since its establishment, it has been said that the stone tower was based on the shape of Chilbotap, a tower from Buddhism scriptures made of seven treasures. Although Dabotap and Seokgatap are uniquely different, the foundation stones and stylobate are roughly the same height, providing a balanced and proportional aspect when viewing the two towers together.

Temple Stay in South Korea

On a stay at Mihwangsa temple, in the far southwestern corner of South Korea, AFP reported: “ As a paying guest at Mihwangsa, there's no need to book a morning wake-up call. It's provided well before sunrise, at 4 am to be precise... and it isn't optional. Instead of a phone call - none of the rooms have phones - guests are roused by a monk walking past their rooms, knocking on a wooden block to call them for a round of pre-breakfast chanting and meditation. [Source: AFP, December 17, 2012]

“The dozen guests who make their sleepy way to the temple's main hall - clad in identical grey loose-fitting outfits - are all taking part in Mihwangsa's Templestay program. Ranging from middle school students to housewives in their late 30s, and including Koreans and foreigners, they were attracted by what has become a thriving mini-tourist industry in temples across South Korea. "I wanted to be isolated in the mountains while experiencing the traditional life," said Helena Ranneberg, a Danish web consultant.

“Mihwangsa temple is undoubtedly isolated, located halfway up a mountain in coastal Haenam county around 320 kilometers southwest of Seoul. The Templestay program has its unlikely origins in the 2002 football World Cup which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. When the government made a general appeal for help in overcoming a shortage of hotel accommodation, the Jogye Order, the country's largest Buddhism sect, saw an opportunity and began opening its temples to short-term paying guests. "There were shared voices within Buddhism that we needed to interact with the outside world by opening ourselves to the public," said Kumgang, the head monk of Mihwangsa.

“The rates are relatively cheap, ranging from 50,000-80,000 won (US$45-US$75) a night, and the amenities are spartan compared to any mainstream hotel. Guests are obliged to sleep on thin cotton mattresses on a hardwood floor, eat vegetarian food and participate in classes on Buddhism, morning meditation and evening chanting of scriptures - all led by monks. "The most difficult part for me was to sit and lie on the wooden floor," confessed Ms Ranneberg. "I just couldn't sleep at night."

“In their free time, they can hike in the surrounding area, read books, drink tea and participate in much of the temple's daily life. Drinking and smoking are forbidden and mobile phone use actively discouraged. "Other than ceremonies, I can relax, drink tea with the monks and have discussions on life... It's all I could wish for," said Park Seung-Kyung, a housewife from Gwangju who had booked in for three days.

“None of the monks at Mihwangsa speak English, but a lay Buddhist living in the temple helps interpret for foreign guests. For Ms Ranneberg, the language barrier was not an issue. "Before dawn, I had time on my own in complete darkness, just sitting in front of the traditional architecture... And that really was something different, something I would never be able to experience anywhere else," she said.

“Since the program began a decade ago, the number of participating temples has risen from 33 to 109 and close to two million people have stayed in them. In 2011, the number of Templestay guests was 212,437, of which around 12 per cent were foreigners. Since 2004 the government has provided subsidies totalling around US$100 million to the program which the government sees as a force for promoting traditional Korean culture. The Jogye Order plans to designate more temples as Templestay hosts and head monk Kumgang says Mihwangsa will continue to participate in the program. "Templestay can provide people who live a busy life with a place to relax and refresh... like a realm of peace and spiritual growth," he said.

Stonework in a Korean Buddhist Temple

According to Buddha.net: “Stonework is abundant in Korean Temples. Some of the most evident objects are stupas and pagoda. Stupas were Buddhism's very first works of art, and in India you can still see some dating from two hundred years before our era. They were mainly built over the remains of Buddhist saints. In China, they were modified into the multi-storied forms that we call pagodas, but they were still monuments to great personalities. Once introduced to Korea, they were changed again, making them typically Korean. [Source: Buddhanet.net]

“Other stone works often complement temple compounds. Granite lanterns are a special Korean artistic addition to any temple. Traditionally they lit the way for the monks going to the 3:30 a.m. chanting. There are also water cisterns at springs and the steep stone stairs, which take the visitor up into the inspiring world of the Buddhas in the Main Hall.

“Maitreya Buddha Some temples and hermitages, such as the late Venerable Ch'ong-dam's (1902-1971) grave at Toson-sa Temple in northern Seoul, have the equivalent of outdoor exhibitions of exquisite stone masonry.

Woodwork in a Korean Buddhist Temple

According to Buddha.net: “Wood is specially valued by Korean Buddhists, as evidenced by wooden temple buildings, with their wooden floors, their superb, wooden rafters, and wooden doors. Not only are the rafters beautifully finished with cocks' heads, but also the doors are covered in delightful details. Look at them closely. There are little bugs crawling over flower petals and butterflies fluttering across mountains. [Source: Buddhanet.net]

“Wood is not only enjoyed aesthetically but it is also appreciated for its sound and feel. The ubiquitous mokt'ak (a wooden percussion instrument) accompanies all ceremonies and can be heard breaking through the early morning to awaken the temple community. Monks and lay people carry around wooden prayer beads, used to help concentration. And there are also statues made of wood, sometimes gilded and sometimes not. Wooden sutra cases and boxes for the giant paintings displayed on festival days are also made of wood.

“As soon as you enter a temple building you will see many different statue. Let us now take a look at the most important ones but first the Story of the Mokt'ak. Once there was a naughty monk. After some time he died and was reborn as a fish. Out of his back grew a tree that caused him much pain. One day his teacher saw him. The disciple begged that the teacher to break off the tree and carve a fish shaped instrument from it. The teacher did so and the instrument, the rnokt'ak, inspired the people whenever it was played in the temple.

Statues in a Korean Buddhist Temple

According to Buddha.net: “Most statues are made of cast bronze, gilded with gold leaf and gold powder, although many ancient statues were made of cast iron or wood. The sizes, positions and gestures of statuary at any given temple depend on a number of factors. Affluence, historical period and sect all play a role in choosing a statue. The most common Buddhas to be found are: [Source: Buddhanet.net]

“Sakyamuni Buddha: 1) Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha usually depicted with a bare shoulder and hands in his lap or one touching the floor. 2) Vairocana, the cosmic Buddha, usually depicted holding his index finger. 3) Amitabha, the Buddha of light and of the Western Paradise - usually golden. 4) Maitreya, the Future Buddha, usually in a posture of reflection: the Laughing Buddha of the Chinese. 5) Bhaisagyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, always white, usually holds a bowl for medicine.

“Most Bodhisattva statues are of various forms: A) Sitting next to Amitabha: 1) Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 2) Mahasthramprapta, the Bodhisattva of Power, usually carries a lotus. B) Sitting next to Sakyamuni: 1) Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Practice, usually carries a lotus. 2) Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, usually rides a lion when alone.

“Two Bodhisattvas, who are often housed separately, are Avalokitesvara and Ksitigarbha. A special and very popular form of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is the one with a thousand hands. Each hand has an eye so that it can see how to help all beings. Another important Bodhisattva is Ksitigarbha. He usually has green hair and waits to help all tormented people. Beside Ksitigarbha, placed along the walls of the shrine, there are the colourfully dressed judges of the Hells. According to mythology, these judges wait to determine your fate after death. Sometimes there is a shrine for the enlightened disciples of the Buddha. These look like small Buddhas and are often white.

Some pieces are quite beautiful and valuable. On record-breaking sales of Korean art at a Christie’s Auction in March 2003, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “The object that overshadowed all others this week is a small gilt-bronze statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya datable to the seventh century. The Buddha of the future is seated on a stool hidden by his drapes. Lost in rapturous meditation, he bends slightly forward as he leans his head on his raised forefinger. This is the ultimate masterpiece of early Buddhist art in Korea. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, March 29, 2003]

“Christie's remained silent on the provenance of the gilt bodhisattva, but to insiders, the owner's identity was no mystery. The late Japanese dealer Muneichi Nita, whose heirs were consigning it, had put together an important collection of Buddhist art. Sending the bronze to be auctioned was a huge gamble. Lately, Korean art has been scarce on the auction scene and its performance has been erratic, with unpredictable swings from fantastic highs to catastrophic crashes. But the gamble paid off. The unique bronze, which pitched collectors against each other, soared to US$1.57 million, paid by Eskenazi of London, acting as an agent. After the sale, Christie's Korean specialist Heakyum Kim spoke of "once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," and for once, this was no auction house overstatement.

Painting in a Korean Buddhist Temple

According to Buddha.net: “In Korean, temples and palaces are painted in a particular style called "tanch'ong". Tanch'ong means "red and blue", the principal colours used in these colourful cosmic designs. Originally arriving with Buddhism when it was brought from China, the patterns of tanch'ong were modified in Korea. Tanch'ong preserves the wood from insects and the elements and adds glory and richness to the buildings. [Source: Buddhanet.net]

“The outside eaves, the inside rafters and the ceilings are covered with intricate tanch'ong patterns. On the main temple beams and among the rafters, interwoven between the patterns, you will find pictures of spirits, ancient monks, Bodhisattvas and dragons, to name a few. It is said that during the Silla period, tanch'ong was even found on commoners' home. Now it is limited to temples and palaces as well as some musical instruments.

“Buddhist paintings are not only beautiful but also full of meaning. Symbols are included in the paintings; beauty and meaning are interrelated to instruct the visitor on his spiritual quest, reminding him of the path.

“On the outside ends of big buildings, up towards the roof, you will see three circles. These represent heaven, earth and man, the three important things that Tangun, the mythological founder of Korea, is supposed to have brought with him. They have come to represent the Buddha, his teaching and the community of Buddhists.

“Lotuses, are another common symbol found in Buddhist paintings, are to be seen in many forms. The lotus grows from mud (representing ignorance) up to the clear sunlight (representing enlightenment). The symbol of the fish is often painted on the main Buddha table. It represents the effort and determination necessary for attaining enlightenment, for the fish supposedly, never closes its eyes. If you look closely, you will find swastika everywhere: on the outside of buildings, woven into patterns, even in the decorations in the subways and in roadside railings. The swastika is an ancient Buddhist symbol of peace, harmony and good luck.

Murals in a Korean Buddhist Temple

According to Buddha.net: “Behind the main statue in the main hall there is usually a large mural. These are added to give a clearer, more complete image of the Buddhist cosmic view to the visitor. Depending on the size and nature of the hall, murals are more or less complex arrangements of figures taken from a variety of specific, traditional designs. [Source: Buddhanet.net]

“If you look closely, you will find all kinds of interesting personalities peering out. Amitabha is the most frequent central figure to be found, and usually he is shown with rays of light coming from his head. In the foreground, towards the bottom left and right corners, there are usually guardians. Tongkin, protector of the DharmaBodhisattvas are often placed nearer to the feet of the principal figure and, in the middle, there are the gods and ordinary people.

“Above, often near the main Buddha's head, there are monks. Look for an old-looking one, Kasyapa, and a younger one, the Buddha Sakyamuni's attendant Ananda. Apart from the main mural behind the statue, there are numerous other protector paintings. These depict beings that are more human in appearance; they represent the human world of desire. Many earth/sky gods, derived from Indian religions as well as Taoist spirits and Confucian characters, are all included in Korean Buddhist iconography.

“Other popular Buddhist paintings in the main hall feature the Dragon King, who is easily identified by his outlandish eyebrows and mustache, and the Bodhisattva Tongjin. As protector of the Dharma and the Lotus Sutra in particular, Tongjin is often the centre of a protector painting and can be identified by his sword and rather ostentatiously feathered headgear. In separate, smaller shrines look for the delightful Mountain Spirit painting. As the resident spirit long before Buddhism arrived in Korea, the Mountain Spirit is always flanked by a friendly tiger and by an attendant. Often the painting has great charm and character, as do those of the Seven Star Spirit (Big Dipper) and the Recluse.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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