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Tongdo-sa: Korea’s Head Temple of Buddhist Family

By Jang Eun-hwa, The Korea Times, May 8, 2008

Yangsan, South Korea -- On a weekend in late April, our party of five, an American researcher and four Buddhists visited Tongdo Temple located in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province. The weather was perfect for a light outing and lots of visitors from toddlers to the elderly in colorful dress were enjoying their refreshing spring weekend with their family or friends.

We parked our van near a bridge, below which a fairly wide stream flows alongside the temple that settles horizontal from east to west. The bridge, named Samseongbanwol (literally meaning three stars and a half moon), was narrow, without parapets and had three arches below. Why does it have no parapets? While wondering about it, I came to know that the bridge, sometimes called the ``One Mind Bridge,'' was the figuration of a Chinese letter ?, meaning ``heart'' or ``mind.''

The Chinese letter is composed of four strokes. If we apply the strokes to the name of the bridge, the long one stands for a half moon and the rest, three stars. Now it became clear to me that the no-parapet bridge delivers the message that one should gather one's mind not to fall when crossing it. Being mindful of the admonition from the bridge, we were ready to enter the temple.

At its entrance, the vigor and liveliness of visitors' brisk movements seemed to predominate around the temple rather than the usual peace and calmness of traditional temples. Visitors in twos and threes were walking with light steps, laughing loudly and noisily, excited with their spring pep.

Stepping into the One Pillar Gate, or the first gate of the temple, visitors were greeted by waves of colorful lotus lanterns hung overhead. I trod on the road paved with small stones pleasantly. Walking under the fanciful lanterns gently moving at the breeze, with the rays of sunlight infiltrating through the spaces in-between, I was gradually falling into the world of fantasy.

But it was mercilessly interrupted by the sudden appearance of the frightening Four Guardians Statues. The guardians, former kings of heaven, became the disciples of Buddha and volunteer protectors of the temple. Seated at the second gate, named the Heavenly Kings' Gate, the giant guardians were glaring at visitors threateningly as if they radiated a laser beam to block malignant forces from entering the temple compound.

Overpowered by their grim faces and scared out of my pleasant fantasy, I straightened my loosened mind, and followed the visitors in a hurry into the sublime Buddhist land materialized more than 1,300 years ago.

Unfolded across the Heavenly Kings Gate was a forest of time-honored halls and pavilions saturated with their own histories and Buddhist significance. Worthy of its name as Korea's largest Buddhist temple, more than 50 halls spread luxuriantly in its compound.

A mural on the outer wall of the Amitabha (Lord of the Paradise) Hall caught our attention. It depicted ``The Wisdom Dragon Ship,'' led by Ksitigarbha (a bodhisattva saving suffering creatures in hell), heading for the Land of Ultimate Bliss. In general, the Main Hall in a temple has carvings of a dragon's heads above the front doors and those of a tail above the back walls. It is because the Buddha Hall is likened to a dragon ship for the dead to ride to paradise. Such a belief in Buddhist paradise has been widely popular in Korean Buddhism. It is not known when and by whom the painting was created, but how earnestly the painter's contemporaries had hoped for paradise was clearly felt by us.

There were small jars placed just below the eaves in each corner of the major halls. According to Ven. Sebong, the temple's section manager of Missionary Activities Department, they were salt jars which, symbolizing seawater, were supposed to prevent malignant fire from damaging the halls. He said that the salt-filled pots were sealed with papers on which the Chinese letter meaning ``water'' was written. Whether it would work or not, the eagerness to control the major destroyer of their adoring objects was sufficiently imaginable. The jars, he added, are exchanged regularly on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month each year.

I stood in front of the Non-Duality Gate, or the third gate of a temple, in the middle of the temple. As its name indicates, the world across it is that of non-duality, where there is no distinction between the Buddha and human beings, good and evil, being and non-being, and fullness and emptiness. Isn't the ultimate purpose of Buddhism to reach the world without any difference or discrimination? I passed through the gate, contemplating the true meaning of non-duality.

Among the age-old halls erected rather irregularly, a stone monument of around 10 feet high was conspicuous in front of the Dragon Flower Hall which enshrines Maitreya Bodhisattva (a bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be practitioner), who received a prophecy from the Buddha that he would be born again as the Future Buddha on Earth. The statue of Maitreya, who had still been a bodhisattva, was painted all white, but it would turn gold when he finally becomes the Buddha.

In fact, the granite monument was a big alms bowl placed on a pedestal as an offering to Maitreya Bodhisattva. According to some Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha asked one of his disciples, ``Deliver my bowl to the Future Buddha.'' It was a custom in Buddhism for a master to pass down his alms bowl and robe to his disciple. The bowl would be delivered to him, following the Sakyamuni Buddha's instruction. It was also the very token that the Buddha had approved Maitreya Bodhisattva as the next Buddha.

Tongdo Temple is where the Buddha treasure, one of three treasures of Buddhism, is placed, with the other two being Dharma (Buddha's teaching) treasure and Sangha (monks' community) treasure. As the temple of Buddha treasure, it has Sakyamuni Buddha's remains such as his sarira, his cranial bones and his robe brought by the founder, Master Jajang, from Tang in ancient China during the seventh century.

Both the Great Hero Hall and the Diamond Precept Altar, standing side by side and presumably built together, are central structures of the temple. The hall, however, has no Buddha statue; it has, instead, a large window through which visitors may pray toward the Altar that Sakyamuni Buddha's remains are kept. The Buddha hall with no Buddha images but his sarira is called ``Jeokmyeolbogung'' (the Jeweled Palace of Nirvana). It is considered very sacred, as the very body of Sakyamuni Buddha is enshrined in it.

The Diamond Precept Altar is a unique and elaborately-built artifact. It is believed the Buddha's remains are kept in the bell-shaped stupa erected upon the two-tiered square altar. It is also the regular site for male and female monks' ordination. As the name ``Diamond Precept'' indicates, once the precepts are given to the monks, they are indestructible like a diamond. The altar used to be closed for protection but is now open to the public. The general atmosphere around it was solemn, calm and sacred with the prayers circling around it, chanting and meditating beside it.

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