Tongdosa is one of Korea’s five “Palace of the Jewel of Nirvana” temples, where the relics of the Buddha substitute for a statue. Precepts Master Jajang brought the relics, including part of the Buddha’s robes, from China and enshrined them. Consequently, the temple represents the Buddha of Korea’s three Jewel Temples and it also is a Full Monastic Training Temple, with Yeongchuk Monastery. Mt. Yeongchuksan above the temple resembles Mt. Grdhrakatu where the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, and consequently the name of the temple means “Pass Through (to) Enlightenment.” In addition, all monks have to pass through the Diamond Platform at the temple, where ordinations take place. The temple has had many famous monks including Seon Master Gyeongbong; there are more than 20 hermitages scattered around the grounds; and the Tongdosa Museum is the only one in the world dedicated to the preservation of Buddhist temple paintings.
More Information> The Temple Without a Buddha Statue: Tongdosa
Tongdosa, ＂Pass into Enlightenment,＂ Temple is the first of the ＂Three Jewels＂ temples of Korea representing the Buddha. It is traditionally a Seon Temple and as far as the number of buildings is concerned, 65, it is the largest temple in Korea.
Tongdosa Temple, once a center of Korean Buddhism, was built in 646, in the reign of Queen Seondeok by Master Jajang on his return from China. One of Korea’s greatest monks, Master Jajang, brought relics of the Buddha with him and these he enshrined at Tongdosa Temple.
Master Jajang, coming from a royal family, could have advanced well in the court; instead he chose to be a monk. The king, appreciating his abilities, continued to request him to accept a court position which he refused. In exasperation, the king threatened the monk with the death penalty if he refused again. Master Jajang calmly replied, ＂I would rather die keeping the laws of the Buddha for one day than live for one hundred years breaking them.＂ Seeing the wisdom of this reply, the king permitted Master Jajang to continue his monk’s life.
Master Jajang went to China with ten other monks in 636. There he received relics of the Buddha from Manjusri Bodhisattva and then returned to Silla with different sets of texts. He built a small hermitage on Mt. Yeongchuksan and from there oversaw the building of Tongdosa.
Before entering the temple compound, the visitor has to pass over the ＂windless＂ bridge which leads into a forest of ＂windless＂ pines. Most temples have a bridge — often over a wonderful rushing torrent — before the gates to the compound. This is a symbolic purification of the individual as he or she passes from the secular world into the spiritual world.
The Main Hall at Tongdosa Temple, (National Treasure No. 144), was reconstructed in 1601 in the reign of King Seonjo; the previous one had been destroyed in the Hideyoshi Invasion. It is one of the only ancient buildings (with the Great Hall of Light) in the temple compound. The Main Hall is unique in that it has no statue, only a window looking out to a stupa. The ceiling of the hall is especially marvelous as it is covered with a beautifully executed pattern of chrysanthemums.
Behind the Main Hall are the Diamond Stairs which lead up to a platform. On the platform is a bell-shaped stupa or pagoda, surrounded by a stone barrier. The gate to enter into this little enclosure is very finely decorated with dragons, clouds and two protector guardians which have been hewn out of the granite doors. At the four corners of the platform there are protective deities. This bell-shaped stupa is perfectly proportioned. The base and upper part are decorated with lotus patterns, lotus blossoms, lotus petals, the Four Virtues and gods; it is believed to enshrine the relics of the Buddha which Master Jajang brought from China and is therefore the focal point of the temple. As the stupa contains relics of the Buddha, it represents the Buddha and so there is no need for a statue in the Main Hall as well.
Pagodas developed from stupas, the symbol used to represent the presence of the Buddha after his death because they enshrined his remains. After the Buddha was cremated, his remains were divided up between the eight different clans who had been his followers during his lifetime and each clan built a stupa. These cupola-shaped structures, being symbols of the Buddha, then continued to be constructed in the grounds of every new temple which came into being and their shape evolved as Buddhism was accepted in other cultures. As time went by, they were used to enshrine the remains of great monks as well. In China, the stupa evolved into a pagoda which also took on different forms. Today you can see pudo, bell-shaped pagodas, many-storied pagodas and simple, few storied pagodas all varying in shape, design and decoration depending on the period in which they were made, the amount of money offered by the donor and the skill of the craftsman.
There are many buildings at Tongdosa. Of special interest are: the museum which contains many precious ancient objects; the memorial shrine to Jajang built in 1727 containing a portrait of the master; and the Great Hall of Light. This last is a hall dedicated to Vairocana Buddha and was constructed 600 years ago; it is reputed to be the oldest in Korea. The statue and decorations are magnificent.
Of note is the lovely Nine Dragons Pond. Originally it was very large and nine dragons lived in it. However, after some time it was reduced in size and now the monks who live in the temple believe there is only one dragon (referred to as a snake) which never comes out…
There are many small hermitages in the valleys behind the temple.