Assemblies of monks in Korea's largest temple pay honor to
Great Vinaya Master Jajang-yulsa, founder of Tongdo-sa and
designer / builder / establisher of the Geumgang-dan Altar.
|another Shilla pagoda, in front of the Yeongsan-jeon Hall
Tongdo-sa 통도사 通度寺 = Yangsan Vulture-Peak Crossing-Over Temple
One of Korea’s Sambo Sachal (三寶寺刹, Temples of the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha),
said to represent the Buddha himself, and one of the Jeokmyeol-bogung (寂滅寶宮, Silent Nirvana Treasure
Palace) temples; therefore one of the largest and most important monasteries in the nation. It is located in a
deep valley on the eastern side of Mt. Yeongchwi-san (靈鷲山), which means Vulture Mountain and is a
reference to the sacred peak in the Indian Himalaya where Buddha preached the Beophwa-gyeong (法華經,
Lotus Sutra); it is part of the Yeongnam Alps (嶺南알프스) Range, which is the southern third of the Nakdong-
jeongmaek Mountain Range (洛東正脈). That mountain is still also sometimes called by its original name Mt.
Chwiseo-san (鷲棲山) which refers to its abundance of useful herbs. Tongdo-sa is located in Yangsan City
(梁山市, Bridge or Rafter Mountain City) of Gyeongsangnam-do Province (慶尙南道). The unusual characters
of its name Tongdo (通度) are difficult to translate, literally meaning Crossing Over (walking on a safe bridge
over dangerous waters) or Communicate System, but is taken by Buddhists to mean “Pass through
(transitioning from) this mundane world into the realm of Enlightenment;” however, they seem to come from
ancient Buddhist scriptures and have a deeper meaning which Buddhist scholars have interpreted as
“redeeming all sentient beings from suffering through mastery of the teachings."
Tongdo-sa was founded in 646, during the reign of Queen Seondeok (善德女王, r. 632-47) by Master Jajang
(慈藏, 608-686) upon his return to the Silla Kingdom (新羅, 57 BCE – 668 CE) from Tang China and
appointment as Supreme Buddhist Overseer (antecedent to the title Guksa 國師), empowered to create new
temples. He first built a small hermitage on the mountainside, where he lived while supervising the temple's
construction; it still exists today and is called Jajang-am. He had brought with him a collection of sari (舍利,
sarira, crystal post-cremation relics) and other personal relics of Sakyamuni Buddha as the result of mystical
experiences he had at Mt. Wutai-shan (五台山). He enshrined the most important set of these relics in a
special budo (浮屠, memorial stupa; funerary reliquary) on an elaborate stone platform that he named
Geumgang Gyedan (金剛戒壇, Diamond or Vajra Precepts-altar), honoring the classic Geumgang-gyeong
(金剛經, Diamond Sutra). He issued a directive that every monk in the nation must have their ordination
ceremony in front of this monument, and this custom is still maintained by the Jogye Order almost 1400 years
later. This established Tongdo-sa as one of Korea’s most sacred sites, leader among the Jeokmyeol-bogung
sites and the “Buddha Temple” in the Sambo-sajeol system.
Jajang designed the Beopdang (法堂, Main Dharma Hall) as a Dae-ung-jeon (大雄殿) having only a window
in its rear wall above the wooden altar with no Buddha statue, at that time a unique architectural innovation
(but now copied in other similar shrine-temples in Korea). His intention was that those who worship in this hall
direct their attention directly towards the monument filled with relics, symbolically towards the Buddha himself,
with no intermediating statue. This is why people call Tongdo the "Temple without a Buddha.” Jajang is also
said to have built and lit the bopdeung (法燈, Dharma-candle) in this Main Hall, and the monks claim that it
has never gone out, becoming an “eternal flame". In front of this hall lies the small, charming Nine Dragons
Pond; according to myth it was originally large and home to nine yong (龍, dragons), but Jajang drove away
all but one, which he tamed.
Tongdo-sa has flourished throughout Korean history, never declining. By the early Joseon Dynasty (朝鮮),
the valley contained hundreds of buildings and thousands of monks. Much of it was destroyed by Japanese
invaders at the beginning of the Imjin Waeran (壬辰倭亂, 1592-98 Japanese Invasion), but the unique Main
Hall survived the flames. It was last repaired in the early 17th century and remains as one of Korea’s most
authentic and treasured wooden buildings, designated as National Treasure #144.
Today Tongdo-sa is Korea’s largest monastic complex, housing around 500 monks and nuns and having
18 hermitages on the slopes above it, the highest number in the nation. It contains 19 designated treasures
and 794 cultural properties. It's famous for retaining many of its old, faded wall-paintings depicting scenes
from Buddhist teachings and unique Korean folk-motifs.