Posted by: rbbadger | September 18, 2011


Pŏmŏsa is one of the most important Buddhist temples in the Pusan area.  In old Korea, at least during the Chosŏn Dynasty, Buddhist monks were forbidden from residing in cities and temples were forbidden to be built within the city walls. This is quite different from China, where even in the old part of Beijing, one can find Buddhist temples. The Chosŏn dynasty had adopted Chinese Neo-Confucianism in its strictest form. It was the official state ideology. Buddhists and shamans were barely tolerated.

Things have changed in the modern era. Seoul now boasts some large temples within its city limits. Not all of Korea’s kings were adverse to Buddhism. King Sejong the Great respected the Buddhists, though not all in his court felt the same way. Some of the queens were devout Buddhists, which sometimes did alleviate the situation. There was a reprieve when Buddhist monks took up arms in the defense of the nation during the Hideyoshi invasions. However, they would not last.

One thing the policies of the Chosŏn dynasty did was to ensure that many of the nation’s outstanding temples were located in more secluded locations, often in areas of great natural beauty. This is certainly the case of Pŏmŏsa. I am not interested in becoming or a Buddhist or in engaging in Buddhist meditation practice, though I do maintain some degree of interest in Buddhist religious practice. I love visiting the temples for two reasons. One is for the architecture. The other is for the surroundings.

To get to Pŏmŏsa, take subway line 1 to Beomeosa Station. (Beomeosa is the new, governmentally-sanctioned Roman spelling of Pŏmŏsa. I am using the older, and I think superior, McCune-Reichauer Romanization method. It gives a closer approximation of how Pŏmŏsa is actually pronounced. I am not a fan of the 2000 Revised Romanization championed by the Korean government, though I do use it occasionally. No method of Romanization is perfect, but McCune-Reichauer is better for use by foreigners who cannot read the language.)

We begin at the Ilchimun. All temples generally have one of these. The Chinese characters identify this temple as Pŏmŏsa and its location on Kŭmjŏng Mountain.  The Chinese characaters in its name, 梵魚寺 mean Nirvana, fish, and temple.  So perhaps this is the Temple of the fish of Nirvana. It is also identified as belonging to the Chogye (Jogye) Order of Korean Buddhism.  After passing through the Ilchimun, or one-pillar gate (so named because from a certain angle, it looks as if only one pillar is supporting it), you pass through the gate of the four heavenly kings and the Nirvana gate.  Both are under reconstruction.  This is a very old temple.  Monks have resided on Kŭmjŏng Mountain since about the seventh century. In the late sixteenth century, this temple was burnt to the ground by Japanese invaders under the leadership of Hideyoshi. It was rebuilt in the early seventeenth century, only to be burnt to the ground again. It was again rebuilt in the seventeenth century. This gate and many of the buildings date from that time.

Taking the alternate path, you are able to pass through an area with bamboo groves.  Those plants get to be quite tall.

As I mentioned before, there are parts of this temple which are under construction.  One way in which temples raise funds is by selling roof tiles.  You can buy a roof tile and have your name, or the name of your loved ones, written upon it. 

This is very much an active monastery, despite being a tourist attraction in Pusan.  There is a monastic seminary which trains the young monks.  Also, those who are interested can participate in the Templestay Program.  It is possible to lead the life of a monk for a weekend.  Some of the monks do speak English, though some do not.  The ones I met did not speak English, but they were very friendly.  Here’s a view of the monastic dormitories.

The heart of any temple is the Taeungchŏn, or Great Hero Hall. It is generally given the greatest prominence and it is here that the statue of the Buddha, as well as statues of other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are enshrined. (Bodhisattvas are englightened beings who return lifetime after lifetime to aid sentient beings. The Tibetan Buddhists regard the Dalai Lama as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva known as Avalokitesvara in Pali and as Kwan Ŭm Bosal in Korean.)

This particular hall is located on a rather high place, so you are able to get quite good views of the surroundings.  Next to it, we find the Ksitigarbha, or Medicine Buddha Hall.  This figure, known in Korean as Jijang Bosal, is particularly revered.  He is said to have taken a vow not to achieve final enlightenment until all the hells are emptied.  He is also invoked as a protector of children.  In Japan, parents who have lost children, had miscarriages or abortions will sometimes offer statues of Ksitigarbha as a child and have the statue dressed with a bib and a hat to comfort the soul of the dead child and avoid retaliation from its vengeful spirit.  This is seen in Korea sometimes as well.  Manbulsa, a temple I visited last year, has quite a few of these statues.  Often, pieces of candy are sometimes left as well.

Not all temples are alike.  While there are common elements, this one has a unique series of shrines.  Basically, three different shrines are combined into one building.  The first one on the left has paintings of the life of the Buddha, the one in the middle has a statue of “The Lonely Saint” (as I’ve seen it referred to), and the one on the right commemorates the 16 arhats, or disciples of the Buddha.  Generally, these are housed in separate buildings.

Next door to the triple shrine, we find the shrine of the Mountain Spirit, or Sannyŏnggak (山靈閣).  Buddhism has a more or less easy co-existence with Korean shamanism.  Shrines to various shamanic deities are very common in Korean temple complexes.  Syncretism is fairly common in East Asia.  In Singapore, there is a large Daoist temple right next to a large Hindu temple.  It is not uncommon for devotees at the Daoist temple to pay their respects at the Hindu temple.  In Japan, many people worship at both Shinto and Buddhist temples.  In Korea, Shamanic deities have shrines in Buddhist temples.  Shamans sometimes used Buddhist statues in their rituals. 

The scenery is defintely impressive. 

Kerk Phillips, an economics professor at BYU, has an informative site which you may access by clicking here.  He has more pictures than I do and some more information.  For those with an interest in Korean Shamanism, as well as Korean Buddhism, I highly reccomend visiting David A. Mason’s site.  Professor Mason teaches at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and has lived here for over twenty years.  He is something of an authority on Korean Shamanism. 

I have some more photos which I will post later.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve posted.  If any of my readers are visiting the Busan area and would like to visit Pŏmŏsa, take the Line 1 subway of Beomeosa Station.  Take either exit 5 or exit seven.  There is a street between the two exits.  Walk up the street and take bus 90.  This will take you right to the temple.  You can also take a taxi.  This shouldn’t be too expensive, as the temple is only about 3km away from the station.


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