Entering the Three Temple Gates
Chun Ock-bae | Freelance Wrter
Mahayana Buddhism first came to Korea through China in 372, during the middle of Korea’s Three Kingdoms Era (37 BCE−668 CE). Since then, Korean Buddhism has evolved in its own unique style for the past 1,600 years. Even today it continues to flourish and evolve dynamically.
Buddhism has been the national religion for most of Korea’s history, except during the Joseon Dynasty (1392−1910). Even during Joseon’s Neo-Confucian era, however, the common people often preferred to keep Buddhism as their true religion, and some kings and royal families also continued to support Buddhism in private in order to protect and bring happiness to the kingdom.
Buddhist temples hold a large portion of Korea’s national treasures and heritages. These include: temple halls and pavilions, pagodas, sculptures, paintings and various handicrafts. Most Korean traditional temples are located high in the mountains or in deep valleys, including key locations in the most beautiful national and provincial parks. Others are situated in or near urban areas either due to city expansion or because of new temples being constructed in or near a city to suit the needs of the citizens. Urban temples also may not have some of the gates this article introduces due to space-limitations.
Lay Buddhists commonly visit temples to meditate, to pray, to donate gifts or money and to participate in major Buddhist commemorative ceremonies. From the gates leading to the Main Buddha Hall, past the pagodas and steles, the overall layout of a temple is a symbolic representation of the Buddha realm. And the architecture in a temple has its own significance in terms of Buddhist teachings.
One Pillar Gate (Ilju-mun)
The One pillar Gate is the first entrance to a temple, and it symbolically separates the Buddha realm and the secular world. Though the gate actually has two columns supporting it, only one on each side as opposed to the usual two on each side, Buddhists call it the “One Pillar Gate” because it symbolizes that there exists only one absolute truth in Buddhism. In addition, it also intends to suggest that anyone who enters the temple should be of “one mind,” discarding all worldly worries and desires, and vowing to strive for awakening.
The wooden plaque attached at the top center of the gate has the temple’s name written upon it, usually in Chinese calligraphy and reading right to left.
Gate of Four Heavenly Kings (Sacheonwang-mun)
The second gate is the Gate of Four Heavenly Kings. Its origins are in the ancient religious legends of India. After listening to the Buddha’s teachings, the mighty beings depicted as towering statues at this gate became devas who are destined to defend the temple and crush all “demons” that may try to enter.
There are four guardians, two on each side of the gate. Each guardian holds a different item in one hand, either a lute, sword, “dragon and wish-fulfilling gem,” or “pagoda and banner.” They continually watch over and protect the temple against ill fortune from the four cardinal directions: north, east south and west. The number “four” also symbolizes the four seasons. These four guardians also perform the role of symbolically protecting the Buddhadharma and fighting against delusory passions, thereby assisting in the liberation of beings who suffer in the mundane world.
The statues of the guardians are usually carved from wood, but in smaller temples, they may be just painted on the doors or interior walls.
Gate of Non-Duality (Buri-mun)
The Gate of Non-Duality is the third and final gate before reaching the main courtyard where the Main Buddha Hall sits. It enshrines statues of Manjusri Bodhisattva (Munsu-bosal) and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Bohyeon-bosal). The concept of non-duality says that the realms of spirit (mind) and materiality (body) are not two as they may appear, but actually one. According to Buddhist teachings, everything is unified in harmony, connected and integrated, if only we are wise enough to see it.
The Buddha realm and this mundane world, being and non-being, birth and death, good and evil, male and female, pleasure and suffering, and every other supposedly opposite polarity are just temporary aspects of the ultimate whole. The concept of duality implies opposition or relativity and is our common way of judging worldly matters. Thus, non-duality transcends opposition and discrimination and is the way to reach the truth of equality. In other words, it is the final and last step for attaining perfect enlightenment. This gate, therefore, is also called the Gate of Liberation (Haetal-mun) which leads us into the enlightened state of nirvana.
Now that you are aware of the symbolic meanings of temple gates, it should be much more interesting and enjoyable for you when you visit Korean temples located in scenic mountains and valleys and surrounded by nature’s beauty.