Buddhist Architecture in Korea*

Stone pillar bases of the West Image Hall, Mireuksa temple site

Kim Bongryol
PhD, Professor of Architecture, Korea National University of Arts

A Buddhist Temple Is a Complex of Buildings

Buddhism was introduced to China from India and Central Asia, and it was already prevalent in China by the fourth century when the religion was first introduced to the Korean peninsula. At that time, the peninsula was divided into three separate kingdoms: Goguryeo 高句麗 (37 BCE–668 CE), Baekje 百濟 (18 BCE–660 CE), and Silla 新羅 (57 BCE–935 CE). Buddhism was welcomed by the royal houses of the Three Kingdoms, which pursued Buddhism competitively. The royal houses took the principal initiative for its spread, and Buddhism flourished in uniquely Korean forms, which came to characterize the architecture of Buddhist temples.

Following the introduction of Buddhism, the royal houses of the Three Kingdoms constructed huge temples in the heart of their capital cities. Goguryeo built Jeongneungsa 定陵寺 in Pyeongyang 平壤 to manage the royal tombs. Baekje constructed Mireuksa 彌勒寺 in Iksan 益山, a new city to which the capital of Baekje later moved. Silla constructed Hwangnyongsa 皇龍寺 in the heart of Gyeongju 慶州. The early seventh-century Mireuksa was built on a huge site on which three temples were placed in juxtaposition according to the Buddhist doctrine stating that Maitreya (Mireuk in Korean), the Future Buddha, would come to the world to save all living beings through three sermons. It is said that Mireuksa covered a land area of 165,000 square meters and was home to as many as three thousand monks. Hwangnyongsa was founded in 570 CE and covered an area of 80,000 square meters. A nine-story wooden pagoda was built at its center. This wooden pagoda rose 80 meters and had stairs inside that led to the top floor. It served as an observatory to view the city. Construction of temples by the royal houses drove the development of technology and improved the quality of Korean architecture overall, not to mention advancing Buddhist architecture.

According to Mahayana Buddhism, which is the mainstream of Korean Buddhism, the whole universe consists of three thousand worlds, which means near infinity, and one Buddha presides over each of these three thousand worlds. Buddhism has expanded from the belief in the one and only Buddha Shakyamuni to the belief in three thousand Buddhas. In particular, Mahayana doctrine emphasizes the “Path of the bodhisattva,” a key teaching of Mahayana ethics, which says “Seek enlightenment above, transform sentient beings below.” Countless bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Samantabhadra became popular and were venerated as second only to Buddha Shakyamuni. Also, in Central Asia and China, indigenous deities were added to the Buddhist pantheon, and these native gods became objects of worship in Korea as well. As a result, Central Asian Luminous Kings, the Daoist gods of the Big Dipper’s seven stars, and the Korean Mountain Spirit, not to mention many other Buddhist deities, all became objects of worship in Korea.

Buddhist temples in Korea necessarily included image halls for multiple Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities. According to the principle of “One World, One Buddha,” or the existence of one Buddha at a time, a single building should enshrine only one object of worship, requiring that a temple have various buildings for worship. During the Joseon 朝鮮 period (1392–1910), when Confucianism was espoused by the ruling class and the elite literati-bureaucrats severely suppressed Buddhism, the Buddhist community in an effort to ensure its own survival unified all beliefs in different Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The distinctions between Buddhist sects were removed, and buildings for a number of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities were built on the premises of one single temple.

Located in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, Tongdosa 通度寺 has sixteen buildings in total for worship: five separate buildings for five Buddhas including Shakyamuni, Amitabha, Bhaishajyaguru, Vairochana, and Maitreya; four buildings for bodhisattvas and arhats including Avalokiteshvara, Kshitigarbha, and the Arhats; and six building for other deities including Chilseong 七星 (the Daoist Gods of the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper), Dokseong 獨聖 (Hermit Sage), Sansin 山神 (Mountain Spirit), the Four Heavenly Kings, and more.

Korean Buddhism prohibited the marriage of monks and established an obligation to live an austere, celibate life. Although a Buddhist sect that permits the marriage of monks came into being in the twentieth century, celibate monks still dominate the Buddhist community in Korea and are considered morally superior among laypeople. Temples, therefore, are monasteries where monks who renounced the world reside, study, and meditate.

The basic rule at a temple is “one room, one monk.” For this reason, a temple needs as many rooms as the number of monks residing there in addition to facilities like a kitchen, dining hall, bathing area, and toilets. A number of buildings for common use are also required, including a lecture hall to study and discuss sutras, a prayer hall for all monks to chant together, and a hall to practice Seon 禪 (Ch. Chan, Jp. Zen) or meditation. It has been general practice in traditional Korean architecture to assign one function to each building. As the residences for monks, dining hall, lecture hall, prayer hall, and meditation hall were each separately constructed as independent buildings, the area for monks alone could include some ten buildings. Korean Buddhist architecture was bigger and more dignified than secular architecture. In fact, monasteries were in no way inferior to royal palaces in leading contemporaneous architecture. Numerous Buddhist temples were built during the Joseon period even in the face of the heavy political and economic suppression of Buddhism. The tradition of large scale, ornamented buildings, which was established in the early stage when Buddhism was first introduced to Korea, still continues today.

A temple is a unified premises consisting of a prayer section for laypeople and a monastic section for resident monks. According to Mahayana tradition, the prayer section requires a number of buildings for various objects of worship (Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities), and under the tradition of ascetic living, the monastic quarters need multiple buildings, some for eating and sleeping and others for practicing the faith. This is the reason Korean Buddhist temples consist of so many independent buildings. Accordingly, although it is important to make each building impressive, the relationship between buildings within a temple complex has even great significance. Architectural concerns such as the integration and separation of the prayer and monastic sections, the hierarchical distinctions between buildings dedicated to Buddhas and those for subordinate deities, and the association between the interior spaces within buildings and outside spaces between buildings are truly complex issues that are governed by the religious and sectarian tradition of each temple.

Buildings and Structural Elements

Contrary to the European tradition in which materials and building techniques clearly differed between religious and secular structures, Korean Buddhist architecture is not significantly different from that of administrative buildings or common residences. Ancient temples in Egypt and medieval churches in Europe are exquisite, imposing stone edifices, which contrast with ordinary residences made of wood. Korean Buddhist structures, on the other hand, were wooden buildings just like ordinary houses. Construction techniques that were developed for Buddhist architecture were also applied to secular buildings and the technological gap between the two remained narrow. Accordingly, in the Korean architectural tradition, the plan and construction of Buddhist architecture represent characteristics of Korean architecture in general.

The main parts of a building are the stone base, the timber column-and-beam skeleton, and the heavy pitched roof with overhanging eaves. Once a site is selected, the ground is rammed hard and the stone foundation is laid. This platform functions as the support for a row of columns and keeps the wooden structure from rotting due to infiltration of ground moisture into the wooden structure. The corners of the foundation are reinforced with stones, bricks, or tiles. Such stone bases with elaborate facings were generally used for Buddhist structures.

The wooden structure of Korean buildings is composed of framing with vertical columns and horizontal beams. The heavy weight of the roof is transmitted to the beams which in turn distribute the load to the columns and the ground. The columns are connected by lintels which together frame the walls. Spaces within the framework are filled with clay or wood to form a wall or are fitted with windows or doors to provide light and access. For windows and doors of Buddhist structures, a wooden frame decorated with carved floral patterns is covered with translucent Korean paper. Such windows and doors function as barriers that allows air to pass while reducing the effects of cold and heat from outside.

Brackets—supporting elements that are both functional and decorative—are placed on top of the column heads below the eaves. On the brackets are small columns that form a frame for the roof. Rafters of about ten centimeters in diameter are densely laid on the roof-frame to make a sloping roof. The roof is finished by laying tiles on its inclined surfaces. The roof tiles are a type of fired earthenware that make the entire building structurally stable by compressing the frame with their heavy weight while also protecting the building from rain and snow. Korean roof tiles come in convex and concave pairs. Concave tiles are shaped like a quarter cylinder and convex tiles are semicircular in profile. Concave tiles are laid first while convex tiles are placed across the joints between the concave tiles, affording perfect waterproofing for the roof. Specially manufactured roof tile ends are used along the edge of the eaves. Concave and convex roof tile ends are all attached with angled sides so that rainwater can be channeled away from the building. The angled sides of the roof tile ends are decorated. On Buddhist structures, decorative designs that symbolize Buddhism, such as the lotus and phoenix, were stamped on the angled sides. On the peak of the roof, large ornamental tiles called chimi 鴟尾 in Korean crowned the ends of the main roof ridge. This special type of roof tile resembles the tail of an imaginary fish or wings of a bird.

Korean wooden structures were extremely vulnerable to fire. Most were destroyed during war or by accidental fires. Although some buildings have been rebuilt, it is difficult to restore them to their original state. Once they catch fire, major structural components such as columns and beams burn quickly and the whole building collapses. Only the foundation and its stone or clay facing remain along with the roof tiles. Much of the original structure of many European buildings ruined in wars or by fire remain standing for extraordinarily long periods of time because they were made of stone, but the remains of ruined Korean structures are flattened, as can be witnessed at many historic sites. Most artifacts excavated from such ruins are roof tiles, which are fire-resistant. Roof tile ends decorated with exquisitely impressed designs have been discovered in large numbers and displayed in museums.

Unlike wooden buildings in Europe, Korean wooden buildings have long extended eaves in delicately curved lines, which are very impressive. These cantilevered eaves project out from the beams that support the rafters. A special system called gongpo 栱包 (wooden bracket system used to support the heavy tiled roofs at the ends of the eaves) was devised to make the eaves extend in a beautifully curved line. Placed between the heads of the columns and the roof frame, the gongpo disperses the weight to the beams and columns by transmitting the vertical load from the rafters. Elaborate multi-cluster wooden brackets on the heads of the columns create a single structure themselves, which is the most characteristic of all exterior components of Korean structures. Gongpo are also important ornamental components often bearing carved lotus and cloud designs.

At the center of the interior space, Buddhist images are enshrined on top of a wooden altar. This altar is also called the sumidan 須彌壇 as it symbolizes Mount Sumeru, which is regarded as the center of the Buddhist universe. On the ceiling directly above the sumidan hangs a separate house-shaped canopy called a datjip 닫집 in Korean, which serves as a roof for the Buddhist statues enshrined on the altar. The interior of the datjip is filled with sculptures in the shape of a dragon, phoenix, and clouds to represent Buddhist heaven. Buddhist architecture does not divide the interior of a building into compartments but treats it as a single space.

The walls and ceiling are adorned with painted images of Buddha, heavenly beings, and various symbolic motifs such as lotuses. This was meant by the Koreans to create a splendid and magnificent Buddhist paradise. The five basic colors used in Korean architecture are red, yellow, blue, black, and white. The coloring technique is systematic and follows a specific set of rules. In addition to serving as interior and exterior decoration, applied paint protects the wooden building against rotting.

Relationship between Image Halls and Pagodas

Cave temples and stupas are archetypes of early Buddhist architecture. Caves were natural places for monks who had entered the Buddhist priesthood to practice austerity, and stupas were places for lay devotees to pray. Originally, the stupa, which means “burial mound for enlightened beings” in Sanskrit, was a mound that enshrined relics of the Buddha Shakyamuni and was worshiped as the symbol of the Buddha. China received the tradition of the stupa in the form of the high-storied building from India through Central Asia. Chinese pagodas were mainly built with bricks, but in Korea stone was the preferred material for constructing pagodas. Although both wooden and brick pagodas were also constructed in Korea, most Korean pagodas were built from stone and represent an architectural type distinguishable from the Chinese brick pagodas and Japanese counterparts made of wood.

Cave temples were developed on the Deccan Plateau in India. The earliest examples were created by cutting into sandstone rock to create spaces for Buddhist monks to stay. As visits to monks by lay devotees increased over time, caves for worship were also created, promoting the development of cave temple complexes. In regions where Buddhism spread, constructing a cave temple was regarded as the greatest way of accumulating merit. It soon created an international boom for hollowing out cave temples. This architectural form developed in Ajanta and Nashik in India, spread through Bamiyan and Kizil in Central Asia, and traveled to China, where the cave temples of Dunhuang 敦煌 and Yungang 雲崗 were built. Korea, too, aspired to construct cave temples after Buddhism was first introduced to the peninsula. However, the major rock type which covers the land surface of Korea is granite, which is too hard to cut into. In India and China, cave temples were comparatively easy to construct because the bedrock was much softer limestone, sandstone, and mudstone. Seokguram Grotto 石窟庵, the representative example of Korean cave temples, constructed in the eighth century, is in fact a stone chamber artificially built with stone and covered with a dome.

Although many cave temples were built, most temples were free-standing complexes with proper monks’ quarters. Also, at the initial stage, worship of Buddhist images was not yet introduced, and the stupa was the sole object of devotion. Around the second century BCE, Buddhist statues in the form of human figures appeared in the Gandhara and Mathura regions of India, and such statues became established as objects of worship. It was only natural that Buddhist statues in realistic human form eventually replaced the abstract symbol of the stupa as the central object of worship. This led to the need for the construction of a new building to enshrine Buddhist statues. Because Buddhist sculptures are covered in very expensive gilding, the image hall came to be called the “golden hall.”

The image hall itself became an object of worship because of the Buddhist statues enshrined within. The pagoda standing outside the image hall continued to be an object for a different, more abstract worship. Accordingly, ancient temples comprised an image hall and pagoda together, and the architectural form of the Buddhist temple complex was determined entirely by the relationship between the image hall and the pagoda.

Each of the ancient kingdoms of Korea had its own architectural layout for temples. For example, the architectural type of Goguryeo was “one pagoda, three image halls,” with one pagoda surrounded by image halls on three sides. Baekje adopted the “one pagoda and one image hall” model in which a pagoda, image hall, and lecture hall were placed along a shared axis. In Silla, the “twin pagodas” type, in which two pagodas were located in front of the image hall, was preferred.

Around the tenth century, the Seon School (Kr. Seonjong 禪宗), or Meditation School, was introduced to the Korean peninsula. It was received with enthusiasm by the Korean Buddhist community and was established as the major sect of Korean Buddhism going forward. The Seon School rejected existing icons and freed itself from the existing architectural patterns. Stupa worship, or the “cult of relics,” began to weaken, and this naturally made the pagoda lose importance. Buddhist pagodas became smaller in size and were pushed to the periphery of temple compounds away from the center. Temples without pagodas that have only an image hall quickly became the mainstream model.

Diversity in Architectural Forms

Religious architecture in Europe focuses upon the building itself. That is, architecture is a shrine or a church. Buddhist architecture in Korea, on the other hand, is a set of buildings, where a building functions like a single room. For example, the Pantheon in Rome is a religious building and also a piece of religious architecture that enshrines gods. A Buddhist temple in Korea has as few as five and as many as sixty buildings and all these together are considered one architectural whole. The relationship between the buildings and their orientation to the natural topography are essential architectural characteristics. In other words, Korean architecture can be defined as a relationship between buildings and topography rather than as a building itself. This relationship can be considered as an architectural layout or plan. It has taken on diverse forms for a number of reasons, such as when the temple was founded, where the temple is situated, and the sect and religious lineage to which the temple belongs.

Temples founded in ancient times followed strict standards because they were built mostly in capital cities with state support. The “one pagoda, three image halls,” “one pagoda and one image hall,” and “twin pagodas” layouts mentioned earlier are representative architectural plans of ancient temples. These three types all share a common feature in that the perimeter was surrounded by long cloisters forming a border with neighboring sites, which was entirely appropriate for an urban setting. Cloisters composed of a line of buildings make sense due to the flat topographical conditions of a city, enabling temples to be built in standard form.

After the medieval period—particularly during the Joseon period when Buddhism was suppressed—Buddhist temples in the cities were demolished by force and disappeared. Only those deep in the mountains survived. Generous contributions from powerful elites were no longer provided and temples faced financial hardship. Accordingly, inefficient structures like long cloisters disappeared and instead freer architectural arrangements better suited to the irregular, mountainous topography developed. Although the buildings of new temples were generally smaller than those of the past, their number increased to accommodate the beliefs of various schools of Buddhism. The architecture of syncretic Buddhism was more suitable for sloping terrain. Breaking away from geometric layouts, a more organic plan came into being and became the established tradition of Buddhist architecture of Korea.

By the early ninth century, five important sects of Buddhism had been established in Korea. Afterward, Seon Buddhism was introduced in the late ninth and tenth centuries and nine core schools of Seon Buddhism emerged. During the Goryeo 高麗 period (918–1392), when Buddhism was the state religion, the religion reached its apex and some twenty sects flourished. In the thirteenth century, Lamaism, a form of Esoteric Buddhism, was introduced to Korea from Yuan 元 (1279–1368) China. Each of these sects had its own scriptures and teachings, its own main Buddha, and its own view of the universe. It was only natural that the architectural models, which symbolize spiritual principles, should differ among the various types of Buddhism.

For example, temples associated with the Pure Land School, which emphasized a belief in a Buddhist paradise (or Buddha land 佛國土), created an architectural form centered on the external space surrounded by buildings. The inner courtyard of the temple itself was regarded as a representation of the Western Paradise. Temples associated with the Dharma-Character School (Kr. Beopsang jong, Ch. Faxiang zong 法相宗), which promoted Buddhist precepts in religious practice, adopted a strict arrangement of gate-pagoda-stone lantern-image hall-Buddhist statues on a shared axis. Seon temples, on the other hand, were free from such specific constraints. Some were of unprecedented architectural layout with two pagodas placed both in front and behind the image hall. Some followed no architectural pattern at all.

Temples of the Doctrinal School (Kr. Gyojong 敎宗) took a different stance. While temples associated with the Doctrinal School regarded image and lecture halls as important locations for worship and for studying sutras, respectively, Seon emphasized mediation rooms and monks’ living quarters as spaces for religious practice and therefore constructed monastery buildings with spaces for such activities. As advocates for the Doctrinal School and Esoteric Buddhism tend to decorate temples magnificently, they emphasized color and decorative designs. Seon Buddhism, in contrast, regarded all decoration as nothing but emptiness, and emphasized extremely minimal ornament.

The Korean peninsula is small in size with a land area of only 220,000 square kilometers. Its topography is folded into many mountains and valleys, both large and small, making communications between regions difficult and thereby allowing folk cultures peculiar to each region to develop. In particular, the traditions of the Three Kingdoms that coexisted in the early centuries of the development of Buddhism persisted as cultural differences in later history. For example, many buildings in the region of the former Baekje kingdom, which has vast plains, sprawl horizontally, while many of those in the mountainous region of the former Silla kingdom are very vertical.

This discussion has shown that the diversity found in Korean Buddhist architecture developed through the ages, influenced by topography, religious schools, and regional traditions. Although relatively few Buddhist temples remain today, each extant example has unique architectural characteristics resulting from this complex matrix of factors.

* This essay is adapted from a text first published in English by Kim Bongryol in the exhibition catalogue The Smile of Buddha: 1600 Years of Buddhist Art in Korea (Brussels: Bozarbooks and Bai, 2008), 89–99. The publication of the current version has been coordinated by Lee Jae-jeong and Yang Sumi at the National Museum of Korea. It was edited by Keith Wilson and Sunwoo Hwang at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. The copyright belongs to Bozarbooks and Bai, Brussels.

View of stone pillar bases of the West Image Hall, Mireuksa temple site. Korea, Japanese Occupation period, 1917. Original image dry plate photograph. National Museum of Korea, pan 23141