As one of the few architectural structures left standing from the Silla Dynasty, Bunhwangsa (분황사) Temple is one of the “must see” historical sites in Gyeongju. Built in 634 C.E. by order of the legendary Queen Seondeok (선덕여왕), Bunhwangsa is most famous for its three-tiered pagoda. Originally built as seven or nine tiers, the pagoda was badly damaged during both the Mongolian Invasions of the 13th century, when the neighboring Hwangnyeongsa Temple (황룡사) and nine-story pagoda were burned to the ground, and again during the Hideyoshi Invasion of 1592. Curiously, the pagoda was built in “imitation brick” style, meaning that Silla workmen actually took the time to carve stones into the shapes of bricks to imitate the brick pagodas then fashionable in China. Seems to me like it would’ve been a lot easier to make it out of actual bricks, but I’ll leave the debate over that minor detail up to the historians.
Bunhwangsa’s pagoda is notable for a number of things, but particularly striking are its eight fearsome stone Vajrapani warrior statues guarding the four Buddha niches on each side. The Vajrapani warriors are joined by four stone lions, a few of which have not aged well over the centuries. The pagoda was originally built with eight of these lions, which used to flank the Vajrapani warriors guarding the Buddha niches. The four surviving lions were moved to their current resting places on the corners during the Japanese renovation of the pagoda in 1915. A number of stunning gold and bronze reliquaries, among other treasures, were discovered during the pagoda’s renovation, and are now on display in the Gyeongju National Museum.
As one of the most important royal temples of the Silla Dynasty, Bunwhangsa was once home to such Buddhist luminaries as the famed Silla monks Ven. Jajang (자장 율사) and Ven. Wonhyo (원효), whose portrait sits above an alter on the right side of Bunhwangsa’s Dharma Hall. However, I will leave it up to David Mason to discuss more of the temple’s rich history, including the legend of the temple’s “Three-Dragons Well.” What I’d wanted to mention in this post is one of Bunhwangsa’s more curious treasures that’s often missed by visitors. In the south-west corner of the temple complex, next to the bathrooms, is the temple’s “Bhrama Bell,” which visitors can ring for a paltry donation of 1,000 won. One warning though: Don’t ring twice or you’ll risk the wrath of the ticket seller!
On the right side of the temple bell pavilion is a large “Wooden Fish” knocker, which is not too surprising as both the bell and “wooden fish” knocker are two the four sacred percussion instruments found in Korean Buddhist temples (the remaining two being the “Dharma Drum” and “Cloud-shaped Gong”). The Bhrama Bell is present in even the smallest Buddhist hermitages in Korea, while all four instruments are typically found together in larger temples, like Tongdosa (통도사). The instruments are played twice daily in a ritual calling sentient beings to the Buddhist path to Enlightenment, each instrument calling to beings residing in different realms. The bell calls to beings suffering in the Hell realms, while the drum summons the creatures of the land. The gong summons birds, creatures of the air and heavenly beings, and the “wooden fish” knocker quite naturally calls to beings living under water.
There are several stories and legends surrounding the symbolism of the fish in Korean Buddhism, though in general the fish is an inspiration for Buddhist meditators as its eyes are ever open and thus a fish is always aware and vigilant as the Buddhist meditator is to be constantly mindful. The wood fish is not just used for ritual purposes but is sometimes played to keep time during chanting or even to summon the faithful to temple meals. Traditionally the wooden fish knocker was carved out of a single, hollowed out log into the likeness of a normal fish, though over the years the fish took on the facial features of a Korean dragon.
Curiously the wooden fish knocker of Bunhwangsa Temple resembles neither a normal fish nor a dragon. With bulging eyes and a fierce gaping mouth, the features of this particular wooden fish are not like any I’ve ever seen elsewhere in Korean temples (and I’ve visited a lot of temples). Reputedly carved during the late Joseon Dynasty, this curious instrument is at least over 100 years old, though it could just as easily be at home in the Museum of Modern Art. It’s not mentioned in any of the literature I’ve seen on Bunhwangsa, so the origins of this wild, if slightly comical, piece of Buddhist folk art will remain a mystery for now. Though, I can help wonder if it wasn’t inspired somehow by the “Legend of the Three Dragons Well?” In any case, after you’ve finished your tour of Bunhwangsa, hook a left immediately before walking out the temple gate and follow the wall to the “Brahama Bell Pavilion.” This unique and striking “wood fish” knocker is on the right, next to the wall. It also makes for a nice family photo op. See who can make a face that closest resembles the fish’s!