Most Buddhist temples in Korea with a history of a thousand years are located in the center of pine-scented mountains. Each temple has main halls, which are called different names such as Daewoongjeon, Geungnakjeon, Daejeokgwangjeon or Daemyeonggwangjeon depending on the kind of Buddha enshrined inside.
Korean Buddhism saw many temples built during the era of Three Kingdoms and in its heyday during the Koryo Dynasty. However, most of the temples were destroyed due to many wars such as the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 and the Korean War in 1950, with fires accompanying many of the wars. Consequently, it is very rare to find buildings which preserve their original shapes and layouts. In terms of the main material, the form of wood also made it much more difficult to preserve the original structure of the temples compared to stone buildings in the West. In addition to such disasters, some of the old buildings have gradually lost their original shapes in the process of dismantlement and repair. This is why I am attempting to make portraits of the buildings. Borrowing the technique of a photographic portrait, which highlights a figure with a simple background, the scenery surrounding the main halls was removed to make the buildings isolated and focused.
As the Jogye Order has over 3,000 temples registered nationwide, much research was required to select relatively well-preserved main halls in temples. It was not easy to visit about 260 temples, from the northernmost Geonbongsa Temple in Goseong to the southernmost Gwaneumsa Temple in Jeju, but it was enjoyable to me as I always liked going around. To capture a nice portrait of each building, I had to carefully choose the shooting time to avoid shades underneath the eaves, or a crowd in case of a famous temple. Sometimes, lotus lanterns or banners hiding the front of buildings made me busier to capture the right moment. Regardless of my religious beliefs, visiting temples in the mountains was a pleasant journey to clean my mind and give me joyous experiences in addition to the work itself.
A wooden pillar is fixed on the foundation made of a natural stone, while the carving of the bottom of the pillar follows the surface of the stone. The weight of the roof is dispersed with wooden brackets or dragon head sculptures installed underneath the eaves. The collection of the curved roofing tiles creates a beautiful contour of a gently sloping roof. It is marvelous to appreciate all these elements of the buildings. I also can’t help but be struck by the beauty of the carved patterns on the wooden doors, illustrating turtles, frogs, canes, lotus flowers, and peony blossoms. The doors carved with comb patterns always catch my eyes with their elegance. The Main Hall of a Buddhist Temple, showing off the beauty of nature without using even a single nail, deserves to be called the most representative building of Korea embracing the wisdom of our ancestors.
All images and text © Giljung Yoon
By Giljung Yoon
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