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Hwangnyongsa temple site - 황룡사지 (皇龍寺址) (7th century)

The Hwangnyongsa Temple site is about 150 yards west of Bunhwangsa temple. Situated in a beautiful plain surrounded by mountains, the site drew the attention of King Chin-hung of the Silla kingdom in 554 AD. Originally the King planned to construct a new palace east of the existing Half Moon Fortress (which had served as a palace for centuries), but according to legend a dragon (an auspicious omen) was sighted at the construction site. The King promptly changed the building to a temple and renamed it "Imperial Dragon Temple" or Hwangnyongsa.

Before Silla unified the Korean peninsula in 668, when it overran the Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms with Tang aid, Buddhism was primarily a state religion, little understood by the common people. From the start, the temple was conceived as a nationalist undertaking, intended to impress foreign visitors and protect the country through securing the power of the Buddha. Allegedly the nine stories of the temple indicate Silla's destiny to conquer the nine nations of East Asia. Buddhism was still a young religion in Silla when Hwangnyongsa was built, having first been adopted by Chin-hung's grandfather Pop-hung. The event is associated with the miraculous martyrdom of Yi Chadon.

Legend says that Yi Chadon (or Ichadon) was the king's Grand Secretary. The king desired the adoption of Buddhism, but his efforts were constantly frustrated by the nobles of Silla, who resisted the new religion. Yi Chadon shared the king's goal and was personally devout, so he suggested a plan to the king in a secret memorial. He asked the king to use his Royal Seal to order the adoption of Buddhism and let the nobles make their arguments. The king would then falsely announce that no such order had been given, demanding who had forged the Royal Seal. Yi Chadon promised that he would step forward and claim it was he. The nobles would demand he be executed. Yi Chadon promised that during the execution, there would be a miracle, and all the court would believe.

The King was pleased with the plan and also touched by Yi Chadon's willingness to die for a just cause. He agreed to Yi Chadon's proposal and everything went through as planned. The king assembled Yi Chadon and the nobles for an audience and demanded who had "falsified" the royal seal. Yi Chadon stepped forward and "admitted" that it was he. The angry nobles, incensed at having Buddhism tricked upon them, demanded his execution. The king agreed.

Yi Chadon then turned to face them and swore an oath. "Though I shall die," he said, "my death will prove the truth of the faith." Then the sword fell and chopped off his head.

Immediately, there was a great surprise. Milk gushed from the wound instead of blood, spouting hundreds of feet into the air. The sun darkened and the earth quaked. Flowers rained from heaven and the head flew hundreds of miles to Diamond Mountain (in what is now North Korea). The shocked nobles immediately repented and Buddhism became the state religion. Yi Chadon's corpse was given a proper burial on Diamond Mountain.

Hwangnyongsa, the legacy of Yi Chadon's faith, took 17 years to construct. Nothing is left of it except the foundation stones, which attest to its size. The main hall was 155 feet long and 55 feet wide. Ten pedestal stones were used at the front, and three flat stones supported three images of the Buddha inside.

Hwangnyongsa was the largest of all Korean pagodas, of which, only one survives. Towering 224 feet, Hwangnyongsa was all wood except for the foundation, which covered 6084 square feet - 78 feet to a side - with eight stone pillars per side. The whole structure was supported by sixty foundation stones. The 27th ruler of Silla, Queen Seondeok, built this pagoda, not King Chin-hung.

The earliest and most important of the Silla Priests to serve at Hwangnyongsa was Priest Wongwang, who was born during Chin-hung's reign. Wongwang became a Buddhist theologian at age 13 and made the perilous journey to Tang China for additional study. Upon his return to Korea, Wongwang formulated the code used by the Hwarang, the "flower youth" of Silla society, which contained five precepts based on Buddhism and Confucianism. The Hwarang formed the core of Silla's state Buddhism, visiting famous mountains and rivers throughout the country, studying Buddhism and military skills simultaneously. Wongwang, the founder, died between the age of 84 and 99, and his ashes were buried at Geumgoksa (the Gold Valley Temple) in Samgisan. When he died music and fragrance filled the air, a common occurrence at the death of Buddhist saints.

Address: 경북 경주시 구황동 320-1.

(Designated Historic Site #6).


The approximate location of the site is 35.836689' N, 129.233211' E (WGS 84 map datum).


All images copyright 1998 Timothy M. Ciccone & Abraham C. Ahn

Adams, Edward B. Korea's Kyongju: Cultural Spirit of Silla in Korea
  Seoul International Tourist Publishing Company, 1983. Seoul

Lee, Peter, and Wm. Theodore de Bary. Sources of Korean Tradition, Volume 1
  Columbia University Press, 1997. New York

Korean Office of Cultural Properties

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