#3920 - Friday, June 11, 2010 - Editor: Jerry
Three Gates: entrance to enlightenment
By Kim Haan-young
Korean temples are usually located in mountains and valleys and have three
gates. Before arriving at the main Buddha hall, you will pass through all three.
These gates symbolize the border between the land of Buddha and the secular
``Ilju-mun,'' or One Pillar Gate is the first entry leading into the temple
compound. It is usually made with a simple architectural design, consisting of a
tiled roof supported by two vertical pillars. A placard will have the name of
the temple inscribed on it in Chinese characters.
Naturally, the gate must have two pillars to support a roof and form an
opening. However, the gate is regarded as having ultimately just one pillar by
the viewpoint of Buddha Dharma. This is symbolic of the absolute and immutable
truth and also the beginning of the journey toward the pure mind, the first step
to reach the land of Buddha.
The second gate to the temple compound is the Four Guardian Kings' Gate.
This gate is the most memorable, for it contains the four celestial guardians
who tower over the pilgrim, two on each side. These spiritual guardians are in
charge of the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) and the
four seasons. They are also concerned with protecting the temple, crushing
demonic opponents underfoot. Their ferocious expressions encourage people to bow
deeply before them, to observe their minds and rid them of evil thoughts. If
your mind is not pure enough to enter into the peaceful world of Buddha's land,
these Heavenly Kings might not let you go through the second gate.
While these figures have a more ferocious mien in Chinese and Japanese
gates, Korean guardians are known for their more endearing attempt at ferocity,
rendered as they are with broad faces and large eyes. Imposing as they may be,
towering some tens of feet over the visitors, according to ancient Buddhist
cosmology from which they derive, they in fact stand approximately 750 feet tall
and live 9 million years, for they are not earthly beings, as they are depicted
in the sculptures in the gate, but powerful and long-lived Devas.
The four celestial guardians stand at the four cardinal points of Mt.
Sumeru, the cosmic mountain in the center of the universe, according to ancient
Buddhist cosmology. These protectors were present at the birth and other
significant events in the life of Buddha. Vaisravana, the guardian of the north,
is their captain, and is recognized by the pagoda he holds in his hand.
Virudhaka, defender of the south, holds a sword. Dhritarashtra, warden of the
east, holds a stringed instrument. Virupaksha, keeper of the west, holds a
Photo: Monks walk into the Buli-mun at Daeseung Temple,
Mungyeong, South Gyeongsang Province. This is the last gate to the main Buddha
hall and is also known as the Gate of Non-duality, which is derived from the
Buddhist teaching that truth is nothing but to be one with all things, forming a
The last gate to the main Buddha hall is called ``Buli-mun," or Gate of
Non-duality, which is derived from the Buddhist teaching that truth is nothing
but to be one with all things, forming a unified whole. In other words, all the
ostensive dualities such as birth vs. death, good vs. evil and love vs. hate are
not two but only one. It is the intent of ``Seon" practice after all to
eliminate dualistic thinking - that discriminatory tendency whereby we parse
self from the world and others, self from our Buddha-nature, and so on, thus
getting rid of our selfishness and working helpfully with the interconnected
The Vimalakirti Sutra is a Buddhist sutra close to the hearts of Seon
monks. It is a narrative about a sage householder who lived at the time of the
Buddha and who is famous in the sutra for besting even the bodhisattvas, beings
on the path to Buddhahood in the penetrating and witty repartee that comprises
In the chapter entitled "The Dharma-Door of Non-Duality," the discussion is
on the question of how a bodhisattva is to enter the dharma-door of non-duality
thus attaining Buddhahood. Many bodhisattvas express very wise opinions on this
matter. When it is Vimalakirti's turn to contribute his thoughts, he remains
silent, thus expressing in subtlest terms the profound silence of enlightenment.
This is the very silence that is sought through the gate of non-duality, at the
heart of the temple.
Entering the final gate or ``Buli-mun," you may be freed from all earthly
delusions, agonies and evil passions, and thus this gate is also referred to as
``Haetal-mun," or the Gate of Liberation, that leads to the door of Nirvana
after attaining the three cores of emptiness, formlessness and
These three gates of temples are also called ``Mountain Gates." Now, as
almost all Korean temples are manifesting beautiful summer scenery, you may have
the luck to pass through all three gates and connect to the Buddha Dharma more
deeply through recalling the deep meaning behind them.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Buddhist
English Translation. - ED.