The bridge that spans the stream that encompasses Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.
Hello Again Everyone!!
Perhaps one of the most beautifully situated, and one of my favourite temple’s in all of Korea, is Magoksa Temple in Chungcheongnam-do. It was another one of those temples in Gongju that I had long wanted to visit for several years. Fortunately, over this summer vacation I was able to revisit one of Korea’s hidden temple gems.
Magoksa Temple (마곡사) was first built in 640 by the famous monk, Jajang-yulsa. He is the same monk that built the famous Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. It was later reconstructed by monk Bojoguksa during the Goryeo Dynasty in 1172. Like all temple creation stories, Magoksa Temple also has a great one. The name of the temple, Magoksa Temple, was created when a believer looked at the temple and said that it looked like a flax stack in a flax field. This was said as the famous monk Bocheol, from the Silla Dynasty, was preaching. Uniquely, this temple was spared any damage during the Imjin War. This is unique since almost all major temples in Korea, outside of Buseoksa Temple in northern Gyeongsangbuk-do, were completely destroyed. In fact, this temple didn’t suffer any damage in wartime during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Magoksa Temple is beautifully situated on Mt. Taehwasan. It’s located just 24 kilometres outside of the city of Gongju on the northwest side. The walk in, like the location of Magoksa Temple, is perhaps the most beautiful in all of Korea. As you walk down the road for a kilometre, you’ll notice a wandering stream to your right. This stream is shaped like the Yin and Yang symbol, and it flows from the mountains above, through the Magoksa Temple, and into the picturesque valley below. There are numerous places that you can capture some amazing pictures.
You’ll first catch a glimpse of the temple over the stream and through the trees. As you first approach the temple, you’ll notice that the temple is divided up into three beautiful parts. The first part of the temple houses three gates, monk’s dorms, the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, and the Sanshin-gak. The first gate you’ll pass through, the Iljumun Gate, you’ll see in the first 500 metres of your hike towards the temple. It’s a beautifully decorated gate. Now, on the outskirts of the temple courtyard, you’ll see two more gates with the monk’s dorms to your immediate left. The first gate you’ll pass through is a highly unique gate. Back in 2004, when I first visited the temple, it was the first time I had ever seen such a gate like it. This gate is known as the Liberation Gate, and there’s only one other gate like it that I know of in all of Korea at Beopjusa Temple. This gate was first built in 1864, and it’s meant to inspire those visiting the temple to seek liberation from earthly problems. Inside this gate are housed two Bodhisattvas and two Vajra devas that help guard the temple. The two Bodhisattvas are Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom), who rides a blue tiger; and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power), who rides on a white elephant all alone. The next gate you’ll pass through is the Cheonwangmun Gate, which is more commonly known as the Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate, in English. Inside this gate are the Four Heavenly Kings. If you look close enough at one of them, Damun Cheonwang, you’ll notice that he isn’t holding a pagoda like he usually does. Instead, he is holding a bowl of fruit in his left hand. These variations were once very common throughout these gates and these Kings; however, these differences are far less common nowadays, so it’s nice to see them when you can. The other beautiful thing on this side of the stream is the Myeongbu-jeon hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). The seated Jijang-bosal is surrounded by the 10 Kings of the Underworld. Behind each of these Kings and their corresponding assistants, are murals of the worlds that they reside over in the Underworld. It’s one of the better renderings and constructions of a Myeongbu-jeon in Korea, so have a look. Lastly, up the hill, above the Myeongbu-jeon hall, is a bit of a non-descript Sanshin-gak with a larger sized rendering of Sanshin that is beautifully painted.
Across the picturesque, and ancient bridge, is the stream that you walked beside the entire way up to the temple. Across the bridge you’ll first be greeted by the large bell pavilion at the lower courtyard of the temple. Also in this courtyard stands a slender five-tier pagoda that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. Uniquely, the top of the pagoda is adorned with a Tibetanesque finial. Straight ahead is the Daegwangbo-jeon hall that dates back to 1813, which was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original structure. This hall houses the solitary Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). Uniquely, Birojana-bul is situated in the left of the hall, much like Birojana-bul at Buseoksa Temple’s main hall, Muryangsu-jeon. He is seated to the left, in the west, so that he can face the east. This beautiful Buddha statue is surrounded by equally beautiful, but fading, paintings inside this hall. Everywhere you look you’ll find paintings of saints, dragons and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). In the rear of the hall are the guardian paintings and the Yeongsan Assembly painting that are older looking in style. Outside, this hall is all but unadorned except for the guardian paintings on the left side of the hall as well as some uniquely sculpted dragon’s with pearls and fish in their mouth near the main entrance of the hall. To the right of the Daegwangbo-jeon hall are the monk’s dorms and the temple stay building. To the left of the Daegwangbo-jeon hall is the Eungjin-jeon hall that houses the 15 disciples of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). These golden sculptures flank a golden Seokgamoni-bul that sits on the altar on a red silk pillow. In front of this hall is the former residence of the patriot Kim Gu. And in front of this hall is a hall dedicated to famous monks that resided at the temple including Jajang-daesa, the founding monk of Magoksa Temple.
Around the corner of these buildings, you’ll notice the same winding stream that you first walked in beside, snaked around the outer edges of the west side of the lower quarter yard. This is another beautiful place to take pictures out by the cascading water. Up the bank, you’ll arrive at the upper courtyard, where the main hall, Daeungbo-jeon, is housed. This hall was rebuilt in 1651 and is one of the few double storied main halls with any historical importance throughout Korea. Inside this hall are housed a big and beautiful triad of Buddhas. In the centre is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). To his right is Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha), and to the left is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). The age of the hall is evident with the leaning of the structure. The pillars of the hall are decorated with the signatures of prominent people that have visited it through the centuries. There are two beautiful paintings of Sanshin and a guardian painting on either side of the hall’s walls.
Admission to the temple is a very reasonable 2,000 won.
HOW TO GET THERE: From Gongju, you can catch Bus number 7 at the Gongju Bus Terminal (NewBuilding), and get off at the last stop of the bus ride. It’s a 30 to 40 minute bus ride and buses leave from 6 in the morning until 8:30 at night. You can also take a taxi from the Gongju Bus Terminal if you’re really willing and wanting to get there as soon as possible. The taxi ride should only take you 20 minutes.
OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10. Without a doubt, Magoksa Temple is one of my favourite temples throughout Korea. With its serenely situated location and the beautifully built temple halls, it’s no wonder I love this temple so much. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s a pretty easy trip if you’re located anywhere near the city of Daejeon; and if not, the city of Gongju makes for a nice little weekend away with all the other temple’s so closely located to Magoksa Temple.