Doseonsa Temple – 도선사 (Mt. Samgaksan, Seoul)

Doseonsa Temple, below Mt. Samgaksan

Hi, Everyone!

This is Giuseppe, back with my second contribution to the site. It’s a bit longer than I anticipated, but this temple is jam packed with sights, artifacts, and history. Even more than I was able to mention. I hope you enjoy!

Last year, I asked a friend of mine to recommend a temple to visit in Mt. Bukhansan. “Doseonsa is supposed to be nice,” he replied. Looking it up, it did indeed seem like a nice temple with a wealth of history and attractions. When I managed to finally visit it, “nice” turned out to be a massive understatement!

It was first dedicated in 862 A.D., by the renowned monk Doseon-guksa. He had a highly developed ability to read the flow of energy through the mountains and choose the most auspicious placement for temples. Even after Doseon-guksa’s death, Taejo Wang Geon, the founding-king of the Goryeo Dynasty, ordered that no temple should be constructed or expanded except those recommended by Doseon-guksa in the documents he left behind. I can only believe that the placement of Doseonsa Temple, below the triple peaks of the sacred guardian Samgak (Three Horn) Mountain, is a powerful one. Late in the Joseon Dynasty, around 1870, Doseonsa Temple was named the representative temple of Korea. It remains the largest temple complex in Mt. Bukhansan and Seoul’s most historically significant.

The first object of interest (though it’s at the far rear of the temple) is the 8.4 meter Buddha carved into a triangular chunk of granite protruding from the ground. According to legend, Doseon-guksa carved it using only his wooden staff and there are no signs of chisel marks. The carving is now enshrined in a small, walled-off area where a seemingly perpetual group of laypeople are bowing, praying, or reciting sutras.

The entrance to the temple is by the shuttle parking lot, where you immediately come upon the Cheonwangmun Gate. They are carved with fierce expressions, enough to make me wonder whether the chicken wire is meant to keep the pigeons out or keep them in.

Continuing through the gate, the road soon bends, giving the first glimpse of the temple with the massive granite peak looming beyond. There is also a spectacular view of the northern tip of Seoul, perfect for watching the sunrise, framed with mountains fading into the horizon.

Just before reaching the actual temple complex there is a poignant Jijang-bosal, standing tall on a granite pedestal. Among many things, Jijang-bosal is known as a guardian of children and is often depicted holding a child. This statue has a child at his side, reaching up to tug on his robe, but the main feature that caught my attention was the fetus held up in his right hand. After first seeing it, I learned that he is also the guardian of aborted fetuses.

The road continues, steeply, up past the massive building that houses a museum, offices, dining hall, and a small Cheonbul-jeon, Thousand Buddha Hall, crowned with a large Geum-dang, then eventually leads into the courtyard. Centered at the back of the courtyard, facing the Geum-dang is the Daeung-jeon (Dharma Hall) with the beautiful Samseong-gak (Three Spirit Shrine) to the immediate left and the Jijang-jeon on its own separate terrace below, a bit further to the right.

Inside the Dharma Hall is quite stunning, with the glow of pink lanterns illuminating the hall and reflecting off of the three gold shrines, giving the small figures a beautiful pink glow that complements the gold to make a unique aesthetic.

Below the Samseong-gak are low-relief standing Bodhisattvas, cast presumably in bronze and are quite stunning. They include Bohyun-bosal, Gwanseeum-bosal, and Munsu-bosal, elegantly holding a cup of tea. Around the corner, tucked into the far corner of the structure is a unique Gwaneum-jeon, with the object of worship being a low-relief stone carving of the Bodhisattva and the zig-zagging walls lined with rows of small replicas of the Buddha carving outdoors.

Entering the Samseong-gak, there is a nice Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) statue, sitting on a tiger, with an even nicer Sanshin painting behind it, with two tigers, one yellow and one white. In the middle is a Chilseong-yeorae-bul (The Seven Stars). But it’s really the stone Dokseong statue on the right that steals the show. Though it’s known as Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), it’s style suggests that it was likely originally part of a 16 statue set of Arhats (Buddha’s prime disciples) and at some point in time became separated. But, as it’s long been known as Dokseong, it’s now known as a rare example of him carved in stone.

In the Jijang-jeon, on the right, the main points of interest are the portraits enshrined inside. On the left are President Park Chung Hee, South Korea’s most notorious dictator, and Yuk Yeong Su, parents of the current president, Park Geun Hae. On the left side is Hyundai Chairman Chung Ju Yung. I think it’s an interesting display of South Korea’s love/hate relationship with President Park, for his portrait to be enshrined at such a highly revered temple. Though his means were ruthless, he is credited with having pulled the South out of the mud in the decades following the war. “You can spit on my grave,” he famously spoke. First, Yuk Yeong Su was killed during an attempted assassination, then President Park was was assassinated in October, 1979. It’s said that he was a devout Buddhist, though, judging by his rule, he failed to truly grasp the teachings.

Heading across, now, to the large Geum-dang Hall, there is a set of small, but masterfully carved Buddhas. When two of the original set were damaged by fire, they were replaced, in 1740, by Master Monk In Seong and his apprentice, Master Monk Chi Jung. Together, they were known as the premier sculptures of their day. There is a distinctive style, especially in their facial features that give them a recognizable style. In the photo below, the Amita-bul (center) and Daesaeji-bul (left) were the Masters’ work. The Gwanseeum-bosal to the right was from the original set. On the far right wall is a large painting of Cheongdam Daejongsa, a very prominent monk of the 20th Century, who led the Korean Buddhist revival here at Doseonsa Temple. The museum below the Geum-dang is the Cheongdam Daejongsa Memorial Hall, where you can see his personal remains, including his robes, calligraphy set, a dusty old Nikonama camera set, and two staffs that give the impression that they may be holding some magical powers inside. The real treat, though, was seeing his amazing calligraphy on display in the hall.

Across from the Geum-dang, heading there is a trail that leads into the hillside, past the bell pavilion and to a large granite staircase with four terraces, including a statue of Cheongdam Daejongsa, a memorial stone on the back of a dragon-turtle that reminded me A LOT of Bowser from Super Mario Bros, and finally an impressive stone pagoda encircled by a wall of small Buddhas, and a seated Jijang-bosal overlooking in the center. The granite rail surrounding the pagoda has several dragon heads poking up, to add some interesting detail.

There are a few other things to see, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.

HOW TO GET THERE: There is a free shuttle bus up to the temple entrance from across the street from the Uidong bus terminal, or it’s about a 40 minute walk. Several green and blue buses will get you to Uidong, including 151 and 109 (the last stop for both). 109 passes in front of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces early in their routes though I caught it at the Jogyesa bus stop. 151 and 109 can both be caught at Mia Station, as well.

OVERALL RATING: 10/10. You will not find a better temple than Doseonsa Temple in the Seoul area for its combination of beautiful setting, historical significance, and wonderful artifacts. It also has ties to two hugely significant Seon Masters. And depending on where you live in the city, it’s really not difficult to get to.

View of Mt. Samgaksan from the shuttle park

Cheonwangmun Gate

One of the Four Heavenly Kings

Northern tip of Seoul on a misty morning

Jijang-bosal, holding a fetus. He is the guardian of aborted fetuses.

Cheonbul-jeon, Thousand Buddha Hall, early on a winter morning

Doseonsa Temple’s Daeung-jeon, on a lovely, early fall morning. You can spot the Samseong-gak, just below the lanterns.

Daeung-jeon, with its colorful lantern display.

An interesting shrine that I’m not sure of its significance. It seems to summarize some of the temples history or something similar.

View from the upper terrace, through the entrance of the stone Buddha shrine.

The stone Buddha shrine.

 

Face of the large Buddha carving.

Bodhidharma, riding the a reed across the sea. He usually has a single sandal dangling from his staff, but not here.

“Bul” (Buddha, 亻(person) + 弗(‘fo’, phonetic pronunciation of Sanskrit word for Buddha))

Inside Daeung-jeon, Great Spirit Daehwa on the left, Daeseaji-bosal, Amita-bul, Gwanseeum-bosal in the center, and Jijang-daehwa on the right.

Detail of the Great Spirit Daehwa

 

Hell scene detail in the Jijang-daewha

The beautiful Jijang-jeon. I always love the blue tiles.

President Park Chung Hee and Yuk Yeong Su

Hyundai Chairman Chung Ju-yung

Inside the Geum-dang. The central Buddha and the Bodhisattva on the left are Master Monk In Seong’s work.

Daesaeji-bosal, close up

Amita-bul, close up

Portrait of Cheongdam Daejeongsa, in the Geum-dang

Geum-dang, just before sunrise

Inside the well hidden Gwaneum-jeon (you may have to ask where to find it.)

Sunrise just striking the highest peak of Mt. Samgaksan.

Samseong-gak, Three Spirit Shrine

Stone carving of Dokseong, the Lonely Saint

Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit

Sanshin, Mountain Spirit, lights, inside the Samseong-gak, Three Spirit Shrine.

The legendary Buddha carving

Gwanseeum-bosal, below the temple souvenir/gift shop.

I was waiting for Toad to pop out from behind and say, “We’re sorry, Mario, but the princess is in another temple!”

Shuttle schedule from Uidong (the red is the driver’s lunch break)

Full-circle… Uidong bus terminal on the right, Doseonsa Temple shuttle on the left.

Yeonjuam Hermitage/Yeonjudae – 연주암/연주대 (Gwacheon, Gyeonggi-do)

 

Yeonjudae, viewed from the look off

Throughout my years of living and traveling in Korea, I’ve always had a small collection of “comfort” places that I tried to get back to now and again, depending on where I lived. I appreciate the sense of intimacy that develops from this relationship with a place; getting to know some of the locals, enjoying a specific restaurant, finding hidden trails, knowing a place through the four seasons. Since moving to suburban Seoul, Yeonjuam Hermitage, and its spectacular Yeonjudae, perched on the edge of a sharp cliff, has been one of those places.

The great and fondly remembered monk, Uisang Daesa, is credited with having first established the temple in 677. The complex of halls and shrines were rebuilt, starting in 1392 and continuing throughout the 1400’s. This early-Joseon era complex was completely wiped out and buried by a landslide, eventually being relocated higher up the slopes, on safer grounds, I assume. Much of the temple, in its current incarnation, was built during or after the 1970’s. Its original name was Uisangdae, but was changed to Yeonjudae (戀主臺), which roughly translated to “Adoring the Kingdom Cliff”. There are two legends attached to this name. The first is that loyalists of the fallen Goryeo Dynasty came to stay here as the view allowed them to peer across at their former kingdom in longing. The second is that two princes, Yang-Ryeong and Hyo-Ryeong, retreated here after their younger brother was named their father’s successor (and became the Great King Sejong). From here they looked over the kingdom, longing for the throne. I think both instances are plausible. If it was already a place known for its view of Seoul, it makes sense that the two brothers would have also chosen to come here. In the ruins that were excavated, several dragon and phoenix insignia were found, meaning this temple was strongly connected to the royal palace.

It’s not an easy temple to get to, you must hike, and it wasn’t until my third attempt that I managed to find the right trail. If your goal is just to see this temple (not a bad reason to climb Mt. Gwanaksan!), the most direct route starts by Gwacheon Hyanggyo, 500 meters up from Gwacheon subway station. Following a gorgeous, rocky trail along the stream that flows down from the temple, you eventually arrive at a steep, massive stone staircase that leads to the courtyard between the Gwaneum-jeon and the temple office. The Gwaneum-jeon houses a severe looking 1000-armed Gwanseum-bosal, quite stunning actually. During my last visit, in May, the Hall of Arhats had been completely torn down and the collection of hand-carved statues, each one unique, were sitting in the far-side of the Gwaneum-jeon. They are some of the best wooden Arahat carvings in Korea, and the largest collection I’ve encountered

Turning left, you face the courtyard and a medium-sized stone pagoda with the main hall standing behind. To the left of the main hall, upon a terrace is the temple bell and further up the slope is the Hyo Ryeong Hall enshrines the portrait of Grand Prince Hyo Ryeong. To the right of the main hall, the trail continues beneath some twisted pines, where I often see a couple of morning doves. It leads a short way up to a beautiful little Samseong-gak, with a wonderful old set of paintings, from left to right, Sanshin, Chilseong, and Dokseong. The quality of the work executed on these paintings is quite exquisite.

From here, bear right and follow the path to the top of a small crag where a brand new white pagoda has been installed. Or, head left, past where the Hall of Arhats had been and continue along the stone path about 400 meters to Yeonjudae. There is a couple of tricky steps, so watch your footing. About halfway to the top, there is a look-off that gives you the best photo-op. I usually spend a fair amount of time here, soaking it in. For some, just this view might be enough but if you wish to continue to the shrine, at the peak follow the rope and stainless rail as it veers right of the peak.

Climbing over the granite stones is a bit treacherous, especially in the ice or rain, but with a little extra care, it’s not too bad. As you approach, there is a sign asking that day-hikers do not enter, as it’s a site of devotion, but no one will turn you away. That said, an amount of respect is best shown. As you round the wall of granite that keeps Yeonjudae hidden until you’re right beside it, there is a white Medicine Buddha carved in the wall that is said to have magical healing powers for those who pray to it. In front of the shrine, there is usually a crowd gathered doing bows (it’s a great place for 108 if your knees feel up to it!). The view from in front of the shrine is spectacular, spanning all of Seoul. Taking pictures of the view isn’t a problem but you’ll have to use cunning to photograph the shrine, when none of the attendants are looking. My favorite spot to sit and have a snack is on the far side of the shrine, between the rail and the cliff. I like to grab a mat and looking across, over Yeonjuam Hermitage.

At this point, I’ll head back to the Gwaneum-jeon, where on the bottom floor, half way down the stone stairs, there is a dining hall (Don’t wait too long, it’s not open long passed noon). The bibimbab is a bit salty but the doenjang guk hits the spot and is always appreciated for the hike down the hill. The food is free but it’s temple etiquette to eat all your food.

HOW TO GET THERE: The best root is from Gwacheon Station, Line 4. Take exit 7 and head straight up the path, about 400 meters, then turn left when you reach the end. After another 100 meters or so, you will arrive at the trail-head, an open space with a large stream bed and a bridge that leads to Gwacheon Hyanggyo. Cross the bridge and continue past the vendors selling gimbap, boiled eggs, drinks, and hiking gear. It could take anywhere from one to two hours to reach Yeonjuam Hermitage, depending on your pace.

There are several trails that lead to the peak, including from Sadang Station and the Seoul National University grounds, but I’m not familiar enough to recommend them. These trails have stunning mountain scenery but are quite long and very easy to get lost on if you do not know the way.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10 I give Yeonjuam Hermitage bonus points for being a lively temple with a great atmosphere at the top of a mountain. This is a rare experience. If it were at the base of the mountain, it wouldn’t seem nearly as spectacular. Also, the view of Yeonjudae is a 10/10. Absolutely stunning, and worth a bonus point, for sure!

Gwacheon Hyanggyo, you’ll know you’re at the trail when you see this

scenery early along the trail

arriving at Yeonjuam, the dining hall and large Gwaneum-jeon on the left

the thousand-armed Gwanseum-bosal

Yeonjuam Hermitages’s Three-Storey Stoen Pagoda and Daeung-jeon (Great Dharma Hall) beyond

in the snow

The temple bell. I love being around when they are rung. It vibrates through your chest.

detail

cushions

reciting a sutra

this small hall houses Prince Hyo-Ryeong’s painting

Arhat Hall

Yeonjudae

follow the rail to the right (BTW, you should have excellent cellphone reception up here!)

almost there!

 

the health-giving Medicine Buddha

lay-people, bowing at Yeonjudae

late spring

early fall

mid winter

lunch