Banyaam Hermitage – 반야암 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

Picture 441The picturesque main hall, Banyabo-jeon, at Banyaam Hermitage at Tongdosa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

After visiting Seokbulsa Temple, and after dropping off the in-laws, my wife and I decided to visit one of the last hermitages we had yet to visit at the Tongdosa Temple complex: Banyaam Hermitage (반야암). Well actually, I’m lying a bit when I say that we haven’t visited Banyaam Hermitage before. We last visited Banyaam Hermitage in the winter of 2006. But we both figured that the hermitage would look a whole lot better during the summertime.  So off we went to Banyaam Hermitage!

Banyaam Hermitage is the merging of two words into one. “Banya” in Sanskrit is prajna. Prajna means wisdom or enlightenment, while “am” means hermitage. And these two words together mean wisdom or enlightenment hermitage. Banyaam Hermitage is a smaller sized hermitage at Tongdosa Temple.  It was built by monk Ji-an in 1999. Banyaam Hermitage is beautifully situated surrounded by a vibrant forest and towering mountains.  And the tablet that hangs at the main hall was written by the founding monk, Ji-an.

As you first approach the temple, you’ll first be greeted by a lion based stone lantern and a sign, written in Chinese characters, that reads Banyaam Hermitage. To the right is a serenely placed meditation pavilion next to a quiet stream. You can get to the other side of the stream by taking the hanging bridge. From either side of the banks, you can take some beautiful pictures of the stream, mountains, or lush forest around you. Walking your way up from the stream, you’ll notice three main buildings at the hermitage: the monk dorm, the main hall, and the study hall. The monk dorm isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing with the concrete base that surrounds it; however, there are a couple cute paintings of children monks playing on the exterior of the building.  To the right of the main hall is a non-descript study hall.  But making up for all this lack of appeal is the beautiful main hall and the beautifully manicured grounds at the hermitage. As you approach Banyabo-jeon, the main hall at the hermitage, you’ll see a beautiful lotus pond with a dharma playing on the rocks under a tree.  Next to the dancing dharma are several beautiful lotus pots containing some of the most colourful purple, pink, and white lotuses in all of Korea. Up the stone stairs, you’ll be greeted by a Chinese charactered tablet that adorns the entrance of the main hall. The exterior of the hall has the customary Palsang-do paintings of the Buddha’s earthly life, as well as paintings depicting the rearing of a child by his mother (which I’ve only seen at Biroam Hermitage). What really stood out about the exterior of this hermitage, as I walked around it, were the beautifully coloured and detailed dragon heads that protrude out from the depths of the main hall walls.  Behind the main hall, and on a ridge, is a newer looking pagoda.

Inside the main hall, you’ll be greeted by a triad of a Buddha and Bodhisattvas: Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light), Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion), and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). All three are beautifully rendered, with an accompanying four-tiered crystal lotus statue to the right. The ceiling and beams of the main hall are painted with ornate likenesses of dragons, phoenixes, and cranes. One of the more impressive features of the interior of the main hall are paintings of the Dharma, Buddha, and saints. And all these paintings are joined with Korean writing giving the names of the associated Dharma, Buddha, or saint. So if you can read Korean, you can know who exactly all those individuals are at all the other temples and hermitages you visit. There are also the accompanying tails, of the former heads of the dragons, protruding into the interior of the main hall. Lastly, there is a really descriptive guardian painting centred by Dongjin-bosal. You can identify him because he wears a helmet with wings on it.  He’s the protector of the Buddha’s teachings. And that’s why he’s almost always situated inside the main hall of a hermitage or temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll have to get to Yangsan; and more specifically, Tongdosa Temple. To get to Tongdosa Temple, you can take an intercity bus from Busan, Eonyang or Ulsan. Specifically from Busan, you can take a bus or subway to Nopo-dong intercity bus terminal. There, you can get a ticket for Tongdosa Temple. It leaves every 20 minutes.  Once you arrive in Yangsan, and facing the very small bus terminal, you should walk left and then turn right at the first corner.  The temple entrance is past the numerous restaurants and shops.  Walk up a 1.5 km path, sprinkled with ancient graffiti, and you will eventually arrive at the outskirts of the temple grounds.  Admission for adults is 3,000 won. From Tongdosa Temple, you’ll have to continue up the main road for another 700 metres until you come to a fork in the road.  Instead of heading straight, turn right and continue heading in that direction for 1.2 kilometres.  There are a cluster of hermitages. Find the sign that reads Banyaam Hermitage -반야암- and continue heading to the right in that direction until you arrive at the hermitage.

View 반야암 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING:  6/10. Banyaam Hermitage is rated slightly higher than the neighbouring Seochukam Hermitage simply because of the beautiful stream and meditation pavilion as well as the colourful main hall. Otherwise, it’s situated near the same towering moutains and lush forest. The highlights of this hermitage are the lotus ponds and pots, the named saints on the eaves of the interior of the main hall, as well as the four-tiered crystal lotus statue to the right of the triad of Amita-bul and the Bodhisattvas. If you have the time, and you’re visiting a couple of the hermitages at Tongdosa Temple, I would definitely rate Banyaam Hermitage as one of the more beautiful hermitages in the area.

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The road that leads into Banyaam Hermitage, and the beautiful view that awaits you!
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The lion-based stone lantern is the first thing to greet you as you approach the hermitage.
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The study hall at the hermitage.
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And the child-like monks that adorn the exterior of this hall.
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A view of the main hall with the monks dorms off in the distance, and the towering mountains framing them all.
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A view up at Banyabo-jeon, the colourful main hall at the hermitage.
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A better look at the intricate exterior of the main hall and the name tablet written by the founding monk, Ji-an.
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A unique mural on the exterior of the main hall. I’ve only ever seen it at the neighbouring Biroam Hermitage. In it the child is being raised by his mother.
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Off the child goes into the world leaving his mother behind.
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Only to return later when they’re both older.
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A beautiful view of Korean nature at its finest!
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The main altar inside Banyabo-jeon. In the centre is Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light). On his left is Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), and on the right is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This triad is very common in Korean main halls.
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What is not as common is this beautiful four-tiered crystal lotus statue.
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Up in the eaves were paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and saints. On the left is the Dharma, and on the right is Hyega Daesa (A saint whose job it is to make you laugh).
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An ornately painted twin pair of dragons, painted on the beams of the main hall, with red pearls near their mouths.
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And an equally beautiful phoenix that is painted on a beam inside the main hall.
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Just outside the main hall, on the well manicured grounds, is a lotus pond with a dancing Dharma under the shade of a tree.
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 Next to this lotus pond were several potted lotus flowers. They were some of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen in my life!
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 Another with a yellow sunset inside.
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The meditative pavilion that sits next to a quiet stream.
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The suspended bridge that spans the stream.
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A different look at the beautiful stream.
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One last look up the wandering stream as it makes its way down the valley.

The Biseon (Apsaras) – Flying Angels

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An extraordinarily beautiful landscape painting of a Biseon at Anyangam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Flying around Korean temples you’ll see angel like figures fluttering about. What exactly are these figures, and why do they appear at Korean temples?

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The beautiful Biseon that offers up music on the Guardian Gates at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsannam-do.

Commonly, these angel figures appear painted on the temple walls, sculpted on temple bells, carved into stone lanterns, and artfully appearing on altars. These angel figures first originated in India, and were known as Apsaras. At first, they were beastly in appearance.  However, with the migration of Buddhism to China, these beastly creatures changed into graceful celestial figures. With the migration of Buddhism further east, into Korea, these Apsaras became known as Biseon (Flying Angels).

Biseon are identifiable by the long streamers, known as “floating/whirling sashes,” that flutter all about them in suspended animation. These streamers ride the wind and whirl about to propel them through the air. The streamers start at the head and create a circular shape around the head. These streamers flow in opposite directions. There are two different types of Biseon: the performing type (playing music); and the offering type (sprinkling flowers, offering fruit).

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The supernatural Biseon at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju. It sprinkles a magical dust in the air at the bell pavilion.

Biseon are celestial creatures that praise the Buddha while flying around in the air of the Buddha’s heavens, while sprinkling flowers, playing music, or offering fruit. The symbolism behind the Biseon, as it pertains to Buddhism, is that they don’t actually make noise or fly as a decorative painting. However, if one looks at them long enough, it almost seems as though they are actually flying or playing music. As a result, the conditioned world of the senses recedes towards the true world beyond perceived reality.

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The bell at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju is also decorated with two Biseon.  One is playing the harp while the other is offering up their flute playing.

There are numerous examples of these beautiful celestial creatures at Korean temples.  One of my personal favourites is at Jajangam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. As you walk behind the main hall at the hermitage, walking towards the yellow frog’s house, if you look up you’ll see a beautifully painted Biseon up on the eaves of the main hall riding a white crane while offering fruit. Another beautiful example is at Anyangam Hermitage also at the Tongdosa Temple complex. It is also adorning the main hall, and is one of the most beautifully refined paintings of a Biseon in all of Korea. Like the one at Jajangam Hermitage, the one at Anyangam Hermitage is also offering up fruit. It has a beautiful sunset landscape with seven white cranes accompanying it in the mythical air. Yet another beautiful example are the twin Biseon that float around playing music at the Guardian gates at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Finally, there is a Biseon flying up around the gables of the bell pavilion at Heungnyunsa Temple in Gyeongju. This supernatural Biseon is offering a rainbow sprinkling of magical dust.

As for beautiful depictions of Biseon on temple bells, one of the most beautiful is at Heungnyunsa Temple.  At the front of the bell, facing the courtyard, there are two large sized Biseon offering up their music.  The one on the left is playing the harp, while the one on the right is playing the flute.

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The beautiful Biseon adorning the main hall at Jajangam Hermitage.

So the next time you’re out at a temple or hermitage in Korea, and you see angelic figures, you’ll know that they’re Biseon, and that they’re paying homage to the Buddha by playing music or offering fruit.

Seokbulsa Temple – 석불사 (Buk-gu, Busan)

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A view of the beautiful sculptures at Seokbulsa Temple in Busan

Hello Again Everyone!!

Waking up really, really early to beat the summer heat, my wife, in-laws and I decided to visit Seokbulsa Temple (석불사) in Busan. It’s only about a 15 minute drive from my in-laws place, and it had been at least six years since I last visited it, so it was an easy decision to make to visit a lesser known, hard to reach, but beautiful Buddhist temple in Busan.

The temple was formerly known as Byeongpungam Hermitage (“Folding Screen Hermitage”) based on the way that all the rock faces are formed like a screen between the folds of the mountain rocks. But guessing, once the rock carvings of the Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, and guardians were etched into the face of the mountain, the name of the temple changed to its present name: Seokbulsa Temple  “Rock Buddha Temple.”

Parking the car a bit down the mountain, we made a 10 minute hike up the side of Mt. Geumjeongsan. But I guess it’s better than the 45 to 60 minute hike up the mountain if you’re walking from the base of the mountain. As you first approach the temple, you’ll first notice the sentry-like bell pavilion at Seokbulsa Temple. To the left, standing under the shade of the bell pavilion, is the old path that worked its way through the forest towards the temple. Along the way you can see a stupa for a deceased monk. And to the right is a locked door with swastikas on it that you used to be able to walk through to gain entrance to the temple.  Unfortunately, it now seems to be off bounds. Continuing your way up the side-winding road, you’ll pass through the entrance gate. There are two menacing Nathwi (Monster Masks) staring down at you on either side of the gate. And under the arch of the gate are two beautifully intertwined dragons both chasing pearls into their mouths.

Once you’ve enter the asphalt courtyard, you’ll have amazing views of Busan down in the valleys below.  And if you look close enough you can see the Gwangalli bridge to the left side of the cityscape. Looking at the temple grounds, you’ll notice the newer looking bell pavilion that first greeted you to the temple on your walk up. Behind this bell pavilion is a much older, and more moss covered, Dharma Bell and Wooden Fish drum pavilion. To the left, and probably the main reason you came to visit Seokbulsa Temple, are the temple buildings and the 10 metre tall stone sculptures in a U-shaped stone enclave. To the immediate left is the monk dorm.  Beside it is the two storied stone main hall. On the first level is where the solitary Seokgamoni-bul resides. Above him, on the second floor, are hundreds of small Buddha statues, with Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) at the main altars centre.  On either side of him is Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). Instead of having any paintings adorning this rock temple hall there are stone sculptures of dragons and phoenixes with smaller sized Buddha and Bodhisattva statues in the eaves. To the immediate right of the two storied stone main hall is a stone building dedicated to Chilseong (The Big Dipper).

Through a corridor between these two stone temple structures is the U-shaped stone enclave with the numerous and awe-inspiring 10 metre tall stone sculptures sculpted on to the face of a part of Mt. Geumjeongsan. Centred, and the figure that everyone is praying to on their mats, is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). To the left are two of the Heavenly Kings.  Beside these two Heavenly King Guardians is an image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). On the right side of the U-Shaped stone enclave are the other two Heavenly King Guardians.  And beside these two, again, is another image of a Buddha. There are numerous little cave shrines littered throughout the face of the mountain. Up the narrow stairs is a shrine hall dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) and Dokseong (The Recluse). On your way up you’ll notice smaller sized sculptures. These 16 smaller sculptures are the 16 Nahan. To the right of the Sanshin shrine hall is a narrow rock opening. Squeeze your way through to get some more amazing views of the city of Busan down below.

HOW TO GET THERE:  As I said from the start, Seokbulsa Temple is neither easy to get to, nor is it easy to find. Use subway line #3 to Mandeok Station. Take exit #2 and walk toward the upper and older tunnel. Then follow the road uphill, past a bevy of motels and restaurants, for about 45 to 60 minutes. Follow the signs along the way that read석불사. Either that or you can use subway line #1 and get off at Oncheonjang Station, and exit through exit #1. You’ll then have to follow the brown sign pointing you towards Geumgang Park. Here, you can either take the cable car to the top of the mountain or hike it.  I suggest taking the cable car. From where the cable car lets you off, find Nammun Village (남문마을). Nammun Village is a collection of restaurants and Jokgu (volleyball soccer) courts. Walk through this village and steer left as you follow a stream while you descend down towards the temple. The road will fork like a “Y”, follow the path that leads you right, because it’ll eventually (and hopefully) lead you to Seokbulsa Temple.  Either way is strenuous, but the temple at the top will be well worth your effort! Admission to the temple is free.

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OVERALL RATING:  9/10. For the 10 metre tall awe-inspiring stone sculptures alone, the time and effort it takes to find Seokbulsa Temple, it’s well worth it. But add to it the stone main hall and the shrine hall dedicated to Chilseong, as well as the beautiful views of Busan down below, and the temple is worth that much more of an effort to get to and find.

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The sentry-like bell pavilion that welcomes you to Seokbulsa Temple.
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The former entrance gate to the temple with two left leaning swastikas.
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A look down at Busan from the temple courtyard.
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A menacing Nathwi protectively welcoming you to Seokbulsa Temple.  This Nathwi adorns the left side of the entrance gate at the temple.
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A view of the temple buildings.
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 A better look at the sentry-like bell pavilion that welcomes you to the temple.  Off in the distance is another view of Busan down below.
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The ancient looking and moss-laden Dharma bell pavilion at the temple.
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Another look at the courtyard at the temple with the monk dorms to the left and the two storied main hall to the right.
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On the first floor of the main hall is a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).
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Inside the second floor of the main hall are the altar pieces: Birojan-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy),  and on either side of him is Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power).
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Accompanying the altar pieces are hundreds of these Buddha statues.
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A look across the front of the second floor of the main hall.
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 A look through the main hall and the shrine hall dedicated to Chilseong down at Busan below.
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Inside the shrine hall is a beautiful painting dedicated to Chilseong (The Bigger Dipper/Seven Stars).
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And the first view of the enclave with all the beautiful Buddhist sculptures etched into the mountain’s face.  The first two sculptures to the left are the Heavenly Guardian Kings. To the right is Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy).
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The main altar piece sculpture that everyone is praying to is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
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Just one of the shrines placed in a cave at the temple.
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The narrow stairs that lead up to the Sanshin shrine at Seokbulsa Temple.
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 A better look, and a better idea of just how large these sculptures stand, with Busan off in the distance.
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A sculpture of Seokgamoni-bul with the 16 Nahan etched beside him.
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This narrow passage beside the Sanshin shrine hall is tight!
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But it has some spectacular views of beautiful Busan down below.
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One last look up at the Heavenly Guardian King, Kwangmok Chon-wang, the Guaridan of the West that holds a dragon in his unflinching hand.

Heng and Ha: The Twin Guardians of Korean Temples


With mouth wide-open, the eloquently ferocious Ha welcomes visitors to Beopjangsa Temple in Gyeongju. He is one of two guardians that protect temples from evil spirits.

Hello Again Everyone!!

When you first enter a temple you’re either greeted by paintings or statues of the Four Heavenly King guardians, or just two guards painted on the front gate to the temple.  For the sake of this article, I’ll be writing about the two guards that are painted on the front of the temple’s gate. Later, I’ll write an article about the Four Heavenly King guardians. So why are the two guardians on the front gate? And who exactly are they?


The little bit more worn, Heng, who keeps Ha company at Beopjangsa Temple in Gyeongju. He shoots powerful light rays from his flared nose.

Usually, if the temple is smaller in size, then the temple won’t have a gate designated for the Four Heavenly King guardians; instead, they will have two fearsome guardians painted on the exterior of the temple’s gate. Specifically, these guardians are deities that prevent evil spirits from entering the temple compound.


The intricately painted Ha, who protects Nojeonam Hermitage from evil spirits using light rays that shoot forth from his mouth.

There doesn’t seem to be a Korean name for these two guardians; however, in China, these two guardians are called Heng and Ha. They have the power to use deadly rays of light. One of the guardians shoots these deadly rays of light from his nostrils; and while he does this, it makes the sound “heng.” The other shoots rays from his mouth, and the sound that he makes is “ha.” And that’s where the two get there names: Heng and Ha. However, not only do these two gods protect the physical world of the temple, but they also protect wisdom over ignorance.


And to Ha’s left is the equally ferocious Heng at Nojeonam Hermitage.

One great example of these twin guardians is at the small temple called Nojeonam Hermitage in Yangsan, in Gyeongsangnam-do, nestled under the slopes of Cheonseosan Mountain. As you first enter through the first gate you’ll encounter the ferocious Ha on the right gate with his mouth wide open, and on the left you’ll see Heng with his nostrils fiercely flared! Two other great examples of Heng and Ha are at the Gyeongju Temple called Beopjangsa Temple.  Again, Ha is on the right, and Heng is on the left.There is very little else to see at this temple other than the twin guardians adorning the gates.  However, if you do have time on your way to Anapji Park in downtown Gyeongju, I think these twin guardians are two of the better examples of the guardians all throughout Korea. Another pair of great examples of Heng and Ha are the two painted on the Heavenly Kings Gate at Haeinsa Temple.  Even though the two are fading, they are just as beautiful as ever. And finally, there is a beautiful compact pairing of Heng and Ha at Bulguksa Temple beside the bell pavilion in Gyeongju.


The ever fierce, but fading, Ha, at Haeinsa Temple.

So the next time you visit a smaller sized temple, and you see these two ferocious guards, you’ll know that they’re the powerful Heng and Ha, and they’re there to protect you from any evil spirits that might be floating around the neighbourhood.


Heng is to the left with his nostrils in a full death flare.

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The ferocious pair of Heng (right) and Ha (left) by the bell pavilion at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

Heungnyunsa Temple – 흥륜사 (Gyeongju)

Picture 271The painting at Heungnyunsa Temple depicting Dazu Huike cutting off his own arm in front of the Bodhidharma.

Hello Again Everyone!!

With our last visit to Gyeongju, after visiting Bulguksa Temple, Anapji, and Bunhwangsa Temple, we decided to visit Heungnyungsa Temple (흥륜사). It was on the tourist city map, and near the city gates, so with the car we thought why not.

Heungnyunsa Temple was the first Buddhist temple built in 544 after Buddhism was adopted as the state religion in 528 during the reign of the Silla King Beopheung according to the Gyeongju historic plaque at the temple. The temple was built to pray for Princess Seongguk, who was a daughter of King Michu. The temple was built as a request from the famous monk Ado. However, with all that said, after a roof tile was removed, an inscription read “Yeongmyosa.” So a recent theory now claims that the temple site was actually or originally called Yeongmyosa Temple.  The plaque isn’t clear either way.

When you first approach the temple, you’ll make your way through narrow roads. Once you turn left, and are standing inside the courtyard, you’ll first be greeted by a compact bell pavilion and a stone pagoda. Beside the bell pavilion is the main hall at the temple. And behind the main hall is the monks’ dorms.  To the right of the study hall and main hall is the temple kitchen. To the far right of the courtyard is the main study hall. And while the temple lacks a lot of the luster of other temples in Gyeongju, Heungnyunsa Temple has a couple hidden treasures. One unique feature is the temple’s pagoda, which is extremely unique in its construction and very hard to even describe, so you’ll have to check out the pictures to see what I mean. Another gem is a painting on the exterior of the main hall. The painting depicts the story of the Bodhidharma and Dazu Huike severing his arm to show his dedication of faith.  Also, the painting of a Biseon (flying angel) floating up in the rafters of the bell pavilion is absolutely gorgeous.  There is also an older looking guardian painting that is quite amazing in its descriptiveness. There is a beautiful lotus painting near the entrance of the temple kitchen.  And strangely, there are neither Palsang-do paintings depicting the eight scenes of the Buddha’s life, nor are there any ox-herding murals on the exterior of the main hall.  Instead, there are an assortment of paintings decorating the exterior of the main hall like the Bodhidharma and Dazu Huike painting.

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Heungnyunsa Temple from the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal, head towards Daereungwon Royal tombs and Beopjansa Temple. Before you hit either place, you’ll notice highway 35 to your right. Turn right down this highway/street for about a kilometre.  You’ll notice a sign to your right that will read흥륜사.

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This sign is smaller and brown and slightly elevated. Head down the road where this sign is.  Walk for about 300 metres down a farm road nestled between country houses and past a rice paddy. To your left will be a sign that will once more read흥륜사. Heungnyunsa Temple is to your right.

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Map to Heungnyunsa Temple:

View 흥륜사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 4/10. While not nearly as spectacular as the other famous temples in Gyeongju, Heungnyunsa Temple possesses enough to keep a temple adventurer’s attention.  Amongst the points of interest are the lack of either Palsang-do paintings or ox-herding murals on the exterior of the main hall.  But not to worry, instead, the exterior of the main hall is dedicated with large murals unique to Heungnyunsa Temple, like the depiction of Dazu Huike severing his arm to demonstrate his devotion to his faith in front of Bodhidharma. Also, there are other beautiful paintings around the temple like the lotus painting near the kitchen as well as the angelic Biseon floating around the bell pavilion beams at the temple. And lastly, the unique of the temple’s pagoda all add up to take the time to visit Heungnyunsa Temple if time permits.  While it won’t be at the top of your list, if you’re in Gyeongju for a couple days, it certainly deserves the time to be explored.

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 The compact bell pavilion at Heungnyunsa Temple.
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A better look at the bell at the temple.
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 A beautiful Biseon at the top of the bell pavilion.
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The study hall at the temple.
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The uniquely designed pagoda.
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One of the fierce guardians of the pagoda.
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An abstract depiction of the death of Ichadon on a pagoda.
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The gorgeous lotus painting on the exterior of the kitchen at Heungnyunsa Temple.
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 A view of the monk dorms at the temple.
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The main hall at Heungnyunsa Temple.
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 The main altar in the main hall.
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To the right of the main altar is Jijang Bosal, the Bodhisattva of the Afterlife.
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Here is the older looking guardian painting on the left side of the main hall.
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A view across the main hall.  On the right wall are two paintings for deceased monks at the temple.
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A unique painting at the rear of the main hall at Heungnyunsa Temple.
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The eternal struggle between war and peace: the death of Ichadon.
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A golden dragon chasing a flaming pearl to the right.
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Two headstones for deceased monks.
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One last look at the temple and the sign of enlightenment.

The Monster Mask – Nathwi

Hello Again Everyone!!

As a new segment to the blog, I will be writing more and more about the meaning behind the symbolic artwork, sculptures, pagodas, buildings, and so much more in the future. I thought it would help those that wanted to know a bit more behind the various meanings that adorn various Korean temples throughout the country.  So I hope you’ll enjoy this new segment.  So without further ado, here’s the first in the series.

If you look close enough at the temple paintings, you’ll probably notice a menacingly grotesque face staring back at you. To the uninitiated eye these faces appear to be nothing more than a monster mask.

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A Nathwi at Geumsuam Hermitage on the entrance gate.

These monster masks have wide noses with flaring nostrils, as well as whiskers, horns, and sharp teeth. With a broad and menacing grin they invite you to look at them. The monster masks actual name is Nathwi.  The name Nathwi can be divided into two parts: “Nat” meaning face in Korean; and “hwi” which is a Chinese character meaning multi-coloured. Specifically, they are divided into two different types of Nathwi looks: the first holds nothing in it’s mouth, while the second is holding either a lotus or vines in their mouths (this type is more common than the first type). In its mouth are lotus buds or foliage which differentiates it from a dragon that holds pearls in its mouth.

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Another Nathwi.  This one is on the front doors of the Daeungjeon Hall (Main Hall) at Pyochungsa Temple.

Historically, in India, a lion-like face called Kirttimukha (“Face of Glory” in Sanskrit), represented a wrathful side of Siva and is a protector of the faithful. Through Buddhist and Korean influences, these lion-like faces became monster like and colourful. And the purpose of the Nathwi, much like the lion-like faced Kirttimukha, is to protect a temple from evil spirits. If you look close enough at these Nathwi paintings or carvings, you can see they stare in a specific direction. If the Nathwi are by themselves, they usually stare straight ahead; but if there are two or more of them, they usually look in different directions. The diversity of the Nathwi gaze lets them protect every direction of the temple from potential evil spirits that might want to harm the temple or the people that are in it.

DSC04599The stone carved Nathwi at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan.

Great examples of the Nathwi artwork can be seen at Geumsuam Hermitage on the Tongdosa Temple compound.  Specifically, this Nathwi is painted on the backside of the entrance gate at the hermitage. The painted horned blue coloured Nathwi with vines coming out of its mouth is staring out over the hermitage courtyard protecting Geumsuam Hermitage from evil spirits. Another great painted example of the Nathwi is a similar looking creature on the front doors of the Daeung-jeon (Main Hall) at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do. This long horned Nathwi is a bit different than the one at Geumsuam Hermitage in that it does’t have any vines coming out of its mouth; however, it does an equally fierce job in protecting the Main Hall from evil spirits.  And finally, there is a beautifully carved stone sculpture of a Nathwi at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan. This fierce sculpture is placed on the entrance walls to the beautifully ornate alcove that houses stone sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas and a towering pagoda. The stone sculpted Nathwi protects all from evil spirits. And one more is at the famous Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. Above the Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”), a set of the famous stairs at the temple, just before you pass through the gate to the main courtyard, there is a blue Nathwi with his eyes staring down at you.

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The beautiful blue Nathwi that stares down at you as you pass through the gate above the Cheongun-gyo (“Blue Cloud Bridge”) at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

So the next time you see a Nathwi painting or carving, you’ll know that they’re there to protect you and not just to scare you!

Seoknamsa Temple – 석남사 (Ulju-gun, Ulsan)

Picture 038A view of the cascading pools of water that greet you at Seoknamsa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

Originally, we were supposed to visit Seoknamsa Temple the same day we visited Unmunsa Temple, but we ran out of time.  Today, we decided to head up to Eonyang and visit Seoknamsa Temple. So with my father-in-law and wife, we headed out early.

Seoknamsa Temple (pronounced Seongnamsa) means “Southern Rock Temple” because of its southern location on the Gaji mountain range. Seoknamsa Temple was first built in 824 by monk Master Doui. The temple was continuously enlarged until the Japanese Invasion of 1592, when the temple was completely destroyed. However, in 1674, under the watchful and loving eye of Zen Masters Takyoung and Sunchol, it was rebuilt. And through the years it was enlarged both in 1803 and 1912. More recently, and after the Korean War, nuns (bhikkuni) have been residing at the temple. Presently, the temple is under the supervision of Abbot Monk Inhong who has remodeled and rebuilt many buildings including the Daeung-jeon (The Main Hall) and Geukrak-jeon (Paradise Hall).

Situated under the towering Mount Gaji, and alongside a cascading river valley, is Seoknamsa Temple. After passing through the colourful Iljumun gate, you’ll make one of the most beautiful one kilometre walks up to a temple in all of Korea. After the beautiful walk, you’ll come to an opening where there’s a new  bridge.  Underneath the bridge are cascades of water that pool crystal clear. There are rocks that act as steps that lead the way down to the base of these cascades.  The potential pictures you can take here are endless, so take your time and enjoy the view. After getting your fill make your way across the bridge and up a twisting road. Again, cross over another newer looking bridge and head left around the elevated outskirts of the courtyard. Passing under a meditation centre, you’ll pass through uniquely painted entrance doors. Instead of having the customary guardian paintings, there are four Sanskrit circles.  Each aids in ridding yourself of bad karma. And at the centre of the entrance doors is the Buddhist sign for enlightenment, as well as the Buddhist Wheel of Life. Up the staircase, you’ll first be greeted by the ancient Silla pagoda that stands in the temple courtyard. The three-tiered Seokgomoni Pagoda was built by the founding monk, Doui, in 824 in hopes of protecting the country from foreign invasion. Unfortunately, this intention didn’t come to fruition, because the pagoda was destroyed in 1592 by the Japanese invasion. In 1973 the pagoda was restored by monk Inhong. Behind this pagoda is the main hall, Daeung-jeon (“Great Hero Hall”). The main hall is externally painted with beautiful paintings of Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes of the Historical Buddha’s Life). These paintings are peeling but unbelievably realistic. Also, throughout the eaves Buddhas are painted with smoke uniquely rising from their heads. Inside the main hall, and sitting at the main altar, is a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) with two accompanying Buddhas: Mireuk-bul (The Buddha of Future Salvation) and Dipamkara-bul (The Buddha of the Past).

To the right of the main hall is an area that is off-limits to the general public as it’s a living quarters and meditation area for the nuns. To the left of the main hall, on the other hand, is Geukrak-jeon (Paradise Hall). Inside the main hall, and on the main altar, is Amita Bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) in the centre. To his left is Gwanseum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Great Power). The exterior of this buidling contains numerous unique paintings to this temple like monkeys playing. Even further left is the more compact three-tiered pagoda that dates back to the late Silla Dynasty.  Behind the Geukrak-jeon Hall is Josa-jeon, which is a hall for placing the portraits of historic priests that resided at the temple. At the centre of these paintings is a painting of the founding monk, Doui. To the right, and behind the main hall up a couple flights of stairs and well-manicured grounds, is a stupa that contains the earthly remains of the founding monk, Doui. From this stupa, you can see the entire temple compound.  There are some beautiful views of the valley, the temple, and the mountains above from here.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll either have to get to Miryang, Ulsan or Eonyang to get a connecting bus to the SeoknamsaTemple. From Miryang, you can take one of the numerous buses that travels throughout the day from the Miryang Bus Terminal.  The cost of the bus ride costs about 5,000 Won. You can take bus number 807 or 1713 from near the Ulsan intercity bus terminal. Also, you can take the Eonyang city bus that travels out to the temple eleven times during the day.

OVERALL RATING:  7.5/10. While not as impressive as the neighbouring temple, Unmunmsa Temple, Seoknamsa Temple has a lot to offer the Korean temple adventurer.  One of the highlights of the temple is where Seoknamsa Temple is situated with the beautiful and cascading stream, as well as towering Mount Gaji. Also the imposingly ancient three-tiered pagoda is another highlight to the adventure. Uniquely, the temple also has the remains of the founding monk in a stupa that overlooks the temple grounds. For all these reasons, I would recommend visiting this little traveled hidden gem of a temple.

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The colourful Iljumun Gate at Seoknamsa Temple.
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There were numerous Biseon (Flying Angels) paintings throughout the temple like this one on the colourful Iljumun entrance gate.
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The beautiful pine canopied walk towards the temple.
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The pooling and cascading view of the temple as you first approach it.
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A view under the bridge and down the valley that leads to Seoknamsa Temple.
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A walk around the outskirts of the temple compound with the ever-present Gaji mountain in the background.
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The uniquely painted entrance doors at the temple with the partial sign of enlightenment and the Buddhist Wheel of Life.  In the smaller circles are Sanskrit signs for shedding ones bad karma.
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A view of the ancient Silla pagoda and main hall as you first walk up to the temple courtyard.
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A better look at the intricacies of the the pagoda.
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A better view of the 1200 year old pagoda and Daeungjeon Hall (Main Hall).
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A beautiful view of the harmony of Buddhism and nature together.
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In front of the main hall were a few of these beautiful lotus flowers growing in a tiny pond.
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The altar pieces inside the main hall: Seokgomoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) with Mireuk-bul (The Buddha of Future Salvation) and Dipamkara-bul (The Buddha of the Past).
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The peeling, yet realistic, painting of the Buddha’s earthly death.  Uniquely, there is a dragon, a tiger, and a white elephant in attendance to the right, as well as a turtle to the left.  All are highly symbolic in Buddhist artwork.
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Just one, of the many, Buddhas with smoke rising from his head.
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A beautiful angle of the main courtyard at Seoknamsa Temple.
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Just one of the many beautiful paintings at the temple.  This one illustrates Podae-hwasang.
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A view of Daeungjeon (The Main Hall) to the right,  Geungrak-jeon (Paradise Hall) to the left, and Josa-jeon (A Monk Portrait Hall) in the centre.
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The altar inside Geungrak-jeon (Paradise Hall) with Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) in the centre and to his left is Gwanseum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Great Power) to the right.
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An extremely unique painting that depicts monkeys playing.  I’ve never seen this at any other temple in all of Korea.
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I’ve seen this painting at several other temples; however, what makes this one different is the lion looking down at the man.  Usually, it’s a white elephant that looks down at the struggling man.
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A look inside Josajeon (The Monk Portrait Hall).  The painting of the founding monk, Doui, is the very first painting on the left.
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A view of the entire temple complex with the neighbouring Gajisan in the background.
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A bumble bee busy at work upon some of the beautiful pink flowers that were in bloom on the hillside.
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And a look at the physical, and symbolic, crown of the temple: founding monk Master Doui’s Budo, which contain his earthly remains.

BIG NEWS for This Little Blog!!!

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Hello Everyone!!

Recently, on this blog, I was contacted by someone from The Korea Times national newspaper.  They asked me to contribute five articles to their newspaper.  This is a huge accomplishment for me.

You can check out my article at The Korea Times, on one of my favourite temples here in Korea, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, here:

My second article is now up, as well, at The Korea Times. This article is about the American Buddhist monk that lives in Korea: Chong Go Sunim.

Again, thank you everyone for your continued support.  In the future I hope to contribute several more articles to The Korea Times.