Gakwonsa Temple – 각원사 (Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do)

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A look up at the beautiful Amita-bul statue that stands 15 metres tall at Gakwonsa Temple.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

I had never really heard of Gakwonsa Temple until my wife suggested we go on the last day of our summer vacation trip to visit a few of the more remote temples from our home. After reading up on it a bit, I didn’t hesitate to say yes, and you’ll see why.

Gakwonsa Temple (각원사) has undergone so much recent reconstruction that it almost seems like a new temple. Gakwonsa Temple is located at the foot of Mt. Taejosan a few kilometres east of the downtown area of Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do. As you first approach the temple, you’ll first have to climb the 203 stairs to see what the temple is famous for. It’s a long sweaty walk, so be prepared. Once you arrive at the top of the massive flight of stairs, you’ll see an equally massive statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This massive statue was first started in 1976, and it was the largest statue in all of Korea until the statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) was constructed at Beopjusa Temple in 1988. And in 1994, it was surpassed by the tonnage of a statue in Korea by the bronze Buddha statue at Songgoksa Temple. However, the refinement of this aging green coloured bronze statue of Amita-bul is far more stunning than either one. In total, this serenely seated Amita-bul weighs a massive 60 tons of bronze, and it sits 15 metres in height. So large is this statue that its ears are nearly 2 metres in length. Having been completed on May 9, 1977, it was enshrined for the reunification of North and South Korea. The statue itself is serenely seated on an equally massive lotus-bud base. It’s  left arm lies on its lap as the right hand is raised. Its almond eyes and lightly draped clothes are delicately draped over the figure as it benevolently looks out on the city and valley below. It truly is one of the most beautiful statues of a Buddha that you will find in Korea, perhaps only surpassed by the Seokgamoni-bul stone statue at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju.

From on high, you’ll see a great view of the expansive temple grounds at Gakwonsa Temple. But down the hill, as you descend, you’ll see all the halls that are also massively built as you, as though they were in competition with the statue to see who could be bigger. The first hall you’ll encounter is the Nahan-jeon Hall dedicated to the disciples of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The inside of the hall is elaborately decorated with floral and Nahan paintings. The exterior of the hall is also decorated with floral and Nahan paintings, but it also has beautiful paintings of Biseon, and uniquely designed bronze fish wind chimes.

Directly across from this part of the temple is the massively built main hall. As you walk towards it, you’ll notice some beautiful artwork on tiles from people from all around the world that have visited the temple. Have a look because some of it is really well done. Much like the gigantic Amita-bul statue that overlooks the entire temple, the main hall is one of the largest wooden halls in all of Korea. Standing beside it, it almost seemed as though I had instantly grown shorter. Housed inside the temple massive main hall is an equally large triad Buddha and Bodhisattvas. In the centre of the triad is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha); he’s flanked by, what seems to be, the young Ananda (representing the intellect) and the aged Kasyapa (representing experience and wisdom). The exterior of the main hall houses some extremely rare paintings unique to Gakwonsa Temple that you’ll have to see to believe. Also, there is beautiful floral lattice work and Nathwi (Monster Mask) wood carvings on the doors.

In the last section of the compound that houses halls dedicated Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Shaman deities, you’ll first come across the San shin-jeon hall dedicated to the namesake of the hall: San shin. The inside of the hall is beautifully decorated with an altar painting of an eloquently rendered San shin (The Mountain Spirit). There are other paintings of saints in the hall. The exterior of this hall is beautifully decorated with unique paintings up near the eaves of the hall. There are gorgeous tiger drawings that are emblematic of San shin. There’s also a painting of what looks to be a Haetae (The mythical fire consumer and controller), but it’s a little bit different, which makes me wonder what it’s actually supposed to be. Next to this hall, to the right, is a hall that houses Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). He’s surrounded by one thousand miniature statues of Buddhas in various poses and positions. On the exterior of this hall, there are eight beautiful paintings of the Historical Buddhas life that are called the Palsang-do Paintings. The paintings are a bit plain, but well executed.

The rest of the temple compound is a maze of dorms and study halls for both lay people and monks. There’s a large parking lot that can store up to 100 cars at a time. Everything at the temple is done on a grand scale, including the bell pavilion that is a bit obstructed by the parking lot that stands between the main hall and the bell pavilion.

HOW TO GET THERE: From the city of Cheonan, you can take city bus number 102, which connects the downtown area of the city with Gakwonsa Temple. The ride shouldn’t be too long in duration, certainly no longer than 20 minutes.

View 각원사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING:  8.5/10. This one took me a bit of time to think about. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to rate it, because it certainly has some highlights, but at the same time, it’s size is a bit much, much like Manbulsa Temple. The highlight of this temple, by far, is the beautifully built, and delicately designed, 15 metre tall Amita-bul statue. The main hall is equally beautiful in its size and decorative designs that adorn the hall both inside and out. The only drawback about Gakwonsa Temple, as I said, is the lack of refinement and modesty (at times). With all that being said, if you’re in the area, and you want to see a beautiful statue of Amita-bul, I would recommend that you go.

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The massive Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that first greets you at Gakwonsa Temple.
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A better look at part of the 15 metre tall Buddha.
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A look down at the temple compound.
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Just one of the beautiful pink lotuses that was in bloom out in front of the Amita-bul statue.

Picture 717Heading down the stairs that leads to the rest of the temple. But before we did, just one last look back at the beautiful 15 metre tall seated bronze statue of Amita-bul.Picture 066The Nahan-jeon Hall is the first hall you’ll encounter after descending down the stone stairs. This hall is dedicated to the disciples of the Historical Buddha.Picture 701

A look up at the unique fish wind chime that adorns the exterior of the Nahan-jeon Hall.
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The altar inside the Nahan-jeon. You can see small statues of the Nahan on the altar. This altar is flanked by paintings of the Nahan doing various things.
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A look up at the main hall at Gakwonsa Temple with a view of the beautifully painted tiles as you approach.
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A good look at just how massive the main hall is at Gakwonsa Temple.
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Just one of the unique Nathwi that adorns the doors of the main hall.
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And a look up at the beautiful floral lattice work that adorns the massive doors on the main hall.
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Just one of the unique paintings that adorns the exterior of the main hall.
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The altar inside the main hall with a massive Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) at the centre.
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A look over at the bell pavilion that is strangely placed in front of the parking lot.
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A look up towards the Sanshin-gak Hall dedicated to San shin (The Mountain god).
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A look at the courtyard to the right of the main hall. To the right is the San shin-gak with the massive main hall straight ahead.
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A look inside the San shin-gak with a beautiful painting of San shin on the altar.
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This is just one of the unique paintings adorning the exterior walls of the San shin-gak Hall.
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This is yet another of the beautifully decorative paintings adorning the exterior walls of the San shin-gak Hall.
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This smaller sized hall to the right of the San shin-gak is dedicated to Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy).
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The Palsang-do paintings depicting the eight scenes of the Historical Buddha’s life adorns the exterior walls of the hall that houses Birojana-bul.
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Inside the hall, sitting on the altar, is Birojana-bul, and he’s surrounded by hundreds of smaller versions of himself.
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And one last different look up at Amita-bul before we headed back home to Yangsan.

The Eight Scenes from the Life of the Buddha: Palsang-do

Picture 044A look inside the Palsang-jeon Hall at Beomeosa Temple in Busan. You can see two of the eight paintings flanking the statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).

Hello Again Everyone!

Paintings of The Eight Scenes of the Life of Buddha (or Palsang-do in Korean), can be found either on the exterior walls of a temple’s main hall, or on the interior of the Palsang-jeon (Eight Pictures Hall, in English) like at Beopjusa Temple or Beomeosa Temple. These paintings range in their complexity and sophistication, but something that they all have in common is that they depict the same eight scenes, and they all have Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) as their central figure.

Picture 149Just two of the paintings from inside the Palsang-jeon pagoda at Beopjusa Temple. The pagoda is the oldest wooden pagoda in all of Korea, and it houses the Palsang-do paintings.

Originally, the Palsang-do paintings were first created over 2,000 years ago. And since Siddhartha Gautama first attained enlightenment and became Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), there has been a continual interest in him. These paintings were first created to satisfy people’s interest in the Buddha.

In total, there are eight paintings in the set, as the name of the paintings indicates. They span the entire lifetime of the Buddha from conception to death. The eight states are: 1. The Announcement of the Imminent Birth, 2. Birth, 3. The World Outside the Palace, 4. Renunciation, 5. Asceticism, 6. Temptations, 7. Enlightenment, 8. Death.

Here is a bit more information about what each painting looks like and correspondingly represents.

1. The Announcement of the Imminent Birth:

The white elephant is a sacred sign of good luck in India, where the Buddha was born. In this painting a white elephant appeared to Queen Maya in a dream. The white elephant entered through her right ribs and entered Maya’s womb. The significance of the white elephant is that it was a symbol that the Queen would conceive a child who was both pure and powerful. A Brahmin was consulted to interpret the significance of the dream. The Brahmin said, “A great son will be born. If he renounces the world and embraces a religious life, he will attain perfect enlightenment and become the saviour of this world.”

In this painting, Maya is usually sleeping and a white elephant appears in a cloud.

1. GaramsaThe first picture in the series, “The Announcement of the Imminent Birth.” This painting is from a small temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do called Garamsa Temple. The series of Palsang-do paintings at this temple are some of the best in all of Korea. In this painting Queen Maya is asleep and dreaming. But what is she dreaming about?

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A white elephant of course. This painting is also from Garamsa Temple.

2. Birth:

The Buddha was born as a royal prince in 624 B.C.E. in a place called Lumbini (which was originally in northern India, but now lies in present day Nepal). He emerged from the right side of his mother both well developed and fully clothed. And he began walking immediately after his birth. Unfortunately, only seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, Maya, his mother, would die. However, Siddhartha Gautama lived a very happy and comfortable early life.

In some paintings, Maya is depicted as holding a fig branch. Also, in the royal palace scene, there are nine dragons washing the baby with earthly attendants.

2. GuryongsaThe psychodelic second painting, “Birth,” at Guryongsa Temple in the Buk-gu area of  Busan. I have never seen anything like this painting in all of Korea.

3. The World Outside the Palace:

As Siddhartha Gautama grew older, he started to go outside the palace compound, and into the capital city, to see his father’s kingdom. Before this, Siddhartha didn’t know anything about suffering, sickness, or death; and in fact, his father sheltered him from it. It was during these capital city travels that he first saw sickness, old age, and death. As a result of seeing these different aspects of life, it left a deep impression on him. He realized that all living beings must experience suffering. He felt a deep compassion for others, and he wanted to find a way to free people from their suffering. This is why Siddhartha Gautama decided to leave his wife, child, and royal life behind for solitude and meditative insights about the human condition.

In simpler renditions of the painting, there is a single emaciated body that Siddhartha observes. In more complex paintings, you see the palace to the right and the suffering of the everyday people on the left.

3.GwaneumsaThe third picture in the set, “The World Outside the Palace,” is from the little Gwaneumsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

4. Renunciation:

In the fourth painting, Siddhartha Gautama’s father learns about Siddhartha’s intention of leaving the royal palace. So the king placed extra guards around the palace gates, as well as extra security around the palace. However, with the help from the Four Heavenly Guardian Kings (yes, those very same guards inside the second temple gate), Siddhartha Gautama was lifted over the palace walls on top of his white horse, Kanthaka.

In this painting, a white horse is painted, with his master on top, in flight over the palace walls. Sometimes, the assisting guardians will be painted, as is his faithful servant, Chandaka, who is hanging onto the white horse’s tail.

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The fourth painting, “Renunciation”, from the historic Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do.

5. Ascetism:

For six years Siddhartha Gautama studied and meditated to find the “truth.” As was customary for ascetics of his time, Siddhartha also punished his body by not taking care of his body’s needs such as eating enough food. In fact, he came very close to dying. Finally, he realized that this type of lifestyle wasn’t leading him towards enlightenment. He started to live a life of moderation, and to take better care of his body so that he could more successfully pursue enlightenment.

In this painting, the degrees of Siddhartha Gautama’s starvation are vast. He is usually bone thin and meditating under the shade of a tree.

5. Unmunsa

The wintry fifth picture in the set, “Asceticism,” from Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

6. Temptation:

The demon Mara didn’t want Siddhartha Gautama to attain enlightenment because it would free people from their suffering. In order to break Siddhartha’s meditation, Mara sent forth his three daughters: Tanha (desire), Raga (lust), and Arati (aversion). When this didn’t work, Mara sent forth an entire army of demons. When this too didn’t work, Mara threatened Siddhartha Gautama with a sword and screamed, “Monk, what are you seeking while seated so low? Come out quickly! You are useless while sitting in that holy posture!” With the earth deity as his witness, Siddhartha answered, “I alone, below the heavens, can sit in this posture. Earth Spirit, you are my witness.” And with this said, Siddhartha changed his pose to the mudra (hand gesture) of opening his right hand and pointing his right index finger to the earth, while his left hand remained on his lap. This mudra is called “The Gesture of Touching the Earth.” Having defeated all temptations, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment.

In this sixth painting, three voluptuous women dance around Siddhartha as he attempts to attain enlightenment. In their hands, the three beautiful women hold mirrors. If you look close enough in these mirrors, you can see that they actually have demonic faces.

6. AnyangamThe sixth picture, “Temptation,” from Anyangam Hermitage, near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. If you look close enough at the mirror the Buddha is holding you can see the sisters demonic faces in it.

7. Enlightenment:

After attaining enlightenment at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama became Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And for the next 45 years the Buddha would teach anyone and everyone that would listen to how enlightenment could be achieved.

In this seventh painting, Seokgamoni-bul has a halo around his head. Furthermore, he has his disciples at his feet, as he preaches to them in Deer Park. And amongst his disciples there is usually an assortment of wandering deer. In more complex paintings, besides the disciples, there are also both celestial and worldly beings and structures.

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The seventh picture from the Palsang-do set, “Enlightenment,” from Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. Uniquely, these paintings have English explanations written under them.

8. Death:
Finally, at the age of 80, Seokgamoni-bul died between two Sala trees. As the Buddha lay down and died on his right side, a collection of earthly and celestial creatures gathered around his bier, such as dragons, tigers, and turtles, as well as his grieving disciples.

8. SeoknamsaThe eighth and final picture in the series, “Death,” is from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do. You can see the Buddha’s disciples around him, as well as a turtle to the left, and a dragon, white elephant, and tiger to his right.

Whether the Paintings of the Eight Scenes of the Life of Buddha (Palsang-do) are highly skilled or simplistic in their design, they tell a wonderful story about a life and a man who has inspired countless amount of people for two and a half millenniums: Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And whether you believe in Buddhism or not, these beautiful pieces of artwork are worth a first, or even a second, glance the next time you’re roaming around a temple’s main hall.

Magoksa Temple – 마곡사 (Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do)

Picture 056The 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.

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The decoratively painted Iljumun Gate at Magoksa Temple.
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The beautiful stream that leads you into the temple.
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The Yin and Yang stream that flows under the ancient bridge at Magoksa Temple.
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The highly unique Liberation Gate is in the foreground and the Cheonwangmun Gate is behind it.
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Inside the Liberation Gate is Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) riding his blue tiger.
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And Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) on top of his white elephant.
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And inside the Cheonwangmun Gate, The Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate, is this rarely accessorized Damun Cheonwang.
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Off in the distance, in the first area of the temple, sits Myeongbu-jeon hall which is dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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Inside the Myeongbu-jeon hall is Jijang-bosal sitting on the main altar with his 10 accompanying Kings of the Underworld.
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Up the hill, and behind the Myeongbu-jeon hall, is the Sanshin Hall dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit).
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Inside the San shin hall is this big and beautiful painting depicting the Mountain Spirit.
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The lower courtyard at Magoksa Temple.
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A better look at the bell pavilion at the temple.
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A rare dragon with a fish in its mouth that adorns the outside of Daegwangbo-jeon Hall.
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Inside Daegwangbo-jeon hall is housed this beautiful Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy).
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Also inside Daegwangbo-jeon are these older murals decorating the surface of the hall as well as another decorative dragon head.
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At the back of the hall is this older looking Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). This is definitely one of the older paintings of this Shaman deity that I’ve seen.
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The two shrine halls left of Daegwangbo-jeon hall. The one on the left is dedicated to the Nahan, while the one on the right is dedicated to the patriot Kim Gu.
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Inside the Nahan-jeon hall were Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) seated to the left on the red velvet pillow with the flanking 16 Nahan disciples.
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A picture inside the shrine hall dedicated to famous monks that resided at the temple.
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Another view of the Yin and Yang shaped stream that surrounds the temple at every bend.
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Finally, a look up at the two-storied main hall, Daeungbo-jeon, through the darkness and up to the light.
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The main altar inside Daeungbo-jeon. On the altar sits Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) to the right, Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre, and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) to the left.
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One last look at the courtyard at Magoksa Temple.

The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures: The Pursuit of Buddhahood

Picture 004An Ox-Herding Statue at Manbulsa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. It’s meant to symbolize all ten pictures.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

On the outer walls of the Main Halls at a temple, or on a nearby temple hall, you can see paintings of an ox-herder and his ox. These paintings can either be by themselves, or in unison with the Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life (Palsang-do). Either way, these paintings adorn the walls of Seon monasteries and temples in both Korea and in China. In English, we call these paintings the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, and in Korean they are called Shim-u-do. They first came to Korea during the Sung Dynasty (1126-1279) in China. They were originally conceived by Buddhist masters as a teaching device for novices. These pictures depict a deep metaphor for the Seon practice. Because the Seon practice emphasizes the practice of meditation to uncover innate wisdom and compassion, these pictures represent the training of the mind.

 In total, there are ten different pictures in the Ox-Herding Pictures (Shim-u-do) set. In these pictures, the central figures are an ox-herding boy and an ox. As the paintings proceed, the metaphor of the ox-herding boy soon becomes you, while the ox is your mind. So with all that being said, let’s take a closer look at each of the individual paintings.

 1. Searching for the Ox:

In this first picture, the young ox-herder is in the wild looking a little lost, seemingly wandering around aimlessly, as though in search of something. The ox is absent in this picture. According to the Seon practice, we are all like this young ox-herder. We are all looking for inner peace and happiness, but we are subject to our passions and the suffering that these passions entail.

 In this first picture, the young ox-herder is in the wild looking a little lost, seemingly wandering around aimlessly, as though in search of something. The ox is absent in this picture. According to the Seon practice, we are all like this young ox-herder. We are all looking for inner peace and happiness, but we are subject to our passions and the suffering that these passions entail.

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The first picture of the series, Searching for the Ox, from Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

2. Seeing the Tracks:

In this second picture, the ox-herder finally sees some footprints. The boy, searching for the ox, finds signs of the ox’s existence. Here, an individual is catching a glimpse of his innate Buddhahood self. With this realization, there is an awareness by the individual. This awareness that he has is that there is a possibility of transcending his pain and suffering. Thus, he has an initial awareness and understanding of the origins of earthly pain and suffering.

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The second picture, Seeing the Tracks, from Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

3. Seeing the Ox:

In the third picture of the set, the boy follows the tracks of the ox, and he’s able to finally see the half-hidden ox that appears among the trees. This shows that through hard work, both in practice and studying, one can find their own true mind (or Buddhahood).

3. Geukrakam

The third painting, Seeing the Ox, also from Geukrakam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

4. Catching the Ox:

The ox-herder, in the fourth picture, is trying hard to catch the wild ox with his rope; however, the ox doesn’t want to be caught. As a result, as the ox fights the boy, the boy has to hang on tightly as he’s being dragged along on the ground. Symbolically, the picture demonstrates the struggle which happens as a result of not fully transcending ones passions and desires. So while an individual has caught a glimpse of his true nature (Buddhahood), he has yet to break free from his desires and wants. This is a difficult struggle between ones true nature and ones passions. However, in some pictures, the progressive whitening of the ox illustrates the gradual awakening of the individual towards their original mind (Buddhahood).

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The fourth picture, Catching the Ox, also from Pyochungsa Temple.

5. Tending (or Taming) the Ox:

In this picture, the fifth in the set, we see the ox-herding boy gently tending to, and taming, the ox. In the picture, even though the struggle seems to be over, the ox-herder is still loosely holding the ox’s rope, while keeping his whip ready the entire while. The way that this is symbolic for the Seon practitioner is that it demonstrates how a student of the faith must keep his mind from wandering. And the way that one can do this is by continually practicing hard.

5. Anyangam

The fifth picture in the set, Tending the Ox, from Anyangam Hermitage, which is near Tongdosa Temple.

6. Riding the Ox Back Home:

In the sixth picture, the ox-herder is sitting leisurely on top of the ox as he makes his way back home. What this picture symbolizes is that the ox-herder is no longer bound by the world. His mind is no longer deceived. Instead, he now has control over his mind, and he can now return “home” to his true mind (Buddhahood). So with joy and contentment in his heart and mind, he returns “home.”

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The sixth picture, Riding the Ox Back Home, from Biroam Hermitage, which is near Tongdosa Temple.

7. The Ox Transcended (or Forgotten):

In this picture, the seventh in the series, the ox disappears and the ox-herder is left all alone and resting at home. As he sits all alone, he forgets about the ox. He is at peace in his heart and mind. By forgetting about the ox, the ox-herder transcends the “self.” There is no longer any ego, or notion of the “self” to delude an individuals mind. There is only stillness.

7. Anyangam

The seventh picture in the set, The Ox Transcended, also from Anyangam Hermitage.

8. Both the Ox and the Ox-Herder are Transcended (or Forgotten):

Now, in the eighth picture, both the ox and the ox-herder are forgotten. All that is now left is an empty circle. This empty circle represents the “emptiness” attained by forgetting both the ox and the self. At this point, one realizes that everything comes from emptiness. However, it must be noted, that this emptiness is not nothingness. Instead, what this emptiness is is the possibility of endless change. Through this emptiness, the boy achieves the ultimate stage of enlightenment.

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The eighth picture, Both the Ox and Ox-Herder are Transcended, from Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.

 9. Reaching the Origin:

In this ninth picture, there is no ox, nor is there a boy; instead, there is only a beautiful pastoral picture. This picture illustrates the scene of the original clear mind (Buddhahood). With this type of mind we see things as they are. Mountains are mountains, and oceans are oceans. At this stage, everything expresses the actual truth of life.

This painting, like the tenth, weren’t originally included in the ten pictures. Instead, the original series ended with the eighth empty circle painting. However, in an effort to eliminate any misunderstanding, which was frequent, the series was expanded to its present ten. The reason why there was so much misunderstanding towards Buddhism’s idea of enlightenment. Like has been explained above, the idea of emptiness, as understood through enlightenment, is not nothingness. Instead, the idea of emptiness allows for the endless possibility of change.

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The ninth picture, Reaching the Origin, is from Eunhaesa Temple near Daegu.

10. In the World (or Return to Society):

In this tenth, and final picture, the ox-herder returns to the village (the world), after years of practicing and perfecting his faith. The ox-herder returns to the world to teach what he has realized to all those that will listen. This last picture depicts the core of Buddhism: freedom, wisdom, and compassion.

10. Okryeonam

The tenth and final picture in the set, In the World, from Okryeonam Hermitage, which is also near Tongdosa Temple. 

In these Ten Ox Herding Pictures (Shim-u-do) we see how we can visually deepen our faith at each illustrated stage. As Buddhism teaches, our lives are filled with suffering; however, through wisdom, we can gain a better understanding of emptiness. And through this understanding of emptiness, we can learn to see things as they actually are, which is an endless possibility of change.

Gapsa Temple – 갑사 (Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do)

Picture 333The eerie waters that flow under a bridge that leads you to Gapsa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

Like Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, I had long wanted to revisit Gapsa Temple. And much like Donghaksa Temple, it was raining torrential rain. But I guess that should be expected from this summer. However, Gapsa Temple was just as beautiful as I remembered it, even though it was raining.

Gapsa Temple is located on the west side of Gyeryong-san National Park, and it’s one of the oldest temples in all of Korea. It dates back to 420 A.D. when monk Ado, who helped introduce Buddhism to the Silla Dynasty. Gapsa Temple was later expanded in 556 A.D. by monk Hyemyeong. It was after this time that the temple became one of the top ten temples in the Hwaeom Buddhist Order as ordered by monk Eusang in 679. Then the temple was expanded one more time in 887 by the monk Muyeom. Unfortunately, like most important temples in Korea, all the temple buildings at Gapsa Temple were burnt to the ground during the Imjin War in 1592 to 1597. Luckily for us, the temple was rebuilt in 1604. It was further expanded in 1654. Originally, the temple was called Gyerong Gapsa during the early Joseon Period; but it was subsequently shortened to its present name: Gapsa Temple.

Initially, the trail will quickly fork to the left and right next to the parking lot. The path to the right leads through a gauntlet of Korean restaurants. If you want to avoid this, take the trail that leads left. You’ll walk for about 500 metres before coming to the temple’s ticket booth and the stately Iljumun Gate. Not long after this gate, you’ll cross over a bridge that allows you to cross over the cascading water below you. There is an older looking Chinese character graffiti littered amongst the rocks. Continuing your climb up the ascending hillside towards the temple, you’ll next come to the beautiful Cheonwangmun Gate that houses the Four Heavenly Kings. These fierce looking Kings are trampling equally fierce demons under their feet.  After making the one kilometre hike up the trail, you’ll come to a bend in the road, this is the surest sign that you’ve arrived at Gapsa Temple, that and the fact that you’ll finally be able to see the temple buildings.

When you first arrive at the temple grounds the first building you’ll see on the elevated hillside is the hall called Gangdang, which was formally a lecture hall. This hall is now dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Inside this hall, as you’ll later see when you climb the stairs to the main courtyard, is an altar with a taller seated Jijang-bosal. Behind him, in this cavernously lit hall, is a wall of smaller sized Jijang-bosal statues around the altar. To the right of the altar is a beautiful black painting depicting Jijang-bosal and his assistants.  To the rear of the hall is a unique structure with handles on it. This elaborately coloured wooden top that stands about two and a half metres in height is meant to be spun around by an individual. It’s said that whoever spins this top will have their bad karma dissolved. Still in the lower courtyard, you’ll also see a little pavilion. Inside this little pavilion is the temple’s bronze bell. This bell was cast in 1584 and stands a stout one metre in height.

Climbing the stairs, the Jijang-bosal hall will be to your immediate left. Stepping forward, you’ll be greeted by a lush and grassy green courtyard, which is somewhat atypical of a Korean courtyard that is usually just made of dirt. To the far right is the lecture hall and administrative centre, which is off limits. To the far left are the monk dorms. Immediately ahead of you is the main hall, Daeung-jeon Hall. Inside this large hall are seven altar pieces: three seated Buddhas and four standing Bodhisattvas.  On either wall of this elaborately decorated interior are guardian paintings. Atypically, the main hall has no paintings decorating this main hall that dates back to 1604. To the back, and to the right, is the newly built Three Spirits Hall. The exterior of this hall is decorated with paintings representing the three Shaman gods housed inside this hall. The inside of the hall has three beautifully rendered paintings of the Shaman gods.

There were a few things that we were unable to see while at Gapsa Temple, but they are things I would like to talk about just in case someone out there might want to see them. One of the things we didn’t see was the Daejeok-jeon hall. This hall is just down the hill in a clearing. It’s where the original temple was situated. Inside this hall are housed Seokgamoni-bul, Amita-bul, and Birojana-bul who is in the centre of this triad. Next to this hall is a stupa that is highly unique. The base has swirling dragons and lotus buds. The body of the stupa is decorated with the Heavenly Kings, while the top is capped with a tile roof. Another part of the temple we didn’t see was the hall, Pyochungwon, which houses a portrait of Yeonggyu-daesa. He was the warrior monk that helped lead during the wars of the 1590’s against the Japanese. This hall was built in 1738 to commemorate Yeonggyu-daesa and two other monks. And finally, there is a standing figure of Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha) that is housed in a small trailside grotto 100 metres from the temple courtyard. So unlike us, don’t miss them!

HOW TO GET THERE: The easiest way to get to Gapsa Temple is from the city of Gongju. You can take the frequent buses that leave from the Gongju bus terminal. Take bus number 2, and the ride will take you about 30 minutes. Or you can take bus number 2 from the neighbouring city of Yuseong. The travel time of this bus is about 50 minutes.

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OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. There’s a lot to see and do at one of the oldest temples in all of Korea. The beautiful main hall at Gapsa Temple is adorned with beautiful paintings and Buddha and Bodhisattva statues. The newly renovated Jijang-jeon is beautifully adorned with a wall of smaller sized, but eerily lit, Jijang-bosal statues. To the rear of the hall is a Buddhist top for dispelling bad karma. Finally, if you have the time, you can explore some of the things that aren’t housed in the main courtyard at Gapsa Temple like Daejeok-jeon hall, the uniquely designed stupa, the hall for housing a portrait of a warrior monk, or the rock grotto dedicated to Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha).

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The fiercely adorned Iljumun Gate at Gapsa Temple.
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A look along the bridge that spans a roaring stream.
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A look up at the Cheonwangmun Gate that houses some really interesting statues.
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Like these two, of the four, Heavenly Kings that reside inside this second gate at Gapsa Temple.
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And under one of the Kings’ feet is this foaming and crying demon with his tongue out.
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A look up the trail as you near the temple.
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This is the lower courtyard at the temple with the bell pavilion straight ahead and the Jijang-jeon Hall that is situated on the upper courtyard of the temple.
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The bricked gated opening that leads up to the monk’s living quarters.
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A look up at the main hall at the temple with the almost surreal looking green grass in the courtyard. (And this is how it actually photographed without any photoshop!)
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A better look at the Jijang-jeon Hall that houses Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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A look inside darkly lit Jijang-jeon with a shaded Jijang-bosal on the altar accompanied by a few hundred tiny statues of himself.
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This uniquely built walking wheel is there to dispel bad karma.
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This beautiful black mural of Jijang-bosal sits to the right of the main altar of the Jijang-jeon Hall.
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A better look at Jijang-bosal.
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A look at some of the study halls at the temple.
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A better look up at the main hall with the rain falling all around it.
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A look at another one of the off-limit living quarters at the temple. To the right is a unique guarding painting.
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A look across the front of the main hall at Gapsa Temple.
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The seven statues that make up the main hall altar.
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The unbelievably beautiful guardian painting inside the main hall at Gapsa Temple.
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A look up at the Samseong-gak Hall to the right of the main hall. Usually, these shrine halls are to the left of the main hall.
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Just one of the beautiful paintings that adorns the exterior walls at the Samseong-gak Hall.
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And another. This time it’s a tiger, which is symbolic of San shin (The Mountain god).
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A look inside the Samseong-gak Hall with Chilseong (The Seven Stars) in the centre and San shin to the right, and Dokseong (The Recluse) to the left.

Daeung-jeon: The Main Buddha Hall

TongdosaThe famous Main Buddha Hall, Geumgang Daeung-jeon, at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

In Korean temples, there are numerous halls within the temple complex dedicated to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The diversity of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas comes from Mahayana Buddhism. Within Mahayana Buddhism, they recognize hundreds of Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), as well as Bodhisattvas (an enlightened being, who out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to save others). Even though Mahayana Buddhism has hundreds of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Korean practice of Mahayana Buddhism usually only worships a select few.

Bulguksa

The famous main hall at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. The Main Buddha Hall dates back to the 1770’s.

The central figure to all forms of Buddhism is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And within most temples, he is the main statue occupying the Main Buddha Hall (or Daeung-jeon, in Korean). Daeung-jeon literally translates as “The Hall of the Great Hero.”“The Great Hero” is in reference to the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, who was born the prince Siddhartha Gautama during the fifth century B.C.E. in northeastern India. The Main Buddha Hall can also be called Daeeungbo-jeon, which in English means “The Jeweled Hall of the Great Hero.”

Beomeosa

The compact Main Buddha Hall at Beomeosa Temple in Busan.

As a rule, the Main Buddha Hall is in the centre of the temple complex. Inside the Main Buddha Hall, Seokgamoni-bul is the central statue on the altar. To his left is usually the Bodhisattva, Moonsu-bosal. Moonsu-bosal is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and the way he can be identified is that he usually either has a sword or a trident in his hand. To the right of Seokgamoni-bul is Bohyun-bosal. Bohyun-bosal symbolizes the teaching, meditation, and practice of the Buddha; and when alone, he is seated on an elephant. As for Seokgamoni-bul, the way that you can recognize him as the central Buddha in an altar triad, is that he’s usually expressing the mudra (ritual gesture) of “Calling the Earth to Witness.” This mudra recalls the story about the Buddha just after he gained enlightenment. He was challenged by Mara about his authority. He called the earth to witness his many good deeds in past lives, thus justifying his authority. The physical manifestation of this mudra is a seated Seokgamoni-bul having his right hand hanging over his knee, with palm inward, while his left hand still rests on his lap. Sometimes, the index finger of the right hand will be pointed to the earth, but usually the whole hand is pointed downwards towards the ground. The most famous statue of this mudra in Korea is at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju.

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The world famous Seokgamoni-bul statue at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju.

In a “Jeweled Hall of the Great Hero,” the central statue again is Seokgamoni-bul. But he is accompanied by Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light), and Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). Amita-bul can be identified by his mudra: The Knowledge Fist; whereas Yaksayore-bul can be recognized by the medicine bowl that he holds in his hand.

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Inside the main hall at Magoksa Temple near Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. In the centre is Seokgamoni-bul. To his right is Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) and to the left is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).

Still another Main Buddha Hall, the triad might be different. The central figure will still be Seokgamoni-bul; however, the Buddha’s that accompany him are different. On one side is Dipamkara (The Past Buddha), while on his other side is Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). You can recognize Mireuk-bul because he’s usually thin and in a reflexive posture. This triad represents what Mahayana Buddhism calls Trikaya. Trikaya represents the various ways in which the Buddha reveals himself to people, which all depends on their spiritual ability and capacity.

Mireuk and D Seoknamsa

The triad of Seokgamoni-bul flanked by Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and Dipamkara (The Past Buddha) from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeonsangnam-do.

Perhaps one of the most common triad is Seokgamoni-bul seated in the centre of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This triad usually appears in smaller temples and hermitages as it encompasses perhaps three of the most popular figures in Korean Buddhism.

Jijang Gwanseeum Banyaam

The Seokgamoni-bul, Jijang-bosal, and Gwanseeum-bosal triad found at Banyaam Hermitage, near Tongdosa Temple, in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. 

Jijang Gwanseeum Jijangam

The same triad found at Jijangam Hermitage, near Beomeosa Temple, in Busan.

Any one of these three triads can appear in a Main Buddha Hall in a Korean temple depending on what that temple is trying to convey to its followers.

The altar that the triad sits upon is called a “sumidan” in Korean. This altar represents the peak of Mt. Sumeru, which is the peak where the Buddha is enthroned. Here, he emanates his light of compassion and wisdom. The interior of the hall is the most ornate out of any of the temple halls. Above the triad of altar Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is usually an elaborate canopy that features carved dragons holding pearls, carved birds of paradise, and other decorative motifs. And all around the altar are gorgeous floral patterns and Biseon (Flying Angels). Carved on the ceiling are various floral patterns, such as the lotus and/or peony. These floral patterns symbolize the “rain of precious flowers from heaven” described in the Buddhist scriptures. Usually flanking the main altar are two customary paintings. On one side is the Shinjung Daenghwa. This is the guardian painting that features Dongjin-bosal, who is the protector of the Buddhist teachings, at its centre. He is usually accompanied by twelve to twenty other figures. And on the other side is usually the Yeongsan Assembly Painting. This painting depicts the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha espoused some of his most central doctrines. Of course, the interior of the Main Buddha Hall can differ depending on the taste of each temple, but usually the interior of the main hall has these similar attributes.

 Beomeosa Altar

The elaborate main altar inside the Main Buddha Hall at Beomeosa Temple.

As for the exterior of the Main Buddha Hall, it’s just as elaborate as its interior. The paintings that usually adorn the exterior walls are either the Ox-Herding Pictures, or the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life). These paintings can either be in combination or by themselves. Also, they can either be simple in their design, or highly stylized. The main hall can also be adorned with various other paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Guardians, monks at work, floral patterns, animals, or the Dharma and Dazu Huike painting. In the eaves of the main hall there are usually painted depictions of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or saints. The wooden tablet nameplate is almost always written in Chinese characters above the temple’s front door. And finally, there are almost always wooden sculptures protruding out from under the roof of dragons and phoenixes.

Main Hall at Pyochungsa

The equally elaborate exterior of the Main Buddha Hall at Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

In essence, the Main Buddha Hall is elaborately and ornately designed and decorated as a symbol of a cabin in the Dragon Ship of Wisdom of Buddhism that ferries the faithful that much closer to the Pure Land of Paradise.

So the next time you’re in the Main Buddha Hall looking around at all the beautiful artwork, remember that there’s a lot of symbolic meaning behind it, and it’s not just pure and simple beauty at its best.

Donghaksa Temple – 동학사 (Gonju, Chungcheongnam-do)

Picture 416The wandering valley that leads up to Donghaksa Temple.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

It had been a long time since I lasted visited Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, and it’s been just as long since I wanted to visit it again. The only difference this time is that it was raining like crazy and the paved road that leads up to the temple was under construction and had been turned into a mud. All the same, it was quite the temple adventure.

Donghaksa Temple (동학사) is beautifully situated in the east valley of Gyeryongsan Mountain. Legend has it that the temple was first built in 724 by the priest Sangwon Josa. Originally, the temple was called Sangwonsa Temple when the monk Heoeu built the pagoda to preserve the remains of his master Sangwon. However, the temple was burnt down in 1754. Fortunately, the temple was rebuilt sixty years later in 1814 by Geumbongworin hwasang. The temple then underwent further rebuilding and reconstruction in 1864 by Boseon seonsa. Originally this temple was built for monks, now it is used for both a study and teaching centre for Buddhist nuns (biguni).  It was the first of such temples in Korea, and in total there are about 150 nuns that study and reside at the temple. When we were there, there were at least ten to fifteen nuns that we saw doing their daily duties of maintaining the temple’s halls and grounds. With this in mind, please be sensitive to the needs of those nuns that make the temple their home.

When you first approach the temple down the heavily constructed main road, you’ll first pass by two hermitages: Mitaam Hermitage and Gilsangam Hermitage. Both are nicely maintained and worth a look if you have the time. Continuing up the trail, and next to the beautiful stream that wanders beside you, you’ll first arrive at a memorial shrine compound that houses three halls. The most prominent of these halls is Sungmo-jeon, which is a hall that was first built in 1456 by the Joseon Dynasty scholar, Kim Shi Seup. He and several other officials refused to shift their loyalty from the deposed boy king, Danjong, who had been usurped by his uncle, King Sejo. Six individuals were killed for attempting to restore Danjong to the throne. This shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The other two shrine halls that exist at this compound are Donggyesa and Sameungak. Donggyesa hall contains the memorial tablet dedicated to Bak Jae Sang who died under the Japanese. This hall was built in 1956. Finally, Sameungak hall is dedicated to the wisest scholars in the country in the 14th century: Jeong Mong Ju, Yi Mokeun Saek, and Gil Yaeun Gae. The hall was first built in 1394.

Continuing up the trail, after a one kilometre walk, you’ll finally come to Donghaksa Temple. The temple and temple grounds are well maintained and beautifully kept.  Straight ahead is the main hall. The main hall is beautifully decorated both inside and out. On the outside of the main hall are the Palsang-do paintings depicting the Historical Buddha’s (Seokgamoni-bul) life. These paintings are beautifully rendered, and it’s the first time that I’ve seen these paintings accompanied by an English explanation to all eight paintings. The highlight of this temple are the gorgeously designed front doors to the main hall. Inside the main hall there is a beautiful triad of Buddhas on the altar with a guardian painting to the right. From the main hall you can get a great view of Munpilbong Peak, which was ghostly in the falling rain. The most impressive hall at the temple is the Samseong-gak hall dedicated to the three Shaman deities. All three, Chilseong(The Seven Stars), Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), are beautifully depicted. There is, however, a fourth addition to the hall, which I’ve never seen at any other temple in Korea. On the left wall, with the crystal lotus flowers, is a painting of Yongwang (The Dragon King). The inside of the hall is also illustrated with various murals that are older looking. There are especially beautiful paintings of phoenixes up on the ceiling that are a bit faded. Next to this hall are extensive halls for the housing and education of all the nuns at the temple. To the right of the main hall is the kitchen area of the temple.  In the courtyard is an older looking pagoda from the Silla Period with a newly constructed base. This pagoda dates back to 723 A.D. Also, there is a garden with various flowers including pots for water lilies. While this temple is smaller in size, it has a refined feminine touch that makes it different than a lot of the temples throughout the rest of Korea.

Admission to the temple is 2,000 won.

For more information on Donghaksa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: The easiest way to get to Donghaksa Temple is to take a bus from Daejeon. You can either take express city bus number 12 from the express bus terminal or Daejeon Station. These buses go through Yuseong city before reaching the park entrance below Donghaksa Temple. You can also take Bus 107 from the Hyeongchungwon Station (Daejeon Subway Line 1, exit 3) if you live in Daejeon.

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OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. Donghaksa Temple makes for a nice little adventure away from the city life. It definitely has the refined touch of a nunnery to it. Look for the stunningly decorative front doors to the main hall with their various tree designs. Also, the Samseong-gak hall for the Shaman gods is another beautiful aspect to the temple with the beautifully rendered gods and the rare presence of Yongwang, the King of the Sea, amongst the fading phoenixes and crystal lotus flowers. Finally, as you walk up the beautiful valley with the wandering stream, you’ll come across the unique Sungmo-jeon hall that is dedicated to the loyalist of the deposed child-king, Danjong, who were unwilling to shift their loyalty to the usurping king, Sejong. With so many other beautiful temples in the area, including Donghaksa Temple, these temples can make for quite a nice little get away.

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Just one of the beautiful cascades that rolls its way up to Donghaksa Temple.
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The entrance to the memorial shrine halls, the most prominent of which is Sungmo-jeon.
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Inside the courtyard to the three memorial shrine halls just outside Donghaksa Temple.
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The unique water fountain that you can drink from after the one kilometre hike.
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The first building that greets you to the temple is this bell pavilion.
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The main hall at Donghaksa Temple.
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Just some of the beautiful flowers in the temple’s courtyard.
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Just one of the lotus flowers that adds a feminine touch to the temple that is dedicated to nuns.
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A look along the main hall at the dorms at the temple.
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The first painting in the series of Palsang-do murals. Uniquely, these paintings have English explanations on them.
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Inside the main hall is the beautiful triad of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
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The shrine hall, Samseong-gak, is dedicated to three of the Shaman gods common to all major temples in Korea.
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 A painting of Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, inside the shrine hall. This painting has a feminine San shin in front of it.
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This highly unique painting of Yongwang, the Dragon King, can be found in the shrine hall. I’ve never seen a similar painting throughout all of Korea.
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The fading, but beautiful, mural of a phoenix adorning the shrine hall ceiling.
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A look at the main hall from the shrine hall.
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And a look at the nun’s dorms just before the thunder, lightning, and rain rolled in.
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Trapped at the shrine hall as the rain just pours.
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Waiting to be rescued with an umbrella as I look out at the main hall from Samseong-gak hall.
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One last look at the temple courtyard pagoda. The rain had lessened, but it was still falling.

The Dragon Ship of Wisdom

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Perhaps one of the most beautiful paintings of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

From time to time you’ll be able to see a beautiful dragon boat with passengers and two Bodhisattvas looking like the captains of the ship.  So what exactly does this painting symbolize in the world of Buddhism? And who exactly are the people and Bodhisattvas on the boat?

Well, the name of the dragon boat is called The Dragon Ship of Wisdom. And the purpose of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is that the ship transports the followers of Buddhism across the Sea of Samsara. In Korean, Samsara is known as Yoonhwi (윤회). Yoonhwi refers to the concept of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The word literally means “continuous flowing.” And it’s across these waters that the Bodhisattvas bring the passengers (followers of Buddhism) to the “other shore” where the Pure Land lies.

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This rather large painting of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom has the Western Paradise on display to the left with Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light) floating on a cloud.  This beautiful painting can be seen at Haegwangsa Temple near Busan.

The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is shaped like a dragon (go figure!?!). It has a dragon’s head for a bow, and a dragon’s tail for the stern. Usually, the dragon shaped ship is painted blue with a handful of occupants. Besides the passengers on the ship, there are two Bodhisattva figures at both the bow and the stern of the ship. At the bow of the ship is the Guide King Bodhisattva. He is responsible for leading the souls of the dead to Sukhavati. The Sanskrit word, Sukhavati, literally translates as Land of Bliss. This Land of Bliss refers to the Western Paradise of Amita-bul (The Buddha of Infinite Light). The other Bodhisattva on the ship is the Earth Stone Bodhisattva (or Earth Womb Buddha). She is devoted to saving all creatures in the Six Realms.

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The descriptive painting of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom crossing Yoonhwi. This one can be found at Pyochungsa Temple.

Usually, this mural can be found in one of two places inside the Korean temple grounds. It can either be found at the hall dedicated to Amita-bul or it can be found at the hall dedicated to the Bodhisattva of the Afterlife, Jijang-bosal.

One of the best examples of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom is on the backside of the Geungnak-jeon Hall located at Tongdosa Temple.  Even though it’s a bit faded, you can still see the beauty of this painting as you first enter the lower courtyard at the temple. The shrine hall, understandably, is dedicated to Amita-bul. Another great example can be found  at Unmunsa Temple, in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Uniquely, there is only the Guide King Bodhisattva at the front of the boat.  Other good examples of The Dragon Ship of Wisdom can be seen at Pyochungsa Temple, Haegwangsa Temple, and Buseoksa Temple.

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This Dragon Ship of Wisdom can be found at Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Uniquely, this painting only has the Guide King Bodhisattva.

So the next time you see a dragon looking boat on the back side of a Korean Buddhist temple hall, you’ll know that it’s actually The Dragon Ship of Wisdom and that it’s busy transporting the souls of devotees across Yoonhwi to the Pure Land.

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One last look at a Dragon Ship of Wisdom mural. This one can be found at Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do

Beopjusa Temple – 법주사 (Boeun-Gun, Chungcheongbuk-do)

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The beautiful and massive bronze statue of Mireuk-bul at Beopjusa Temple with the ancient and original Palsang-jeon Pagoda behind the Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Beopjusa Temple was another one of those temples that I’ve never been able to see because of distance and time. I know what you’re thinking, but you’ve lived in Korea for nearly five years. True. But of those five years I’ve gone to see a lot of other temples. This time, on this summer vacation, it was finally time to see the much famed Beopjusa Temple.

Beopjusa Temple (법주사) means “The Place Where Buddha’s Teachings Reside Temple.” The temple was founded in 553, and it was later rebuilt in 776. It’s situated on Mt. Songnisan. In its heyday, there were over 60 buildings at the temple and some 70 hermitages that surrounded it. At one point in the 1100’s, over 30,000 monks gathered at Beopjusa Temple to pray for the dying national priest, Uicheon. Like most temples in the country at the time, the temple was utterly destroyed by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War of 1592. Fortunately for us,  Beopjusa Temple was rebuilt in 1624, and several of the buildings that presently reside at the temple date back to this year such as the five-tier wooden pagoda, Palsang-jeon. In the 1960’s, the temple underwent extensive repairs. And in 1988 the massive bronze statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) that stands at 33 metres in height replaced the twenty year old cement statue that resided at the temple.

You’ll approach the temple from a dirt path that straddles a meandering stream. As you walk, you’ll pass by the stately Iljumun Gate. As you continue to walk you’ll pass by a row of stupas raised on a grassy clearing. Finally, you’ll come to a clearing where you’ll see a monument that was dedicated to the monk Byeogam-daesa in 1664. Just past this monument is the Liberation Gate that houses four statues. This gate is extremely unique. I’ve only ever seen it at Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. There are two offensively postured Vajra Devas that look like they’re ready to attack. To the right is Moonsu-bosal, The Bodhisattva of Wisdom, riding a blue tiger. And to the left is Bohyun-bosal, the Bodhisattva of Power, riding a white elephant. This gate is situated here as a reminder that by passing through the gate, one passes through the human world and into the Buddhist world where they will hopefully seek liberation. As you pass through this gate, the full view of the amazing Beopjupsa Temple reveals itself with the Cheonwangmun Gate first revealing itself in the foreground. Out in front, like two tall standing sentries, are a pair of pine trees. Inside the Cheonwangmun Gate are four tall, but not so menacing, Heavenly Kings. Unfortunately, all the statues in both the Liberation Gate and the Cheonwangmun Gate are protected by chicken-wire that interferes with any pictures that you might want to take of any or all of these statues.

Finally, passing through this third and final gate, you’ll get to see what you’ve probably travelled all this way to see: both the nearly 400 year wooden pagoda, and the 33 metre tall, and 150 ton, bronze statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). Straight ahead is the only original five-tier wooden pagoda in all of Korea: Palsang-jeon. It was rebuilt in 1624 after the Japanese burnt down the original one that resided at Beopjusa Temple during the Imjin War. The pagoda is supported by one massive wooden pole that runs up the centre of it. There are four supporting beams as well as posts and beams that keep the pagoda standing. At the top of the pagoda is a beautiful gold finial that adorns the top of the ancient pagoda. Inside Palsang-jeon, as the name indicates, there are eight murals showing the life of Seokgamoni-bul. These murals are known as Palsang-do. Also inside the pagoda are 1,000 white miniature Buddha’s and four larger golden Buddha statues that sit at the four directional corners of the pagoda.

To the left of Palsang-jeon is the massive 33 metre tall bronze statue dedicated to Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). This bronze statue is supposedly the largest free-standing Buddha statue in all of Asia, and it truly is remarkable. It replaced a cement statue in 1988. This Mireuk-bul statue is dedicated to the unification of Korea and peace throughout the world. This seems appropriate as the first figure that sat on the altar of the main hall in 776 was dedicated to the unification of the Korean Peninsula under Silla reign. Remarkably, the inside of the bronze statue is hollow, and there are 108 steps that lead the way up to the head of Mireuk-bul.  Interestingly, you can go beneath the bronze statue to an underground prayer hall. Underneath, there are numerous gold statues dedicated to the dead as represented by miniature statues of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) with a white cloth uniquely drawn over his face.

In the temple courtyard there are a few interesting pieces of stone artwork. The most interesting is directly behind Palsang-jeon pagoda. The Twin Lion Lantern dates back to 720, and it is only one of a handful with such an original design. One of the lions has his mouth wide open, as the two stand on a lotus bud. In front of this lantern is another directly in front of the main hall, Daeungbo-jeon. This lantern is adorned with beautiful devas on the upper portion of the lantern. The main hall, Daeungbo-jeon, was originally built in 553, but like the rest of the temple, it was burnt down during the Imjin War; but just like the Palsang-jeon pagoda, it was rebuilt in 1624. The main hall is a giant double-roofed building, and it’s the third largest historical temple hall in all of Korea. The main altar piece has a massive Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) statue in the centre of the triad, and to the right is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), and to the left is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). The interior is painted with fading decorative designs and a beautifully intricate guardian painting that is equal to the size of the main hall. The exterior of the main hall is designed simply with floral patterns on the second tier of the hall.

There are an assortment of some twenty halls at Beopjusa Temple. Some of the more impressive halls are the Wontongbo-jeon that is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). The seated gilt wooden statue of Gwanseeum-bosal is beautifully designed. Next to this hall is Josa-gak that is dedicated to some of the more famous monks that resided at the temple through the years. Next to this hall is the unbelievably beautiful and eerie Myeongbu-jeon Hall that is dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). The exterior of the hall is painted with grotesque paintings of those being judged in hell. They are amongst some of the best throughout all of Korea. And the interior of the hall has a beautiful statue depicting Jijang-bosal with 10 large seated Kings of the Underworld on either side of him. Finally, behind the Myeongbu-jeon hall is the Samseong-gak hall dedicated to the three Shaman gods. All three, Chilseong (The Seven Stars), San shin (The Mountain god), and Dokseong (The Recluse) are all beautifully depicted in their murals. And the outside of this hall houses some highly unique paintings of all three of the gods.

Admission to the temple is a rather hefty 4,000 won, even though the temple’s official website still says 3,000 won. Added to this is the 4,000 won parking fee for your car (if you drive).

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Beopjusa Temple, it’s a bit out of the way. You first have to take a bus to Boeun city. From the Boeun Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll have to take a direct bus to Mt.Songnisan. This bus runs every 30 to 40 minutes throughout the day. When you arrive at Songnisan Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll have to walk 20 minutes to the Beopjusa Temple/Mt. Songnisan Ticket Office.

To learn more about Beopjusa Temple, check out here.

View 법주사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING:  9.5/10. The reason that Beopjusa Temple doesn’t rate as highly as some others, is much like Buseoksa Temple, it’s a bit of a chore to get to and there isn’t all that much besides the temple to visit. However, there is plenty to see at the temple like the beautiful and historic Palsang-jeon pagoda and Daeungbo-jeon main hall. If that isn’t enough for you there is also the massive 33 metre tall bronze statue of Mireuk-bul. There are also the amazingly illustrated and artistically designed halls for Jijang-bosal, the three Shaman gods, and Gwanseeum-bosal. Finally, there are the uniquely designed and anciently crafted lanterns at the temple. For all these reasons, it’s well worth the effort to get to Beopjusa Temple either for a day trip or a weekend away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

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The Iljumun Gate at Beopjusa Temple.
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The highly unique, and rare to find, Liberation Gate at the temple.
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Inside the Liberation Gate is this statue of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) riding his white elephant.
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A look through the Liberation Gate at the Cheongwangmun Gate that houses the Four Heavenly Kings. And behind that is the ancient and beautiful Palsang-jeon wooden pagoda.
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A better look at the Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate with the golden finial of Palsang-jeon poking out above the gate.
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One of the Four Heavenly Kings inside the Cheonwangmun Gate.
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Finally, Palsang-jeon Hall, that is situated in the centre of the temple courtyard.
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A look inside Palsang-jeon Hall. Inside there are eight murals depicting Seokgamoni-bul’s (The Historical Buddha) life. There are two paintings that are adorning each of the four directions. There are also 1,000 of the tiny white Buddha statues surrounding the four altar’s Buddhas.
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Another look up at the wooden pagoda that dates back to 1624.
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A look at the massive bronze statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) in the background with another look of the Palsang-jeon Hall in the foreground.
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The 33 metre tall bronze statue of Mireuk-bul. It’s the largest standing statue in all of Korea.
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The entrance that leads under the massive statue of Mireuk-bul.
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A look at Wontongbo-jeon Hall dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion: Gwanseeum-bosal.
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A look inside the Wontongbo-jeon Hall at the majestic looking Gwanseeum-bosal.
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A look at the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at the temple. It has some of the more disturbing paintings of the pains and punishments in hell in all of Korea.
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A look inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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Just one of the gruesome paintings that adorns the exterior walls of the Myeongbu-jeon Hall.
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Next to the main hall is the Samseong-gak hall dedicated to the three Shaman gods: Chilseong, San shin, and Naban Jonja.
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A look at just one of the paintings that adorns the altar of the Samseong-gak Hall. This one depicts Dokseong (The Recluse).
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A sideways look at Daeungbo-jeon, which is the two storied main hall at Beopjusa Temple.
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A look inside the main hall at the centre piece that adorns the altar. The massive Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) sits at the centre of the altar between Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
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The equally massive guardian painting that compliments the equally large size of the triad of Buddhas on the altar inside the main hall.
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Another unique feature of the temple is this lion based lantern that dates back to 720 A.D.
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And one last look up at the Mireuk-bul bronze statue with steps to Palsang-jeon pagoda to the right.