Korean Buddhist Temple Fish-Shaped Wind Chimes

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A fine example of a fish-shaped wind chime from Gakwonsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!!

One of the most beautiful decorative devices adorning a Korean Buddhist Temple are the melodious wind chimes that hang from the eave’s of shrine halls. And while these bronze wind chimes are absolutely beautiful, like everything at a Korean Buddhist temple, they have a special meaning. So what do they look like? And why do they adorn Korean Buddhist temple halls.

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With a clear blue sky overhead, the fish-shaped wind chime blows in the breeze at Pyochungsa Temple.

When you first approach a temple, especially on a windy day, you’ll be able to hear a slight ringing in the air. And if you look up at the eaves of temple shrine halls, you’ll see the source of this beautiful music. Uniquely, a bronze fish clapper is attached to the bell.

So why exactly is the wind chime shaped like a fish? First, the wind that passes through the chime is likened to the condition of complete freedom from obstruction, which is highly symbolic of the goal for all Buddhists. Secondly, a fish’s eyes always remain open when asleep or awake. Similarly, the chimes ring day or night without end and without ever getting tired. This act is a symbolic reminder to monks to always remain diligent and alert on their path inside the Dharma. A third and final reason is that when the bell sounds it dispells evil spirits. As a side note, that’s why a lot of houses have these fish wind chimes near the entrance of their homes.

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An up-close look at a fish-shaped wind chime from Jajangam Hermitage.

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With an overcast sky overhead, the fish-shaped wind chime never rests at Beomeosa Temple.

Much like all artwork that adorns Korean Buddhist temple halls, the fish-shaped wind chime has so much more symbolic meaning than simply looking and sounding beautiful. So the next time you hear a ringing in your ear at a temple, you’ll know that this sound is a reminder to the faithful to remain ever diligent in their belief and the vanquishing of evil spirits.

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Nearly a hundred fish-shaped wind chimes adorn the gorgeous granite pagoda at Samgwangsa Temple.

Yongjusa Temple – 용주사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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The changing leaves and the unique pagodas line the path that lead to the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Yongjusa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I’ve been to most of the well known temples here in Yangsan, so I thought I would try out one of the lesser known ones. And like most of the temples and hermitages in Yangsan, I wasn’t disappointed.

When you first approach the temple from the unpaved parking lot, you’ll be welcomed by a cement wall with murals on them as well as stone statues. As you continue walking up the path, you’ll realize that these three dozen statues represent the Nahan (The disciples of the Buddha) as they sit on the cement wall in various poses. In front of them, and on the embankment, are statues of the twelve zodiac animals as well as three stupas dedicated to deceased monks from the temple. All this stone sculpting is beautifully done, especially the Nahan, so take your time and look at all the angelic and twisted faces.

To the far right is the monks’ dorm, which looks more like an old 1930’s North American house than it does a monks’ dorm. Straight ahead is the beautiful bell pavilion that also acts as a Cheonwangmun Gate for the Four Heavenly Kings. These kings are painted on either side of the walls as you pass under the bell pavilion. There is also a cute looking wooden Podae-hwasang statue that stands on the left side of the entrance-way into the Cheonwangmun Gate.

Entering into the main courtyard at the temple, you’ll immediately realize that this temple is a little different than others. At this temple, there are hundreds of uniquely designed stone pagodas on the right embankment. Continuing up this embankment, you’ll see an enclave area with a golden statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) backed by five of the uniquely designed stone pagodas. Further up the path, and next to the trees that are changing all different colours in the autumn air, is the Samseong-gak shrine hall dedicated to the three most popular shaman gods: Chilseong (The Seven Stars), San shin (The Mountain god), and Dokseong (The Recluse). All three have beautiful paintings dedicated to them inside the hall.

But back at the bell pavilion, as you first enter into the courtyard, you’ll see a beautiful main hall that’s surrounded by the autumn colours. The main hall is also surrounded by the Palsang-do paintings about the Buddha’s life. These paintings are larger in size and well executed. Inside the main hall sits Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) with Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Strength) on either side of him. The most interesting thing inside the main hall is the stone sculpture of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) on the far left. What is most unique about this Gwanseeum-bosal is the multi-armed white mural that sits behind the seated Gwanseeum-bosal. Have a look because it’s amazing!

Behind the main hall is a highly unique structure that acts as a building for both Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). On the bottom is the Myeongbu-jeon hall that houses Jijang-bosal. He is joined by a wall of a hundred smaller statues of himself on the right wall. The ceiling of this building is beautifully painted with different Bodhisattvas, Biseon, and animals. Surrounding this bottom portion of the hall are some of the most amazingly rendered punishments of hell in all of Korea (only second to Songnimsa Temple in Daegu). The top tier of this structure is taken up by Amita-bul. Inside, much like the Myeongbu-jeon hall, Amita-bul is sitting on the main altar of a triad, and he’s surrounded by hundreds of smaller statues of himself. The exterior of this hall is painted with murals of a mother rearing her child from birth to when he returns home when she’s old and gray.

Uniquely, this Yongjusa Temple has a shrine hall dedicated solely to Yongwang, the Dragon King. To the right of this hall is a coy pond that was covered in beautiful yellow leaves that had fallen to the ground. Inside the hall is a stone seated statue of Yongwang with two dragons overhead. The exterior of the hall has an amazing mural of Yongwang on the right side and Gwanseeum-bosal on the left.

HOW TO GET THERE: Yongjusa Temple is a little complicated to get to. First, take City Bus #12. This bus travels from Busan to Yangsan, and then onto Eonyang. You can get this bus either in front of Oncheonjang, PNU, Dusil, or Bemeosa Busan subways stops. You can also catch this bus easily from the Yangsan Intercity Bus Terminal. From the Yangsan Intercity Bus Terminal, you should ride the bus until you get to Hanseong Apartments (the 12th stop). After you’re dropped off, travel north up the road for 5 minutes. Finally, you’ll be able to find a brown city sign with the name of the temple “Yongjusa: 용주사.” Turn right at this sign, and follow the twisting road as it heads under the highway bridge. You’ll finally arrive at the temple after 5 minutes.

View 선지사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. To say I was pleasantly surprised by this temple is an understatement. I was expecting it to be a quaint temple with little to see and explore. Luckily for me, and anyone else that may set out to see it, there’s a lot more to this temple than might first be expected. The highlights of this temple are the hundreds of stone pagodas that are highly original in design,  the structure that houses both Jijang-bosal and Amita-bul, as well as the Yongwang shrine hall and Gwanseeum-bosal painting inside the main hall. With all this temple has to offer, you’ll realize why I rate this temple as high as I do.

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The entrance to Yongjusa Temple.
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The first thing that greets you to the temple are these stupas and a pantheon of Nahan figures and the zodiac statues.
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A better look at four of the twelve zodiac statues: the dragon, rat, horse and sheep.
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And a better look at a line of Nahan statues that are situated above the zodiac statues.
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One especially unique looking Nahan.
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The bell pavilion that you pass under to gain admittance to the temple courtyard.
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As you pass under the bell pavilion, you’ll realize that it also acts as the Cheonwangmun Gate that houses the Four Heavenly Kings. On the walls are the four painted kings.
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At the side of the bell pavilion, just before you enter, is this cute wooden Podae-hwasang figure.
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The beautiful main hall and courtyard at Yongjusa Temple. To the right are the hundreds of unique pagodas at the temple.
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Inside the main hall is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And on either side of him are Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power).
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To the left of the main altar piece is this unique stone statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) with an equally unique multi-armed mural behind her.
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To the right of the main hall, and up the embankment, is this golden statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
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And up the trail, and still along the embankment, is the Samseong-gak shrine hall dedicated to the three most popular shaman gods. The embankment is lined with these unique and beautiful stone pagodas.
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Inside the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall is this painting of Dokseong, The Recluse.
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Behind the main hall is a set of structures. To the right is the small shrine hall dedicated to Yongwang, the Dragon King. Straight ahead, and on the bottom, is the shrine hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), and on top is a hall dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
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A look inside the Myeongbu-jeon shrine hall at Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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Surrounding the Myeongbu-jeon shrine hall are some of the most grotesque murals in all of Korea.
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They might even rival those of Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.
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On the upper part of the structure, and inside the hall, is this triad of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) in the centre.
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Surrounding the upper-tier are paintings of a mother rearing a child from birth to her old age. This painting depicts the mother in labour.
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A view of the upper-tier where the Samseong-gak shrine hall is housed over top of the Yongwang-gak shrine hall.
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A better look at the shrine hall that houses Yongwang.
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And inside the shrine hall is a stone figure of Yongwang sitting on a throne with two dragons overhead.
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And outside the Yongwang shrine hall is this amazing mural of Yongwang accompanied by dragons and attendants.

Sanshin – The Mountain Spirit (산신)

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A gorgeous representation of San shin from Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.

Hello Again Everyone!!

One of the most popular and well represented shaman deities at a Korean Buddhist temple is San shin, the Mountain Spirit. This article only acts as a mere introduction to San shin, if you want a more thorough introduction about San shin please check out either David Mason’s “Spirit of the Mountains,” (unfortunately out of print) or his personal website: san-shin.org. With all that being said, I still hope you’ll continue to read this article.

Mountain worship is found all throughout the North Asian people, which includes China, Japan, and Korea. According to these North Asian people, the reason that the mountain is such a venerated object is that it symbolizes a centre axis of the world; the place where Heaven and earth are believed to be connected. And with Korea’s landscape being occupied by over 70% of mountains, it’s no wonder that Koreans have historically worshipped mountains.

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A look up at Chiseosan Mountain that towers above the famous Tongdosa Temple.

The way in which Koreans have historically (and currently) worship these mountains is through the shaman deity, San shin, which literally translates as “mountain spirit.” Historically, the townspeople prayed for good weather, bountiful crops, health, and good fortune. However, because each mountain in Korea is shaped differently, has different weather, flora, and fauna, this relationship has developed into a complex interaction between people and the mountain. San shin, and the mountain that it occupies, has long been known to be the main protector of neighbouring villages and towns. As a result, Korean kings and queens have funded elaborate ceremonies to San shin as symbols of legitimacy, as well as to gain favour. Interestingly, in Korean history, Tangun, the founder of the Korean nation, was thought to have been transformed into a San shin upon his “retirement.”

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A healthy and virile looking San shin from Beopjusa Temple.

It is from this shaman origin and belief system, and the absorption and acceptance of everything religiously indigenous, that San shin soon became an indispensible part of Korean Buddhism. While shamanism has used him for protection against the elements and good fortune, Korean Buddhists have employed him more personally for good health and vitality. In fact, Buddhist monks regularly perform ceremonies called “San shin-je,” which is a kind of recognition for allowing the temple to take up residence on the mountain (which a large percentage of Buddhist temples do in Korea).

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San shin in the company of three tigers. This is extremely rare and it’s at Dongrimsa Temple.

So what exactly does San shin look like? In Korea, there are literally thousands of different images of San shin; however, there are certain characteristics that all San shin possess. In general, San shin is depicted as a seated figure. He’s an old man with long flowing white hair and an equally flowing white beard. Yet, even though he’s old, he’s still strong and healthy. He’s situated in a pastoral setting that is perfect for meditation. He’s joined by a few attendants called “dongja.” The clothes that he wears are dependent on the Buddhist, Confucian, or Daoist ideals San shin is meant to convey; however, his clothing does denote a royal rank. Almost always, he possesses something in one or both of his hands like a fan or a walking stick which symbolize health, longevity, virility, scholastics, or spiritual attainment. One of the easiest ways to identify San shin is that he’s always accompanied by at least one tiger. The reason that the tiger is there is that it’s the king of the mountain animals and the enforcer of San shin. Occasionally, San shin will be joined by a female figure. Generally, this is believed to be another female San shin like at Magoksa Temple in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do.

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A male San shin with a female San shin from Magoksa Temple.

Historically, San shins were female, but with the Confucian influence during the Joseon Dynasty, San shin’s gender changed to be that of a male. Still, there are mountains in Korea like Jirisan and Cheonseongsan, where San shin is still depicted as predominantly female.

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A female San shin from Nojeonam Hermitage.

So where can you find San shin at a Korean temple? Generally, the most common places you can find San shin is in one of three places. First, and much like other Korean shaman deities, you can find San shin in the shaman laden “Shinjung Daenghwa” guardian paintings inside the main hall of a temple or hermitage. These indigenous shaman deities inside this painting are protectors of the Buddha’s teachings. Usually, you can find the painted figure of San shin to the centre/right of the central Dongjin-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings) figure.

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The guardian painting from Banyaam Hermitage. Below, and to the left of Dongjin-bosal, and across from Yongwang (The Dragon King) is San shin at the centre of the painting.

The two other common places that you can find San shin are in halls, usually to the rear of the main hall. Sometimes, San shin will be housed in a hall all by himself. If this is the case, the shrine will be called a “San shin-gak.” The “gak,” instead of a “jeon” hall that houses various Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, is a word that denotes a slightly lower ranking hall at a Korean temple. The exterior and interior of this hall will be adorned with various San shin figures as well as a fiercely painted tiger mural.

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A uniquely painted white tiger from the exterior of the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Gyemyeongam Hermitage.

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A haloed San shin fading on the exterior walls of the Samseong-gak shrine hall at Unmunsa Temple.

The second hall that San shin may be occupying is in a Samseong-gak shrine hall, which literally translates as “The Three Sages Shrine.” Accompanying San shin are the two other shaman deities that form the shaman “Holy Trinity”; namely, Dokseong (The Recluse) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). Inside this hall San shin is situated on the far left upon the altar, while Chilseong is usually in the centre and Dokseong is on the far right. Both the interior and the exterior of this hall have various murals of these three shaman deities. Also, and of note, these two halls that house San shin are just as elaborate in design and decoration as any other hall that takes up residence at a Korean Buddhist temple.

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The Samseong-gak shrine hall at Chukseoam Hermitage.

So the next time you’re looking for a little better health at a Korean temple, look for the white haired and bearded older looking gentleman or lady with shaman roots and a fierce looking tiger. San shin is pretty easy to find, because if there are no other shaman deities represented at a Korean Buddhist temple, you’re at least sure to find San shin.

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One of the better known San shin paintings from Tongdosa Temple.

Cheontaesa Temple – 천태사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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The beautiful view of the valley that houses Cheontaesa Temple from the head of Yongnyeon Falls.

Hello Again Everyone!!

It was only by chance that I even found Cheontaesa Temple here in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. I was originally trying to find another temple on the Yangsan website, http://english.yangsan.go.kr/main/, when I found Cheontaesa Temple on the south western outskirts of the Yangsan city map. And it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The name Cheontaesa Temple (천태사) comes from the Cheontae Buddhist order that was established in the area during the 7th century. Also, Cheontaesa Temple is situated on the southern side of Cheontaesan Mountain, which also aids in the naming of the temple.

When you first approach the temple from Local Road 1022, you’ll make your way past some of the temple facilities like the washroom. Walk up the 500 metre long road, which also acts as an entry way to Cheontaesan Mountain, until you arrive at the temple’s office. The first thing that will greet you to the temple is a beautiful two-tiered bell pavilion that also acts as the entrance way to the temple as well. Passing under the bell pavilion, you’ll also pass by the painted Four Heavenly Kings, Cheonwang, that protect the temple from any evil spirits that rest on the walls under the temple’s bell.

 Immediately to your left is a shrine hall dedicated to the Shaman spirit, Dokseong (The Recluse). This is a highly unique hall as Dokseong is usually housed with two other Shaman Spirits: San shin (The Mountain god) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). But this temple is a little different than other temples in Korea, as there is a greater emphasis given to the shaman gods.

To your immediate left you’ll see some of the monk dorms. At this time, you’ll also be able to see the second level of the bell pavilion. There’s a smaller sized bell in a wide open pavilion that you can see up close. A little further up the temple road, and next to the shrine hall dedicated to Dokseong, is the Nahan-jeon Hall. This hall is dedicated to the disciples of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). On the altar of this hall sits Seokgamoni-bul. And all around him sit 500 of his Nahan disciples. Just be aware, when you first walk into this hall, there’s a large guardian immediately in front of you when you open the hall’s door. I was completely surprised when I saw this, and nearly wet my paints. So be aware!

Straight ahead is the main hall. The exterior of the main hall is adorned with some nicely painted murals of the Palsang-do paintings (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). Inside the hall, you’ll meet all of the most popular Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas inside like Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) that sits in the centre of a triad upon the altar. On the left wall is a walled off area that acts as a shrine for the dead. Above the entry on the left side of the wall, understandably, is a painting of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). To the right of the walled-off shrine for the dead is a painting of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) riding his white elephant. And on the right side of the main hall is a large sized guardian painting. Above the entry is a painting of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And next to the guardian painting is a beautiful rendering of Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). As I said, the main hall at Cheontaesa Temple is packed with all the most popular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Korea.

Out in front of the main hall, and to the right, is a little shrine dedicated to Yongwang, the King of the Sea. The figure is serenely standing with a stone dragon’s head spouting out water beneath him. Behind this shrine and the main hall, and still to the right, is a hall dedicated to two more Shaman gods, this time it’s San shin and Chilseong. The exterior of the hall is plainly painted. When you enter this hall, you’ll first be greeted by Chilseong who sits on the right side of the altar and then by San shin, who sits on the left. Both paintings are beautifully rendered and have accompanying statues that sit on the shrine hall’s altar.

There’s a lot of newer construction going on at this temple like the rocks that are being broken on the neighbouring left side of the mountain. It looks like another shrine will be created to match the one that lies on the right side of the temple grounds. To the right is an amazingly beautiful black sculpture of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that is accompanied by two Bodhisattvas. The sculptures are sculpted out of the side of the Cheontaesan Mountain face. And these large 10 metre tall sculptures have a beautiful large red canopy that rests over their heads, and there are numerous headstones for those that are buried at the temple. As you first approach this graveyard, of sorts, you’ll be welcomed by an older looking Podae-hwasang statue that looks out on the mountains and valleys around you. Also, from this vantage point, you have a birds-eye view of all the temple buildings.

And if that wasn’t already enough, you can also explore Yongnyeon Falls that lays a further 15 to 20 minutes up the valley. The Falls are directly behind the temple; however, there are no signs to guide you. You’ll have to just keep heading up the temple road until it ends. You’ll have to climb a pretty rough trail of large rocks, so please be careful because it’s tough going in parts. There are some red spray painted arrows that guide you in the right direction so be aware of them. The best time to visit Yongnyeon Falls is in the spring. You can climb right up to the head of the Falls and look directly down into the gorge below; but again, practice restraint and caution. On the right day you can sit and catch a beautiful breeze from the height of the Falls. The view of the valley below and the gray faced boulders that make up Cheontaesan Mountain are breath-taking. So take your time and enjoy the relaxing view.

For more information on Cheontaesa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: You can reach Cheontaesa Temple and Yongnyeon Falls after going along Local Road 1022 by car or bus for 15 minutes from Wondong Station. From the gated entrance the temple is only 3 minutes away, and the Falls are another 15 to 20 minutes up the trail.

View 천태사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 7/10. While this temple is difficult to get to, it’s worth the effort to find. This temple is a bit different than most in that it houses a lot more shaman gods like Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Recluse), San shin (The Mountain Spirit), and Yongwang (The King of the Sea), while having very few halls for either Buddhas or Bodhisattvas other than the main hall. The large sculpture of Amita-bul, and the beautiful Yongnyeon Falls that lies directly behind Cheontaesa Temple, make this temple an amazing find.

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A view of the two-storied bell pavilion that first greets you at Cheontaesa Temple.
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The view of the temple that welcomes you to Cheontaesa Temple as you pass through the lower level of the bell pavilion.
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The shrine hall that houses the statue of Dokseong (The Recluse).
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And a look inside the Dokseong shrine hall with a statue of the namesake on the main altar.
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A look up as you continue to approach the main hall. On the left is the Nahan-jeon Hall with 500 statues of the Buddha’s followers inside.
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A look at one of the paintings adorning the Nahan-jeon Hall.
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And a look inside the Nahan-jeon Hall with a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) at the centre of the main hall. On the far right is a guardian statue that nearly made me have an accident.
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Continuing up the temple trail is the main courtyard at Cheontaesa Temple. On the left is the main hall, in the centre is a shaman shrine hall, and to the right is a shrine dedicated to Yongwang, the shaman King of the Sea.
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A look at one of the Palsang-do paintings that adorns the main hall. In this painting, the Buddha is being tempted by Mara and his three daughters. This painting is unique because it actually depicts Mara, and not just his daughters.
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The altar inside the main hall with a statue of Seokgamoni-bul at the centre of the triad.
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On the left wall, above the entrance, is this painting o Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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And on the right wall, beside the guardian painting, is this depiction of Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) riding his blue lion.
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A better look at the shrine dedicated to Yongwang, the King of the Sea. He is standing above a dragon head that spouts out mountain water.
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Inside the Shaman shrine hall are paintings and statues dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars) on the right, and Sanshin (The Mountain god) on the left.
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A look at the temple from behind the main hall.
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To the right of the temple compound, and up the embankment, is this massive sculpture of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). If you look at the light post on the far right, it’s about 2 metres tall to give you a bit of perspective.
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A look down the row of Buddhist headstones up at the towering mountain and the continuing valley that the temple rests in.
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A look up at Cheontaesan Mountain beside a stone sculpture of Podae-hwasang.
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And the trail that eventually leads you to the top of Yongnyeon Falls.
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Finally, a look up at Yongnyeon Falls after a 15 minute hike up a very treacherous and rocky trail.
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A look across the valley floor that the falls descend down.
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And a look up at the towering gray edifice that is Cheontaesan Mountain.
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And one last look down at the valley below with Cheontaesa Temple off in the distance from the head of Yongnyeon Falls.

Wonhyo and Uisang Temple Paintings

WonhyoamThe famous pair of monks from Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Uisang-daesa is on the left and his close friend Wonhyo-daesa to the right.

Hello Again Everyone!!

At the occasional temple, you’ll see a unique painting of two monks. In this unique painting one monk is holding a human skull as he dances, while the other waves good-bye. So who are these two monks? What does the painting look like exactly? And what does it all mean?

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The famous painting of Wonhyo-daesa on the left with his friend Uisang-daesa to the right from the Jogyeam Hermitage.

In this painting, which usually adorns the main hall of a temple or hermitage, are two monks realistically rendered on a beautiful landscape painting. The monk on the left is holding a human skull as he smiles, while he’s dancing away from his fellow monk. The second monk to the right is waving good-bye with a bag on his back. He is apparently continuing on some sort of journey. To the uninitiated eye this may look like nothing more than any number of murals that adorn the exterior of a Korean temple or hermitage hall; however, this painting, and these two monks in particular, have a lot of loaded meaning to Korean Buddhism.

So who exactly are these two monks? And what exactly is the meaning of this mural? The easier answer to these two questions is that the monk on the left in the mural is Wonhyo-daesa, and the monk on the right is his friend, and fellow monk, Uisang.

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A better look at Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.)

Wonhyo (617-686 A.D.) was born in Apnyang, Gyeongsan-gun, in Gyeongsangbuk-do province. His secular name was Seol, and he originally came from a middle-class background (Head-rank six: Yukdupum, in Korean).

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And a better look at Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.)

Uisang (625-702 A.D.), on the other hand, couldn’t have been more different than his friend. Very little is known about Uisang’s early life other than a few basic facts. First, he came from Gyeongju from a noble royal family. Second, his secular family name was Kim, and his father’s name was Han-sin. At the age of nineteen Uisang became a monk at Hwangboksa Temple.

Initially, Wonhyo and Uisang attempted to travel to China to further their Buddhist education in 650 A.D., when Wonhyo was 34 and Uisang was 26. Unfortunately, they were captured by Goguryeo guards as they attempted to travel to China by land. They were treated as spies and for several weeks they were in jail. And even though they wouldn’t make it to China on their first attempt, because of the heightened tension between Tang China and Korea as a result of the recent invasion of the Tang army into Korea, this would not quell the desire to visit Tang China to further their education of Buddhism. However, this helps to partially explain the mural that is now painted on some Korean temple and hermitage halls.

In 661 A.D., Wonhyo and Uisang would attempt to visit Tang China one more time. This time, however, they would attempt to arrive in China by sea. Again, they were attempting to visit Tang China to help further their education and understanding of Buddhism. As they travelled towards China, they stayed in Liaodong, Goguryeo (modern day Incheon). This was to be their point of departure to sail towards Tang China; however, their ship was delayed due to stormy winds and torrential rain. Caught in the storm without a place to stay, both Wonhyo and Uisang took shelter for the night in a nearby cave. As they were resting, they became thirsty, so they found gourds of water inside the cave to drink from. After drinking from the gourds, they both had a good night’s sleep.

HaegwangsaThe two friends finding a source of water to drink from late at night. This painting is from Haegwangsa Temple.

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And the two friends quenching their thirst from “gourds.” This painting is from Baekryeongjeongsa Temple near Tongdosa Temple.

 It wasn’t until the next morning, at first light, that they realized that they hadn’t stayed in any ordinary cave; instead, the cave that they had stayed in was in fact a grave. And the gourds that they thought they had drunk from were in fact maggoty and putridly decaying human skulls. This realization is beautifully painted along the main hall at Songgwangsa Temple and Unmunsa Temple. And with this realization, they couldn’t stop vomiting.

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The moment of realization by Wonhyo-daesa from Songgwangsa Temple.

For a second day and night, stormy weather was all about Liaodong, Goguryeo (modern day Incheon), so they were forced once more to spend another night in the same cave. During their second night, both Wonhyo and Uisang were unable to sleep because they were haunted by the nightmares and imagined ghosts from that morning’s realization. It was at this point that Wonhyo had his revelation known as “conscious-only enlightenment.” What Wonhyo realized was that the water he drank was the same water, but that his mind had changed towards what he had drank. It is in this revelation that he realized that a subjective mind can change an objective object. He would famously write that “there is nothing clean and nothing dirty; all things are made by the mind.”

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The famous painting of Wonhyo and Uisang, with Wonhyo to the right dancing with a skull and Uisang to the left waving good-bye and determined to complete his travels to Tang China.

With this knowledge, Wonhyo decided to return to his home. He believed it would be more fruitful to learn practical wisdom than to achieve ideal knowledge. So while Wonhyo returned home after his revelation, Uisang would continue on towards China. And it is from this departure that the two are idealized in the present paintings that adorn temple and hermitage halls of these two famous Korean monks and their famous legend.

After their leave from one another, both Wonhyo and Uisang would go on to become two of  Korea’s most popular and famous monks.

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Another artisitic interpretation of Wonhyo’s revelation from Unmunsa Temple.

Wonhyo would return to Korea and leave the Buddhist clergy and become a common practitioner of Buddhism. Of his revelatory experience, Wonhyo would later write:

When a thought arises, all dharma (phenomena) arises and when a thought disappears the shelter and the tomb are as one. The Three Worlds are simply the mind,

All phenomena are mere perception.

There being no Dharma outside the mind.

What else is there to seek? I shall not go to Tang.

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The shrine hall, Bogwang-jeon, at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju, which is dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa.

Wonhyo would go on to author 240 volumes of work which cover all aspects of Buddhism including Mahayana, Hinayana, and the Tripitaka sutras. A large number of these texts were written at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. To have written so many volumes in one lifetime is nearly superhuman. Wonhyo is recognized for his depth of perception and clarity of thought on Buddhist Truths. And all of this was made possible by the one event that took place in Liaodong, Goguryeo, when Wonhyo drank from a perceived gourd. At his death, Wonhyo’s son, Seol Chong, would be at his side. Also at his side would be his lifelong friend, Uisang. Wonhyo died suddenly at a temple near Hyol in Gyeongju in 686.

Uisang, on the other hand, would go on to visit China. He would go to Zhixiangsi Temple at Mt. Zhongnan, where he met the great master, Zhiyam. Uisang would study under Zhiyam for the next ten years, where he learned about the “Flower Ornament Sutra.” Uisang eventually returned to Korea, where he became the founder of the Korean Hwaeom school of Buddhism. Uisang would also go on to be known as the “ Temple Builder” for the number of temples and hermitages he either established or extended during his lifetime like Buseoksa Temple and Beomeosa Temple. Finally, and on a more personal level, Uisang stressed the equality of all individuals, which was unique at that time in Korean society, when there was a rigid caste system in place. He also attempted to lessen the suffering of all individuals in their daily lives. Eventually, and sadly, Uisang would pass away in 702, a full sixteen years after his friend, Wonhyo, died.

These murals of a dancing Wonhyo holding a human skull, and a determined Uisang waving good-bye to his friend as he continues on his journey towards Tang China aren’t at a lot of temples or hermitages. However, when you do spot one in the future, you’ll have a better idea of the story the mural is trying to convey about these two seminal figures in Korean Buddhism.

Seonjisa Temple – 선지사 (Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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The Nahan Jesus that makes the temple so famous at Seonjisa Temple in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

My wife was actually the one that recommended that we go to Seonjisa Temple for a very unique reason. She had seen it on T.V. and saw that a statue of Jesus was a fixture inside the main hall at this Buddhist temple. So on a sunny Sunday morning, we decided to head over to Gimhae and see why this temple had such a unique reputation.

Seonjisa Temple (선지사) has been in the same location for a thousand years, but more recently it was abandoned. It is thought that the temple’s name, Seonjisa Temple, influenced the naming of a local town such as Seonji, as well as a local pond called Seonji. It wasn’t until recently that the head-monk, Woncheon Sunim, restored the temple to its former splendour. The idea of the temple’s design came to him after he had seen 500 Nahan in Gongjuksa Temple in China, which is located in Unnamseong. According to Woncheon Sunim, the goal of the temple is to make people in this multi-religious world of the 21st century feel comfortable at Seonjisa Temple.

You’ll first approach this temple from a side road that treks up the side-winding roads of a mountain. The first glimpse of the temple is over the temple’s vegetable garden. Around this knoll, either left or right, you’ll enter into the temple’s main courtyard. To the left is the temple’s kitchen, and to the far right is the monk’s dorm.

Straight ahead is perhaps one of the most unique main halls in all of Korea. The main hall is rather large in size, and the main doors are decorated with some rather unique elf looking paintings of the protective Nathwi. The exterior paintings of the main hall are equal to the uniqueness inside the main hall. There are two sets of paintings that surround the main hall. On the upper tier, there are paintings of the Nahan (followers of the Historical Buddha) in various actions and poses. And on the lower tier, there are twelve cartoonish looking paintings of the zodiac symbols. The monkey and the tiger are perhaps the best rendered zodiac signs.

But the real reason Seonjisa Temple has earned such notoriety throughout Korea is for what resides inside the main hall. Uniquely, there are 500 statues of the Nahan seated and standing on the altar inside the hall. Some of the Nahan are Jangyugwansang, Wonhyo-daesa, Dharma-daesa, and Uisang-daesa. This temple is one of the few temples in all of Korea where they worship the 500 Nahan disciples that attained Nirvana (The only other one, at least that I know of, being Geojoam Hermitage in Daegu). What makes these statues so unique is that one of them is a statue of Jesus (Hyansang-jonja). According to the head-monk, Woncheon Sunim, Jesus is the 109th Nahan. This statue of Jesus is to the left of the four Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the main altar. The statue to the far right is a smaller sized statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), while there is a twin statue (but a bit larger) two statues over from Seokgamoni-bul. Sandwiched between these two statues of The Historical Buddha are statues of two Bodhisattvas. These Bodhisattvas appear to be of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). On the far right wall is a vastly populated guardian painting. And lifting all the altars up are some gorgeously sculpted wooden bases. There is one particular one that has a mermaid carving on it.

Up the mountain, and to the right, is a small shrine hall dedicated to an Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that dates back to 1605. This statue was only recently opened up to the public, and the newer looking shrine hall proves just how recent this was. The interior of the hall is simple, yet welcoming, in design; however, there is an ornately painted mural that backs the statue of the 400 year old statue of Amita-bul. This black mural is populated by the four Cheonwang (Heavenly Kings), as well as Wolgwang-bosal (The Moonlight Bodhisattva) and Ilgwang-bosal (The Sunlight Bodhisattva).

On the upper crest of the temple, perched on a rocky faced hillside, is the Sanshin-gak shrine hall which is dedicated to the shaman Mountain god, San shin. To get to this shrine hall that is over populated by a colony of lady bugs, you’ll first pass by some peculiar purple rocks. The San shin painting is simple but nice, which is in sharp contrast to the uniqueness of the rest of the temple. The views from the Sanshin-gak shrine hall are beautiful of both the temple and the neighbouring valley.

As a bit of an added bonus, my wife and I were invited in by the head monk to have a cup of tea. While we were there, he told us about his theories about the place of Jesus in Buddhism. Hopefully, if you visit, you’ll visit with someone that speaks Korean, because unfortunately, the head-monk at Seonjisa Temple doesn’t speak English. His theories about how interlinked Christianity and Buddhism really should be heard.

For more about Seonjisa Temple, follow this link.

HOW TO GET THERE: You can take the local Gimhae buses, either #21 or 30, and get off at Dongseon-maeul. From this area, you’ll be able to see a sign from the road that reads “선지사.” From this sign, the one lane road will twist and turn up the hillside as you make your way towards the temple. There are numerous brown signs that direct you towards the temple. The road is a dead-end. So when you get to the end of the road, you’ll be at Seonjisa Temple.

View 천태사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 7/10. This temple is really out of the way; however, for the diehard temple adventurer, Seonjisa Temple is well worth the trip. The location of the temple is beautiful, as are the purple rocks near the summit of the temple. Added to the natural beauty is the 400 year old golden statue of Amita-bul. But the true highlight of this temple sits inside the main hall, and what the temple is truly known for. While not the easiest to find in and amongst the 500 Nahan, the statue of Jesus is something that stands out. And if you’re lucky enough to enjoy the company of the head-monk do so.

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The courtyard at Seonjisa Temple. The kitchen is to the immediate left and the monks’ dorm to the right with the Amita-bul shrine hall behind it.
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A look at the extremely unique main hall at the temple.
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An equally unique Nathwi that adorns the front doors of the main hall.
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As unique as the main hall’s interior is, the exterior is just as unique. I have never seen the main hall decorated with murals of the Nahan or the 12 zodiac signs.
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The fierce looking tiger.
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The first look inside the uniquely designed main hall at Seonjisa Temple.
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Can you see the most unique statue out of the 500 Nahan upon the altar inside the main hall?
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There he is: Jesus! And there’s an equally unique reason as to why Jesus is there among the 500 Nahan (Just ask the head monk!).
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A golden headed Nahan holding up a golden pearl in his right hand.
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Another of the Nahan. This bushy-browed Nahan seems a bit saddened by thought.
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A look at the main altar. Uniquely, there are four statues resting on the main altar. Strangely, Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) seems to be represented twice (far right and middle left).
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The amazing guardian painting to the right of the altar inside the main hall.
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And equal to the uniqueness of the main hall is this wood-carving of a mermaid below the guardian painting.
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A look up at the compact Amita-bul shrine hall behind the monks’ dorm.
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The historical statue of Amita-bul backed by a gorgeous mural of the Buddha with various guardians surrounding and protecting him.
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A better look at the seated Amita-bul statue that dates back to 1605.
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A look up at the Sanshin-gak shrine hall for the Mountain god behind the main hall.
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A rocky look up at the Sanshin-gak shrine hall at Seonjisa Temple.
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A look at the nicely designed San shin mural inside the shrine hall at the temple.
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A look down at the purple rocks and main hall from the Sanshin-gak shrine hall.
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Myself and the head monk at Seonjisa Temple having a cup of tea.
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And one last look at the main hall and Sanshin-gak (top right) before leaving.

The Seven Stars – Chilseong (칠성)

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A look inside Bukgeukjeon Hall at Anyangam Hermitage that  houses the shaman deity The Seven Stars, Chilseong.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Another member of the Korean shaman “Holy Trinity,” besides Dokseong (The Recluse) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), is Chilseong (The Seven Stars). He most commonly appears alongside Sanshin and Dokseong in a shrine hall. So who is this shaman deity, what does he look like, and why does he have such a prominent role in Korean Buddhism?

The exact origins of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) are largely unknown; however, what is known is that Chilseong comes from the Ursa Major (Big Dipper) constellation, which consists of seven stars. According to the indigenous Korean shamanism, which dates back to ancient Korea, these seven stars shine the brightest on Korea. With this in mind, Koreans have come to believe that these stars favour the Korean people; and as a result, these stars protect Koreans from misfortune.

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The very vibrant painting of Chilseong at Songnimsa Temple.

Historically, the worship of Chilseong in Korea is date-able to murals found inside a Goryeo tomb which dates back to between 427 to 450 A.D. Inside this tomb are a set of Chilseong (Ursa Major) paintings together with the sun and moon Bodhisattvas. Also, and of interest, the famous general, General Kim Yu-shin, was believed to have been born with the an image of Chilseong engraved on his back.

Chilseong is a prominent deity in Korean shamanism, but he is also represented in Daoism and Buddhism, as well.  Chilseong is noted for the magnificence of light that pores forth from every part of his body. Much like Yongwang and Sanshin, and through the millennia, Chilseong was absorbed into Korean Buddhism. So while Chilseong was a shaman deity first, he’s now a prominent member of the Korean Buddhist pantheon.

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An amazing rendering of Chilseong at Gyemyeongam Hermitage.

Alongside Dokseong, Chilseong is considered a Heavenly deity in Korean shamanism. These deities are responsible for long life and general good fortune. And specifically, Chilseong is responsible for childcare. In Korean shamanism, the deities’ hierarchy varies according to an individual shaman; however, it is customary that several deities occupy the highest rank together. These deities are: Hwanin, Cheseok, Hanamin, and Chilseong.

So what exactly does Chilseong look like? Even though Chilseong is treated as one deity, he appears as seven individual figures. And since these seven figures almost never appear separately (perhaps with Anyangam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple being the exception), they are considered as one entity: Chilseong. How Chilseong is depicted can vary depending on whether it’s a Buddhist, shaman, or Daoist style rendering of the deity.

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The unique wood etching of Chilseong found at Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan.

In traditional Chilseong Daenghwa painting, there is usually a set standard that the painting will adhere to. A traditional Chilseong Daenghwa painting will usually have seven figures in the centre that represent Chilseong. On the left is usually Ilgwang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Sun) and on the right is Wolgwang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Moon). In the upper portion of this painting, on either side of the seven Chilseong figures, are the Chil Yeorae, which are the Seven Buddhas. And on the lower portion of the paintings are the Chilseong Seong-gun, which are the Seven Star Princes.

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In this painting of Chilseong at Dongrimsa Temple, you can see the seven Chilseong figures in the middle with the seven Chil Yeorae on the bottom. Additionally, you can see both Ilgwang-bosal and Wolgwang-bosal on either side of the central Buddha.

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A better look at Ilgwang-bosal (The Sun Bodhisattva) and Wolgwang (The Moon Bodhisattva) beautifully adorning the lattice work at  Cheonbulsa Temple.

If the Chilseong Daenghwa is Confucian in style, Chilseong is always a male and never female. And although they are similar in appearance, they are not the same. In addition to these figures, it is common for one of the seven Chilseong figures to be an “elder brother” that is situated in the centre and larger in size than the other six figures. This “elder brother” is easy to identify because not only is he larger in size, but he also possesses a book that is symbolic of all knowledge. This style of Confucian painting is in accordance with the Confucian doctrine of “honoured men and lowly women,” the cosmic hierarchy, and the superiority of knowledge.

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A rare Confucian-style painting of Chilseong at Sajaam Hermitage.

Conversely, in Buddhist and Daoist paintings, Chilseong is often depicted as a male, and are sometimes a mixture of male and female figures. Also, they are nearly identical in their features and size.

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An elaborate Chilseong painting found at Unmunsa Temple.

Chilseong is usually found in one of two places. The first place that he’s commonly found is in the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Inside this shrine hall is a painted mural (and sometimes a statue) of Chilseong. Chilseong almost exclusively sits in the centre of the Samseong-gak shrine hall. And on his left is Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and to his right is Dokseong (The Recluse). However, like a Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, Chilseong can have a shrine hall dedicated solely to himself. This is also the case for the beautiful shrine hall called Bukgeukjeon at Anyangam Hermitage. Uniquely, and unlike any other renderings of Chilseong I have seen, each of the seven Chilseong have their own individual paintings inside the shrine hall at Anyangam Hermitage.

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The two-storied structure to the far right, next to the main hall, is the hall that houses the shrine to Chilseong at Seokbulsa Temple.

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A look inside the shrine hall at Seokbulsa Temple at the mural of Chilseong.

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The Bukgeukjeon shrine hall dedicated solely to Chilseong at Anyangam Hermitage.

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A look inside the Bukgeukjeon shrine hall at Anyangam Hermitage. To the right are four of the individually painted Chilseong. This is unique because the seven are almost always painted together in one mural.

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And a look to the left at the three remaining Chilseong inside Bukgeukjeon shrine hall at Anyangam Hermitage.

In addition to this shrine hall, but sometimes exclusively, Chiseong will appear in the popular Shinjung Daenghwa. In the centre is Daesaji-bosal (The Bodhisattva that Protects the Buddha’s Teachings), and Chilseong appears as one of the flanking shaman deities. This painting is the most shamanistic thing inside the Buddhist temple grounds because it features numerous indigenous Korean shaman deities. It’s interesting looking at these paintings and attempting to identify the Korean shaman deity like Yongwang, Chilseong, San shin, and Dokseong. Also, Chilseong can appear inside the main hall, upon the altar, close to statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In fact, Chilseong can be manifested as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva king upon the main hall altar.

Because Chilseong is one of the more prominent Korean shaman deities, it’s a lot easier to find him than perhaps other shaman deities inside a Buddhist temple. So the next time you visit a Korean temple, have a look for Chilseong (The Seven Stars).

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A glorious golden Chilseong sculpture found at Geumjeongam Hermitage.