The Story Of…Bulguksa Temple

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Korea’s most famed temple: Bulguksa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The very first temple I ever visited in Korea way back in the fall of 2003 was Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. Korea today is very different than Korea from even a year ago, so you can imagine just how much change has gone on over the course of ten years. Not much was known about Korea. This was before Facebook, Twitter, and the regular supply of most western foods. Back then there were only a couple English channels on TV, and Costco only existed in North America. So suffice is to say, I didn’t know all that much about Korean temples, or even about the famed Bulguksa Temple at that point in time. So when my roommate asked me if I wanted to go to Gyeongju on Saturday and see the beautiful Bulguksa Temple, I first said what’s that? Then when I found out it was perhaps Korea’s most famous temple, I jumped at the opportunity.

Before I had a car, I would take buses to better known temples throughout the Korean peninsula. Now that I have a car, I can go to lesser known temples; but back then, I had to rely on the Korean transportation system, which is one of the best in the world, to get me to these beautiful Buddhist temples throughout Korea.

So making our way to the Nopo-dong Bus Terminal in northern Busan from our centrally located apartment, the three of us headed out. Somehow, our strange co-worker had invited himself to go to Gyeongju with us. It wasn’t much of a problem, because we would have Bulguksa Temple to distract us. The hour-long bus ride from Busan to Gyeongju went rather smoothly for three newly landed teachers. In a bit of confusion, we were able to find the bus that ran its way up to the temple from the bus terminal. It was the first time I really got a good look at Korea outside of Busan.

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Dabotap Pagoda: Just one of the sites we were looking forward to at Bulguksa Temple.

When we finally arrived at the large temple parking lot, we made our way up to the temple with a lot of anticipation, or so I thought. I knew I was really excited, as the ticket booth finally came into view; so I thought my companions were, as well. And I was right, at least in part. My friend, who I am still friends with to this day, was the first to pay the entrance fee. He was followed a close second by me. Then the two of us just stared at the third member of our party.

We asked, “Aren’t you coming with us to see the temple?”

“No, the admission fee is too much.”

The two of us just looked at each other and then at him. This guy had spent over two hours traveling. He had paid who knows how much in bus fare; and suddenly, the 3,000 won entrance fee (at least in 2003) was too much?

“But you came all this way. Don’t you want to see it?” I asked.

“Nah…I’ll just wait for you guys out here.” And he just wandered off towards the parking lot without looking back.

Even looking back on it ten years later, I still can’t believe someone would travel that distance and pay all that money in bus fare just to wander around the Bulguksa Temple parking lot. What didn’t come as a surprise is that the same guy was fired six months later from our hagwon for being a bit strange.

For more information on Bulguksa Temple.

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What was missed at Bulguksa Temple.

Taejongsa Temple – 태종사 (Taejongdae, Busan)

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 Just one of the amazing views from Taejongdae Park, where Taejongsa Temple is located in Busan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Taejongdae Park and Taejongsa Temple are named after the 29th King of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.), King Taejong. King Taejong Muyeol (604-661) enjoyed archery and hiking in this area of Busan. He was also the father to King Sejong the Great. Taejongdae Park is well known for its scenic views. You can see Tsushima Islands in Japan, as well as the beautiful rock beaches. The park is also famous for a ritual for the rain. The ritual is performed on May 10th of the lunar calendar, and it’s called Taejong Rain. Besides Taejongsa Temple, you can also enjoy Gumyeongsa Temple, an observatory, the Yeongdo Lighthouse, the Sinseon Rock (where deities came to relax), and the Mangbuseok rock, where a woman is said to have waited for her husband who had been taken by the Japanese. Taejongdae Park is known as Scenic Site #17. But above it all, it’s the amazing views that people come to Taejongdae Park, and subsequently see Taejongsa Temple along the way.

If you take the more scenic route, which I strongly recommend, you’ll come to the mountainside Taejongsa Temple after about 30 minutes of hiking. About 100 metres up the trail, you’ll come to Taejongsa Temple from the rear. So the first thing to greet you at the temple is the main hall. The main hall, which is rather underwhelming when you first see it, is made of concrete. Of note, the brown latticework is especially beautiful. On each corner is a manja. Housed inside the main hall, and sitting all alone, is a large golden statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Flanking this statue on either side are colourful murals of the Buddha. On the far right wall is the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian mural). It’s well populated with shaman deities and guardians. On the other wall is an equally elaborate mural dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).

Just to the rear of the main hall, and to the left, is the Sanshin-gak. Another concrete hall, this house-like structure has a nice painting of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). The painting is joined by a white statue of Sanshin-dosa (The Mountain Pass Deity). Just down the mountain, and to the left, is the Bo-gung shrine hall. Inside this hall are the purported remains of the Buddha that they received from Sri Lanka. As you enter this hall, you’ll notice a stone statue of a lying Seokgamoni-bul. Straight ahead is a large golden pagoda with an open chamber, where the partial earthly remains of the Buddha reside. Above is a window that lets in natural sunlight. Behind the golden pagoda are south-east Asian-looking statues of the Buddha. The walls inside this hall are lined with miniature statues of the Buddha.

Just out in front of this hall and the main hall is a very unique, non-traditional, three-story stone pagoda. Just beyond this pagoda is a field of stupas and the monks’ quarters. The final thing you can see, as you make your way back to the main road of Taejongdae Park, is a popular replica of a Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) statue.

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Taejongdae Park, and then Taejongsa Temple, you’ll first need to get to Busan Station. From the Busan train station, you can catch city bus #88 or #101. When you arrive, and from the entry of Taejongdae Park, you should hang a left and head up the road for about a kilometer. The temple is on your left.


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OVERALL RATING: 4/10. On its own, the temple might be a two out of ten. But Taejongdae Park, which is a ten out of ten, raises this below average temple to a sort of respectability. While the temple purportedly houses the Buddhas sari (crystallized earthly remains of the Buddha), take your time and enjoy the must more pleasurable, and scenic, Taejongdae Park. Little else of this concrete temple is worth seeing.

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One of the first openings you’ll come to at Taejongdae Park.

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Another amazing view, as boats leave and enter the neighbouring Busan port.

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A look over the sheer cliff at the neighbouring East Sea.

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Finally, after 30 minutes of hiking, you’ll come to Taejongsa Temple. The first thing to greet you is the temple’s main hall.

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The latticework on the main hall. Notice the manja design on the four corners of the windowpane.

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A look at the altar inside the main hall.

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A painting of Seokgamoni-bul beside the statue of a golden Buddha.

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The mountainside Sanshin-gak at Taejongsa Temple.

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A look inside at the mural of Sanshin, as well as a statue of Sanshin-dosa to the left.

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The Bo-gung hall that houses the partial earthly remains of the Buddha.

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The golden pagoda that houses the Buddha’s sari.

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A closer look at the open chamber with the Buddha’s remains inside.

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The Korean and south-east Asian style statues of the Buddha.

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One last look…

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The stupa field to the south of the temple.

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One last amazing view of the neighbouring sea, as you make your way back to the park exit.

Naesosa Temple – 내소사 (Buan, Jeollabuk-do)

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 The beautiful interior of the main hall at Naesosa Temple in Buan, Jeollabuk-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

On the southern outskirts of Byeonsan Bando National Park lies Naesosa Temple. It was first built by the monk, Hye-gu, in 633, during the Baekje Dynasty. Originally, the temple was called Soraesa Temple. It was later rebuilt one thousand years later, in 1633, by the monk, Cheong-min. It was around the Imjin War that the temple changed its name to Naesosa Temple.

You first approach the temple past the ticket window and the Iljumun Gate. There is about a 600 metre long hike to the Cheonwangmun Gate that is beautifully lined with mature fir trees. Near the very end, and right before this gate, are cherry trees. The rather tall Cheonwangmun Gate houses four rather expressive Heavenly Kings. These kings’ expressions are then matched by the demonic faces of the demons they are trampling under foot.

Just as you emerge on the other side of the Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll be met by an ugly and gnarled Dangsan tree that is over 1,000 years old. The base of this tree was once used as a site for prayer. Just up the stairs, and on opposite ends of the temple grounds, are two separate bell pavilions. The one to the right houses the contemporary bells used in morning and evening rituals. The compact bell pavilion to the left houses a bronze bell that dates back to 1222, and it has an image of a Buddha on a lotus flower with two Bodhisattvas standing at his side. Originally, this temple belonged to Cheongnimsa Temple, but was moved to its current location in 1850. And even though the bell is compact in appearance, it still weighs 420 kilograms.

You’ll next pass under a meditative pavilion that has little pieces of paper hanging from it with people’s thoughts and prayers on them. Finally, you’ll reappear out from under the pavilion and on the terrace where the main hall is located. Out in front of the main hall is a three-story stone pagoda that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. As for the main hall itself, which was constructed in 1633, it’s said that not a single nail was used in its construction. If you look close enough, you’ll see that there are wooden slats that connect the frame. There is beautiful floral latticework adorning the front doors to the temple, as there are unpainted dragons up in the eaves. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, sits a triad of statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined on either side by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). To the right of the main altar hangs a colourful and well populated guardian mural. And to the left hangs a uniquely painted red mural dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). If you look up at the beams, you’ll see an intricate ceiling decorated with dragons and cranes.

There are a collection of monk facilities and dorms to the right of the main hall. But the remaining halls that people can visit at Naesosa Temple are to the left of the main hall. The first is the Josa-jeon Hall. Rather uniquely, there are a lot of these halls in the Jeolla-do area, which honour prominent monks at a temple. The building to the Josa-jeon’s immediate left is the Myeongbu-jeon. This newer looking hall is adorned with some of the most elaborate paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld along the exterior walls. Each is represented in their own painting judging over their own territory in the underworld. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, is a golden-capped, but green-haired, Jijang-bosal. He is joined by newer looking, and vibrantly painted, Ten Kings of the Underworld statues. To the far left is a shrine for the dead, so be respectful while looking in this hall.

Behind these three halls, and slightly up the embankment and a stone trail that winds its way up to it, is a plain looking Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Inside this hall are three folk-like paintings of the three most popular shaman deities to be found at a Korean Buddhist temples: Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Dokseong (The Recluse). It’s also from this hall that you get a great view of the temple grounds down below and the towering mountains all around.

Admission to the temple is 2,000 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: You’ll first need to get to Buan Bus Terminal in Jeollabuk-do. From this bus terminal, you can take a direct bus to Naesosa Temple. The bus will let you off 800 metres outside the temple grounds. You’ll need to make your way towards the entry gate and past all the stores and restaurants that line the way. You can take a bus or a taxi, which takes about 50 minutes from the Buan Bus Terminal, and it will cost you around 30,000 won. The official website says 30 minutes, but this just isn’t true, so be warned.


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OVERALL RATING: 7/10. Like so many temples in Jeollabuk-do, Naesosa Temple is beautifully situated. It doesn’t get much better than Byeonsan Bando National Park, which quickly becomes apparent with the fir and cherry trees that lead the way up to the temple grounds. Once there, the statues inside the Cheonwangmun, both kings and demons, as well as the 13th century bell housed inside its own bell pavilion, are a nice introduction to Naesosa Temple. Then the nail-less main hall and the paintings inside it, as well as the murals adorning the exterior walls of the Myeongbu-jeon, and the folk-like shaman paintings inside the Samseong-gak, are really something to look forward to as a temple adventurer.

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 The beautiful fir tree trail that leads up to the temple.

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 The rather tall Cheonwangmun Gate at Naesosa Temple.

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 The expressive Cheonwang inside the gate.

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 The equally expressive demon being trampled under foot.

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 The bell pavilion that houses the ancient bell from the 13th century.

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 The diminutive bell from 1222.

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 The much more modern bell pavilion that’s used by the monks everyday.

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 The plain pavilion you pass under to see the main hall at Naesosa Temple.

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 The papers with wishes on them from temple visitors.

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 The 17th century main hall at Naesosa Temple.

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 The amazing interior to the main hall with the intricate ceiling above and the triad of altar statues below.

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 The rather different looking red painting of Jijang-bosal.

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 The vibrantly coloured guardian mural inside the main hall.

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 The monks’ dorms to the right of the main hall.

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 The view from the side of the main hall.

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 Both the Josa-jeon and the Myeongbu-jeon together.

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 One of the horrifying depictions of the underworld that adorns the Myeongbu-jeon.

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 And yet another amazing mural.

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 A look inside the Myeongbu-jeon at Jijang-bosal.

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 To the rear of the temple grounds, and up an embankment, is this plain looking Samseong-gak.

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 Inside is this folk-looking Sanshin mural.

Naejangsa Temple – 내장사 (Jeongeup, Jeollabuk-do)

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 The pagoda that houses the purported remains of the Buddha at Naejangsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Naejangsa Temple, which means Inner Sanctum Temple, in English, was first founded in 636 A.D. by Yeongeun-josa. It’s located in the northern part of Mt. Naejangsan National Park in the Jeollabuk-do portion of the park. It once counted over fifty buildings on the grounds, and it was much larger than its present size. Naejangsa Temple has suffered a destructive past. It was first burnt to the ground in 1539 through the Ordinance of the Abolition of Temples during the repressive reign of King Jungjong. Later, in 1567, it was rebuilt by his predecessor, King Myeongjong. It was then completely destroyed, once more, during the Imjin War of 1597. It was then rebuilt once more, only to be completely destroyed, again, during the Korean War on January 2nd, 1951. It was later to be rebuilt in 1958. In total, the temple has been rebuilt four separate times, and the main hall will have to be rebuilt once more after a fire that destroyed it once more October 31st, 2012. 

You first approach the temple grounds after passing through the Iljumun Gate, which was reconstructed in 1973. You then make your way up a beautiful kilometer walk down a pathway lined with mature maple trees. These trees are especially beautiful in the fall months. Also, halfway up the path lie a couple dozen stupa of prominent past monks that took up residence at Naejangsa Temple.

Finally, you’ll arrive at the outskirts of the temple grounds. The first thing to greet you is the boxy Cheonwangmun Gate. Inside this gate are four rather underwhelming Heavenly Kings. Beyond this gate, and before the pavilion you’ll pass through to gain admittance to the temple courtyard, you’ll pass by a frozen pond in the winter. In the middle of the pond sits a stone statue of an attendant.

Finally standing in the middle of the temple courtyard, you’ll notice a three-story stone pagoda that dates back to 1997. Inside this pagoda are the purported remains of the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. The verification of these sari has been done by the British Archaeological Survey. They were then transported from India to Naejangsa Temple and the three-story pagoda. Beyond the pagoda is an equally new stone lantern. It’s just beyond these two stone structures that you’ll see a plastic bag-like structure that now acts as the main hall. Inside this area is a painting of the Buddha that devotees can pray to. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, they’ll rebuild the main hall because the plastic bag main hall just isn’t doing it.

Just to the left of the main hall is the Samseong-gak. Inside is one of the more original Buddha-style Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) murals. He is nearly completely bald and beardless, which is in sharp contrast to the standard bearded image of this shaman deity.

To the immediate left of the Samseong-gak is the Myeongbu-jeon. This rather long hall is populated by statues and paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld. They are joined on the main altar by a tilting green-haired Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). The final structure in this area is the bell pavilion with beautiful percussion instruments inside. The reddish fish gong is especially stunning.

To the right of the main hall are the monks’ dorms and two other buildings that visitors can explore. The first, and the one that lays to the left, is a hall dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This standing multi-armed Bodhisattva is particularly thin and backed by a masterful painting of Gwanseeum-bosal. To the left is a guardian mural and to the right is a compact bronze bell that dates back to the late Joseon Dynasty. Next to this hall, and slightly to the right, is the Geukrak-jeon. Seated inside is a larger statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). And he’s surrounded by a low ceilinged canopy overhead.

Admission to the temple and park are 3,000 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: First you’ll need to get to the Jeongeup Bus Terminal from wherever it is you live in Korea. From there, it’s rather simple to get to Naejangsa Temple. You’ll need to board bus #171 to get to Naejangsan National Park. From there, head in the direction that the signs are pointing you towards Naejangsa Temple.


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OVERALL RATING: 7/10. The history of this temple reads like a bad comedy; yet, in spite of it all, Naejangsa Temple continues to rebuild itself. Unfortunately, right now, there’s only a plastic bag that protects a painting where the beautiful main hall formally stood. However, there are still highlights to this temple like its amazing location and the maple trees that line the path towards the temple grounds. Also, the painting of Sanshin, the statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, and the purported remains of the Buddha inside of the newly built three-story stone pagoda have more than enough to hold your attention.

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 The Iljumun Gate that welcomes you to Naejangsa Temple.

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 The beautiful kilometre long walk to the temple.

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 The stupas and stele along the way.

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 A look at the boxy Cheonwangmun Gate at Naejangsa Temple.

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 A look at a rather plain Heavenly King.

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 The view from the Cheonwangmun Gate towards the neighbouring pavilion.

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 The frozen pond that lies between the two.

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 The imposing pavilion just before the temple courtyard.

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 The three-story stone pagoda that houses the Buddha’s sari.

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 The unfortunate fire that consumed the main hall a year and a half ago.

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 The painting that’s housed under the sheet of plastic that now acts as the main hall.

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 The Samseong-gak just to the left of the main hall.

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 The highly original Buddhist-style Sanshin painting.

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 Next to the Sanshin-gak is the Myeongbu-jeon.

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 The altar inside the Myeongbu-jeon with a green-haired Jijang-bosal in the centre.

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 Some of the Ten Kings of the underworld with an attendant standing close-by.

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 A walk across the temple courtyard.

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 A look at the Gwaneeum-jeon across the temple courtyard.

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 The slim standing statue of Gwanseeum-bosal inside the Gwaneeum-jeon.

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 The front facade to the colourful Geukrak-jeon.

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 Inside the Geukrak-jeon sits Amita-bul all by himself.

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 The bell pavilion at Naejangsa Temple.

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 The red coloured fish-gong inside the bell pavilion.

Seonunsa Temple – 선운사 (Gochang, Jeollabuk-do)

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The beautiful early morning view of the temple courtyard at Seonunsa Temple. 

Hello Again Everyone!!

Seonunsa Temple was first constructed in 577 A.D. by seon master, Geumdan. The temple fell in to disrepair and was restored by the monk Hyojeong in 1354. It continued to expand until the Imjin War, when the entire temple was burnt to the ground. In 1613, with the efforts of Ilgwan and Wonjun, Seonunsa Temple was restored to its past glory.

The hike up to Seonunsa Temple is a long one, but it’s also one of the more beautiful ones in Korea. You first pass the Iljumun Gate and make your way up to the temple following a path that neighbours a wandering stream. The temple is also well known for its camellia trees and the flowers that bloom on them. The entire temple path that leads up to Seonunsa Temple is lined with these beautiful trees. Halfway up the trail, you’ll notice a large stupa field to your right. The numerous stupas are situated in a lush grove surrounded by mature trees on all sides.

Further up the trail, and you’ll finally come to the outskirts of the temple grounds. You’ll know you’ll have arrived when you see a beautiful bridge that spans a serene section of the neighbouring stream. Straight ahead is the large sized Cheonwangmun Gate with some snickering Heavenly Kings inside.

After exiting this gate, you’ll emerge into the very spacious temple grounds. To your immediate left you’ll see the temple’s bell pavilion, and straight ahead is the Mansye-ru pavilion that blocks the view of the rest of the temple grounds including the main hall that is situated somewhere behind it.

After circumnavigating the Mansye-ru pavilion, you’ll see the large and long main hall that dates back to the early Joseon Dynasty. In front of this hall is a six-story stone pagoda that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. Originally, this pagoda stood nine-stories in height; but through damage and age, it stands its current seven-tiers. Inside the main hall, and sitting on the main altar, are three large sized statues of the Buddha. If you look upwards, you’ll see some beautiful paintings of the Nahan, as well as an older looking mural of Dokseong (The Recluse) on the right wall.

To the right of the main hall is a newer looking Gwaneeum-jeon. Inside this hall is a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) that dates back to the early Joseon Dynasty. Have a close look at the multi-headed crown of this Bodhisattva, as it’s pretty impressive. Also, the mural that backs this Bodhisattva is highly original in design.

To the left of the main hall is where the bulk of the temple halls are located. The first, and by far the largest, in this area is the Yeongsan-jeon. The name of the hall comes from the assembly held on Vulture Peak by the Buddha, where he gave a sermon on the Lotus Sutra. The hall dates back to 1821, and it houses three large statues. The one in the centre is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined on either side by Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and Dipankara (The Past Buddha). These large statues are surrounded on all sides by the 16 Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha).

Directly behind this hall is the Sanshin-gak. This hall houses two paintings of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). The one to the left is a traditionally designed painting of this shaman deity. The other that hangs on the main altar shows two monks (twins) that became Sanshin. This is perhaps one of the most original paintings of Sanshin in all of Korea.

To the left of the Sanshin-gak is the Palsang-do-jeon, which houses eight amazing paintings from the life of the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. And a bronze coloured statue of Seokgamoni-bul sits all alone on the altar. Just beside this hall is the Josa-jeon, which is dedicated to prominent monks that formally took up residence at Seonunsa Temple. The final hall that you can visit at Seonunsa Temple is the Myeongbu-jeon. A large green-haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) sits on the main altar inside this hall. He’s joined by the Ten Kings of the Underworld, some of whom are snickering. They are backed by some older murals of themselves.

Admission to the temple is 3,000 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: From the Gochang Intercity Bus Terminal, you can take a direct bus to Seonunsa Temple. The bus leaves eight times a day. Also, you can catch a bus to Seonunsa Temple from Gwangju. All you need to do is board a direct bus from the U-Square Bus Temrinal. This bus leaves four times a day.


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OVERALL RATING: 8/10. The beautiful walk towards the temple, as well as the beautiful scenery, are two definite highlights to this temple. The long main hall with large Buddha statues, the uniquely designed Gwanseeum-bosal statue from the early Joseon Dynasty, as well as the rather atypical twin monk painting of Sanshin are three more highlights to this temple. While it was once much larger in size, there is more than enough to keep a temple visitor busy.

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The Iljumun Gate at Seonunsa Temple.

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The stupa field you encounter along the way up to the temple.

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The reflection from neighbouring trees along the calm stream.

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The beautiful new bridge at Seonunsa Temple.

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The Cheonwangmun Gate at Seonunsa Temple.

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One of the snickering Heavenly Kings.

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The Mansye-ru Pavilion.

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The newer looking bell pavilion at Seonunsa Temple.

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The rather long early Joseon Dynasty Daeung-jeon main hall.

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The Goryeo era seven-tier pagoda.

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A look inside the main hall at the altar.

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The Gwaneeum-jeon hall to the right of the main hall.

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The atypically crowned Gwanseeum-bosal.

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To the left of the main hall is this rather large Yeongsan-jeon hall.

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Inside are these statues of Buddhas, as well as a set of Nahan.

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The two halls directly behind the Yeongsan-jeon. To the right is the Sanshin-gak and to the left is the Palsangdo-jeon.

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Inside the Sanshin-gak is one of the most original Sanshin paintings.

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The interior to the Palsang-jeon with elaborate Palsang-do murals.

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A look at the Myeongbu-jeon, which is the last hall in the set left of the main hall.

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The amazing interior that is well populated with statues from the afterlife.

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And a snickering statue of one of the Ten Kings of the Underworld.