Daeheungsa Temple – 대흥사 (Haenam, Jeollanam-do)

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 One of the beautiful paths that winds its way through Daeheungsa Temple in Haenam, Jeollanam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Daeheungsa Temple, which is also known as its former name of Daedunsa Temple, is situated in Duryunsan Provincial Park near Haenam, Jeollanam-do. The temple is thought to be one of the oldest in Korea. It’s believed that the temple was founded by the monk Ado in 514; however, there are no exact records that verify this date. Originally, the temple was called Handeumjeol, after the original name of the neighbouring Mt. Handeumsan. This name was changed to Daedumsa Temple with the usage of Chinese characters. The name was changed once more to its present name of Daeheungsa Temple. It wasn’t until 1592 that the little known temple came to prominence. The warrior monk Seosan-daesa organized and trained a guerilla army of 5,000 monks to resist the invading Japanese forces during the Imjin War. During the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, the name of the temple changed to Daedunsa Temple. It was only in 1993 that the temple reverted back to Daeheungsa Temple. So sometimes, even still, you’ll hear Daeheungsa Temple be referred to as Daedunsa Temple.

You first approach the temple up a long and beautiful path from the provincial park entrance. After arriving at the temple and crossing a couple granite bridges, the first thing to greet you at Daeheungsa Temple is the Haetalmun Gate, which means The Gate of Deliverance, in English. With no other gate at the temple, this is a rather atypical arrangement. Inside this gate are housed guardians as well as the youthful Munsu-bosal (who rides a blue lion) and Boyhun-bosal (who rides a white elephant).

Emerging on the other side, you can either head straight towards the Cheonbul-jeon hall, hang left towards the main hall, or turn right towards the Pyochungsa shrine. For the sake of this article, and following the path I took during my trip, I headed left towards the main hall. In this direction, you’ll pass by a beautiful white highlighted bell pavilion with a medium sized bronze bell inside it. Keeping to the left, you’ll cross over another granite bridge and through a pavilion. Finally, the main hall, the Daeungbo-jeon, lies straight ahead of you. This hall was first built in 1667, but was later destroyed in a fire in 1899. The exterior walls are decorated with the Palsang-do murals, as well as other Buddhist motif paintings. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, you’ll find large statues of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine), and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). On the far left wall hangs a handful of paintings such as a painting dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars) as well as a guardian mural.

To the left of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon hall that houses Jijang-bosal. To the right of the main hall, and perhaps the most unique building at the temple, is the Eungjin-jeon. This hall is divided into two sections. The one on the left houses the 16 Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). Uniquely, there’s no statue of Seokgamoni-bul inside. And through a narrow wooden entrance to the far right, you’ll enter the shaman hall that houses two of the most amazing paintings of Dokseong (The Recluse) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) that you’ll see at any Korean temple. Just to the right of this hall, and on a lower terrace, stands a 4.3 metre tall pagoda that dates back to the Silla Dynasty.

Heading back towards the Haetalmun Gate, and entering through a pavilion that lies straight ahead, you’ll enter the rather small sized (at least in comparison to the North Court) South Court. The only building housed inside this courtyard is the Cheonbul-jeon. The exterior walls are adorned with some beautiful Ox-Herding murals. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, are a triad of statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul. He’s surrounded by 1,000 white stone sculptures of the Buddha. Each Buddha is sporting a yellow cape, and it makes for quite the sight.

To the right of the South Court are a collection of even more temple halls. To the left of a beautiful pond and garden is the Gwanseeum-jeon. Under an angelic light sits Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This statue is joined by a handful of paintings that depict the Buddha’s life, as well as a colourful painting that’s dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal, and backs the bronze statue on the main altar inside this hall.

Continuing to the right, and little further up the path, lies the Pyochungsa shrine. Behind a large red and blue yin-yang painting that adorns the shrines door, you’ll find two shrine halls behind a pavilion. The first of the set is the shrine hall dedicated to the warrior monks of Seosan, Sammyeong, and Choyeong who resisted the Japanese during the Imjin War. There images reside inside this hall. This hall dates back to 1788. Next to this hall, and to the right, is a stele dedicated to Seosan. The only other hall in this area is the Josa-jeon to the left of the Pyochungsa shrine. This hall is dedicated to prominent monks that formally resided at the temple.

Admission to the temple is 2,500 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Daeheungsa Temple, you’ll first need to get to the Haenam Intercity Bus Terminal from wherever it is you live in Korea. From the Haenam Intercity Bus Terminal, you can catch a bus that goes to Daeheungsa Temple (but it also may be referred to as Daedunsa Temple). The bus runs every 30 minutes starting at 6:50 in the morning and running until 19:40 at night. The bus ride will last about 20 minutes and the fare should set you back 1,000 won.


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OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. Daeheungsa Temple has a lot for the temple adventurer to see from the beautiful main hall, to the Cheonbul-jeon, and the Pyochungsa shrine. Also, the yellow caped Buddhas inside the Cheonbul-jeon and the uniquely painted shaman deities have a lot to keep you busy. One drawback is that most of the temple halls are newly built. But with over 10 halls to visit, this takes little away from Daeheungsa Temple.

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 One of the granite bridges that leads you towards the large temple grounds.

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 The Haetalmun Gate which is uniquely the only gate at Daeheungsa Temple.

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 The youthful Bohyun-bosal atop his white elephant.

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 The path that leads towards the North Court, and the main hall, at the temple.

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 The pavilion that grants you entry to the North Court.

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 The impressive Daeungbo-jeon main hall at Daeheungsa Temple.

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 The Haetae sculpture that adorns the right side of the main hall.

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 The main altar inside the Daeungbo-jeon.

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 The Chilseong mural, which is one of several beautiful murals that adorns the interior to the main hall.

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 The unique Eungjin-jeon that is two halls in one.

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 Inside the Eungjin-jeon, and to the left, is the Buddha-less interior. Instead, only statues of the Nahan remain.

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 And to the right hang two amazing murals dedicated to Sanshin and Dokseong

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 The Silla-era three story granite pagoda outside the Eungjin-jeon.

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 The temple’s bell pavilion that you pass to get to the South Court.

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 A better look at the beautiful bronze bell.

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 The only building to be housed inside the South Court: The Cheonbul-jeon.

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 A look inside the Cheonbul-jeon at the triad of statues on the main altar as well as the yellow caped Buddhas that surround them.

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 Just outside the South Court is the Gwaneeum-jeon.

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 Inside this hall sits the solitary statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. She’s joined by some masterful paintings from the Buddha’s life.

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The gate that greets you at the Pyochungsa shrine.

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 A look at the Josa-jeon.

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 A look at the Pyochungsa shrine to the left.

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A look inside the Pyochungsa shrine at three paintings dedicated to the warrior monks.

The Story Of…All Korean Temples Look the Same

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Just one of the scenic views at Tongdosa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone,

I thought I would finally write an opinion piece about Korean temples. In particular, I’d like to address a statement that has often been leveled at temples by expats in Korea. So without further ado, here it goes.

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The colourful Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

From time to time, whether it’s in person, on the internet, or through the blogosphere, I’ll hear or read the comment: all Korean temples look the same. But to make an analogy, that would be like going to an art gallery to see a painting by Van Gogh, only to close your eyes right before seeing it. And then, once you’ve closed your eyes, complain that all Van Gogh’s paintings look the same. There are subtle, and not so subtle, differences between temples. And sometimes, someone just needs to look to locate these differences. Perhaps you’ll have to educate yourself on these differences; but trust me, the differences are there waiting to be seen.

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The ocean-side temple in Busan: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.

I guess the first response I would make is that you don’t know what you’re talking about, if you say all temples are the same. And my second response would be that you should educate yourself on the topic before coming up with such an opinion.

While there isn’t all that much out there on Korean Buddhism, at least in English, there’s enough. Also, there’s a lot of material out there in books and on the internet about Buddhism in general to answer a lot of the questions that might come up. Besides, my website, David Mason’s amazing website, and in part, the Korean government website, there should be more than enough material to educate an individual that simply shrugs off the supposed similarities between temples.

For arguments sake, I thought I would point out three examples about the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between temples here in Korea.

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A look at the Geumgang Gyedan at Tongdosa Temple.

The first comes from the main hall at Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. If you’ve ever been, you’ll have noticed that there aren’t any Buddha or Bodhisattva statues on the main altar. Instead, there’s only a window that looks out onto a stone courtyard. To the uneducated, or uninitiated, this looks nothing more than a stone courtyard with some nice scenery and a rather strange window. But what this stone courtyard, the Geumgang Gyedan (Diamond Altar), houses are the partial remains of the historical Buddha. And the reason there are no statues on the main altar, which symbolize the presence of various Buddhist figures, is that the actual Buddha is housed just outside the window at Tongdosa Temple.

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The four-pillared Iljumun Gate at Beomeosa Temple.

Another example are the gates that you pass through on your way to a large temple’s courtyard. Perhaps some of the most beautiful gates at any temple in Korea can be found at Beomeosa Temple in Busan. To someone that simply doesn’t know, they are either artistically beautiful, or simply not noticed. In actual fact, the first of these gates is called the Iljumun Gate. The two to four pillared gate embodies an idea of the Buddha Dharma. When you look at the pillars in a row, they actually appear as one. This shows that things aren’t always what they seem. And this is symbolic because it’s the first step towards enlightenment.

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One of the fierce-looking Heavenly Kings inside the Cheonwangmun Gate at Naesosa Temple.

The second gate, the Cheonwangmun Gate, houses four Heavenly Kings. The purpose of this gate, and its four occupants, is to protect Buddhism and the Buddha’s teachings. The four Heavenly Kings’ ferocious looks aid in the suppression of unruly spirits. Their intensity also helps focus the mind of a temple visitor. So their ferocious expressions encourage people to bow to them, and to rid a visitor’s mind of bad thoughts. A great example of this gate can be found at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

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A look through the Bulimun Gate at Tongdosa Temple.

The third gate is the Bulimun Gate. This gate, in English, is known as the Gate of Non-Duality. This idea refers to a central belief in Buddhism; namely, that all things are one. That things like good and evil are not two separate ideas; but instead, they are one. By freeing ourselves of this binary discriminatory worldview, we rid ourselves of our ego and the selfishness that comes as a result of it. Instead, everything, and everyone, is one. So while beautiful in artistic design, these gates are packed full of meaning.

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The highly elaborate and original Sanshin mural at Daeheungsa Temple.

The third, and final example, are the Sanshin Taenghwa paintings that you can usually find either in the Samseong-gak or the Sanshin-gak halls. Sanshin, who is known as the Mountain Spirit, in English, can literally take on thousands of different forms. Almost no painting is identical. Instead, there are some obvious and not so obvious differences between paintings. In general, Sanshin is usually seated. He’s an older looking man with white flowing hair and beard that still looks full of life, even at his more advanced age. He’s situated in a beautiful scenic setting that is perfect for meditation. He’s joined on this outcropping by a beautiful twisted red pine that is indigenous to Korea, much like the indigenous shaman origins of Sanshin. He’s sometimes joined by one, two, or several attendants called “dongja.” The clothes that he wears can be Buddhist, Confucian, or Daoist in appearance. 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 Sanshin 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 Sanshin. Occasionally, Sanshin will be joined by a female figure. Also, Sanshin can be female. The variations are really limitless. In total, I have around 200 Sanshin paintings, and not one is the same as another. Some are noticeable, and others, you have to look a little closer.

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A female Sanshin at Ssangyesa Temple.

As you can see through these three simple examples, there is a world of differences that can be found in the smallest of details at a Korean temple. So much about a temple is packed with meaning. So before you say the words, “All temples look the same,” you really should educate yourself on the differences that can be found at the thousands of temples throughout the Korean peninsula. They can be seen in halls, paintings, statues, pagodas, and various structures. So the argument quickly becomes: if you’re willing to learn, the material is out there for you to learn. Otherwise, you have no excuse to make the ridiculous claim that all Korean temples look the same.

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A beautiful pink lotus flower at Gakwonsa Temple.

Borimsa Temple – 보림사 (Jangheung, Jeollanam-do)

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The massive iron statue, which dates back to 858, is dedicated to Birojana-bul at Borimsa Temple in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Borimsa Temple, which means Precious Forest Temple, in English, is named after the ones in both India and China. While little known today, it has quite the past. It was first established in 759 A.D. Like all great temples of the past, Borimsa Temple has an interesting story around its creation. One day, when the monk Wonpyo was looking for a place to construct a temple after studying in both India and China, he visited Mt. Gaji in present day Jangheung, Jeollanam-do. While there, a fairy appeared to him telling him that nine dragons were creating mayhem around the pond where she lived. As a result, Wonpyo threw a spell into the pond, which expelled most of the dragons. The only one to remain was a white dragon. This dragon lost his tail in a nearby forest, and this forest soon became known as Yongmunso. Wonpyo claimed this area as a place to found Borimsa Temple. This creation myth is similar to that of Tongdosa Temple.

Another interesting part of Borimsa Temple’s past is that during the Unified Silla period, it was considered one of nine significant temples in the Gaji sect of Seon Buddhism. The temple was further expanded by the monk Chejing, who was encouraged to do so in 860 by King Heonan of the Silla Kingdom. It was also the home, at one point in his life, to Ilyeon, who was the author of one of the most prominent historical Korean texst: the Samguk-yusa. Unfortunately, most of the temple was destroyed during the Korean War as retribution against commanders that were suspected of housing rebels. However, and fortunately for us, Borimsa Temple has undergone extensive reconstruction and rebuilding since the divisive war on the Korean peninsula.

You first enter the temple through the recently refurbished Iljumun Gate, which has a handful of ornate dragons up around its rafters. Interesting, and unique to Korean temple gates, the Iljumun Gate doesn’t line up with the Cheonwangmun Gate. Inside the Cheonwangmun Gate are some of the larger Four Heavenly Kings that you’ll see at a Korean temple. Also, they are some of the oldest statues of these kings in all of Korea, and they date back to 1515. Just beyond the Cheonwangmun Gate, and you’ll enter into the spacious temple courtyard. You can tell just how large and well populated these grounds must have been.

Straight ahead is the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall. In front of this hall, which houses Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy), lies a pair of pagodas that date back to around 860 A.D. In fact, these rather typical Silla designed pagodas are numbered National Treasure #44. The pagodas are joined by an equally ancient stone lantern. As for the Daejeokgwang-jeon that backs these stone testaments to time, the exterior walls are painted with various Buddhist motif murals. As for the interior, and the real highlight to this temple, is a massive iron statue of Birojana-bul that dates back to 858 A.D. Have a close look at this remarkable masterpiece. To the left and right of this massively seated statue are a pair of paintings. One is the guardian mural, while the other is an older looking painting dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).

To the right of the Daejeokgwang-jeon hall is the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Inside this hall are housed three folkish paintings of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Chilseong (The Seven Stars), and Dokseong (The Recluse).

To the right of the Samseong-gak, and the most prominent building in the temple courtyard, is the two-story Daeung-jeon main hall. The exterior walls to this hall are painted with the Ox-Herding murals. As for the interior, and sitting on the rather wide main altar, sit seven statues. In the centre sits Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined on either side by two standing statues of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). To the right of this triad sits Yeondung-bul and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). To the left sits Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). On the far left wall hangs a large red guardian mural.

Behind the main hall lie two more smaller sized halls. The one to the right houses a stone statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that is thought to date back to the Unified Silla period in Korean history. To the left of this hall is an equally diminutive Josa-jeon hall dedicated to prominent monks that formally resided at Borimsa Temple.

The final hall at Borimsa Temple is the understated Jijang-jeon, which houses a solitary bronze-coloured statue of Jijang-bosal. However, there are some amazing judgment murals adorning the exterior walls to this hall, as well as a masterful Dragon Ship of Wisdom that ferries the dead to the afterlife. It’s joined by the two storied bell pavilion. Just up a neighbouring trail lies the intricately designed stele and stupa dedicated to the temples founder, Chejing.

HOW TO GET THERE: It’s a bit complicated to get to Borimsa Temple. First, you’ll need to get to the Jangheung Intercity Bus Terminal. From there, take a bus that says Jangheung-Yuchi (장흥 – 유치). After ten stops, get off at the Jangheung Dam Rest Stop. From there, board the Yuchi-Daecheon Bus. (유치 – 대천). Ride it for just one stop and get off at the Bongdeok stop (봉덕). From this stop, walk about 10 minutes to get to Borimsa Temple.


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OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. This temple, while not that well known in the expat community, perhaps because of its location, truly has something for everyone. It has a storied past, as well as a colourful present. The historic Four Heavenly Kings’ statues, the pagodas that date back to 860, as well as the massive iron statue of Birojana-bul have something for the temple historian. On the other hand, the two-storied main hall, the ornate stele and stupa for the temple’s founder, and the folkish-looking shaman paintings have something for the temple art-lover. So find a way to get out to Jangheung in Jeollanam-do.

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The newly refurbished Iljumun Gate at Borimsa Temple.

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A look at the unaligned Cheonwangmun Gate at the temple.

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Inside are these large, and historic, figures of the Four Heavenly Kings.

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The Daejeokgwang-jeon with the twin pagodas, National Treasure #44, out in front.

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A look inside reveals this amazing iron statue of Birojana-bul that dates back to 858.

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The Samseong-gak to the right of the former hall.

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The folk-looking painting of Sanshin inside the Samseong-gak.

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A look towards the main hall from the stoic pair of historical pagodas.

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A better look at the two-story main hall.

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The collection of large sized statues that are situated along the rather wide main altar.

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The fiery red guardian mural inside the main hall.

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A look up at the intricate eaves work on the main hall.

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The smaller sized hall that houses the ancient statue of Amita-bul.

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A look at the statue of Amita-bul.

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A look towards the rather non-descript Josa-jeon.

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Behind these halls is this ornately designed stupa for Chejing, who was the founder of Borimsa Temple.

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Out in front of the main hall, and to the right, is the Jijang-jeon hall.

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Inside sits the solitary statue of Jijang-bosal.

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 The amazing view from the Jijang-jeon towards the main hall.

The Story of…Donghaksa Temple

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The main hall and courtyard at Donghaksa Temple in Gonju, Chungcheongnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I had first visited Donghaksa Temple, just outside Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, back in 2004. Ever since quickly visiting the temple in the spring of 2004, on a late afternoon day with a friend, I had wanted to go back. The opportunity to revisit this beautifully situated temple came during the summer of 2011.

Unlike the previous time I had visited Donghaksa Temple, the sky was overcast and starting to rain. I was feeling a bit unwell, and the weather certainly wasn’t helping.

The long walk up to the temple was a bit hazardous, as they were just starting to lay the ground work for paving the road. However, during this stage of construction, and because of the rain, the road was nothing more than a massive mud puddle.

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 The beautiful stream that flowed beside the muddy road at Donghaksa Temple.

During our trek up to the temple through the mud, it had been raining on and off. Sometimes it was nothing more than spitting and other times it was a deluge. Having finally arrived at the temple courtyard, we started to explore Donghaksa Temple when the rain rolled in once more. Not only that, but it brought thunder and lightning with it. With umbrella in hand, a la a lightning rod, we quickly took shelter in the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Other than the occasional nun that went running by seeking shelter, my wife and I were the only ones crazy enough to visit a temple during a thunderstorm.

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 The downpour as seen from the Samseong-gak.

With all that being said, and if it’s possible for a temple to be romantic, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As the rains beat down all around us, and the thunder and lightning lit up the neighbouring valleys with noise and light, we looked out onto the storm without a care in the world. It was just the two of us, in the eye of a storm, waiting for the storm to pass us by as we hunkered down.

For more information on Donghaksa Temple.

Ssangbongsa Temple – 쌍봉사 (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do)

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The beautiful Ssangbongsa Temple grounds in Hwasun, Jeollanam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Ssangbongsa Temple, which is located in Hwasun Jeollanam-do, was first established in 868 A.D. by Cheolgam-seonsa. Cheonlgam-seonsa built the temple after he returned to Korea from China, where he had been studying. Ssangbongsa Temple means Twin Peaks Temple, in English, and it gets its name from the pair of twin peaks on the mountains behind the temple.

From the temple parking lot, which is situated in a bend in the neighbouring road, you’ll see the stately Iljumun Gate to your right. Between this gate and the Cheongwangmung Gate is a frozen pond with an island in the centre of it. As for the Cheonwangmun Gate, there are four eye-popping, and rather large in size, Heavenly Kings. Just to the left, as you emerge on the other side of this gate, is the temple’s bell pavilion.

Towering over the Cheonwangmun Gate, and even before you exit this gate, you’ll be able to see the three story Daeungjeon pagoda, which also acts as the temple’s main hall. This pagoda is an exact replica of a mid-Joseon Dynasty structure that burnt down in 1984. It was destroyed after a devotee accidentally burnt the pagoda down after tripping over a candle as she celebrated Buddha’s Birthday. In 1986, the present pagoda was rebuilt as an exact replica of the historic structure. And much like the ancient structure, the present one is gorgeous as the multitude of colours stretch into the sky. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, sits a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined on either side by Anan-jonja and Gaseop-jonja, which were two Historical Disciples of the Buddha.

Directly behind the three story Daeung-jeon pagoda, and up the embankment, is the Geukrak-jeon, which is dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). The Shimu-do, Ox-Herding, murals adorn the exterior walls to this hall, while a large seated statue of Amita-bul sits in the centre of the main altar. He’s joined on either side by two standing statues of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). To the left of the Geukrak-jeon is the Jijang-jeon. The exterior is decorated with some highly elaborate, and scary, depictions of both the Ten Kings of the Underworld and the part of the underworld they rule over. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, sits a green-haired statue of Jijang-bosal. Jijang-bosal is surrounded on both sides by statues of the Ten Kings of the Underworld that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. While their paint is fading, the craftsmanship behind their design still resonates.

To the right of the Geukrak-jeon sit two more halls. To the immediate right sits the Nahan-jeon. The exterior is painted with various depictions of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), while the interior have the Nahan; but this time, in statue form. In front of the Nahan-jeon lies the Hoseong-jeon Hall, which was off-limits to people when I visited the temple; however, there are some beautiful paintings and designs that adorn this atypical hall.

As for the rest of the grounds, the stupa of the founding monk, Cheolgam-seonsa lies in back of the main temple grounds in a sectioned off area. This ornate stupa is really something to enjoy. Also, when you exit the temple grounds, and as you make your way to the temple parking lot, you’ll notice an area for stupas for prominent monks at Ssangbongsa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: You’ll need to get to the Intercity Bus Terminal in the city of Hwasun. From this terminal, you’ll need to take Bus #218 to get to Ssangbongsa Temple.


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OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. Unfortunately, the historic three story main hall pagoda no longer stands; instead, a beautiful new Daeung-jeon stands in its place. So while not the best of situations, at least we get an exact replica of Korea’s craftsmanship. In addition to this beautiful, and rare, main hall, you get the beautiful stupa that houses the earthly remains of Cheolgam-seonsa, as well as the atypical Hoseong-jeon Hall, and the historic and horrific sculptures and paintings of the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

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The temple parking lot and Iljumun Gate.

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The first view of the beautiful Ssangbongsa Temple.

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The frozen pond outside the temple grounds.

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The grounds that house the historic stupas at Ssangbongsa Temple.

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The amazing view as you pass through the Cheonwangmun Gate.

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A look from the outside in at a couple of the Four Heavenly Kings.

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The bell pavilion to the left of the Cheonwangmun Gate.

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A look up at the amazing Daeung-jeon pagoda replica at Ssangbongsa Temple.

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The pagoda main hall before it burned to the ground in 1984.

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The Geukrak-jeon behind the three story main hall.

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The compact Nahan-jeon.

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A monk praying inside the Nahan-jeon.

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The unique looking Hoseong-jeon.

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A closer look at the beautiful artwork adorning the Hoseong-jeon.

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The Jijang-jeon to the left of the Geukrak-jeon.

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One of the amazing, yet disturbing, paintings adorning the exterior walls on the Jijang-jeon.

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The beautiful view from the Jijang-jeon.

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One last look up at the stunning three story main hall.

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And then it was time to go.

The Story of…Sujeongsa Temple

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 Inside the elaborate and colourful main hall at Sujeongsa Temple in Ulsan.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Sujeongsa Temple was recommended to me by a friend. He glowingly spoke about the temple and its double Samseong-gak (a shrine hall inside a shrine hall). It only took us a couple drive-bys and misses to finally spot the unmarked turn-off to the temple. Up a long and narrow one lane road, we finally arrived at the end of the road and the temple at the same time.

Getting out to explore the unassuming Sujeongsa Temple, we were greeted by a volunteer at the hermitage. She was happy to see me again at the temple. I looked at her with a confused look on my face. So my wife talked to her for a bit more clarification, as she explained to the woman that it was the first time for me to visit Sujeongsa Temple. With a surprised look on her face, I realized that she was confusing me with my friend. I’m pretty sure that we’re the only two expats to have ever visited this out of the way temple.

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 A closer look at the breath-taking main altar.

The next person to approach us was the head nun at Sujeongsa Temple. As I was exploring the main hall and my wife was praying, the head nun introduced herself to us. She went on to basically give us a private tour of the temple, as there were no other visitors at the temple but us. She told us how she had a dream about how the interior of the main hall should look. So with a professor from Dongguk University, she was able to see her vision come to fruition. Surrounding the main altar is an elaborate relief of seventeen Gwanseeum-bosals (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This relief is joined by an equally beautiful relief of a Shinjung Taenghwa (guardian motif) and one of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), as well. The base of the altar amazingly depicts the Palsang-do images, and the main chandelier that hangs from the main hall is made from the same material as airplanes.

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 A look at the double Samseong-gak at Sujeongsa Temple.

She then directed us towards the Samseong-gak, which is a shrine hall inside another shrine hall. The head nun told us how she had initially intended to simply knock down the 200 year old Samseong-gak; however, Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) appeared to the head nun three times in a dream. During an early morning ceremony at the Samseong-gak, a picture was taken that captured what looked to be a neighbouring pine tree on fire. The head nun took this as a sign, so she built a new protective Samseong-gak around the old one. The reason she did this, as she explained it, is that if she didn’t, someone would die.

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 The apparent flame above the old Samseong-gak.

The final stop along the tour led by the head nun at Sujeongsa Temple was of the Yongwang (The Dragon King) shrine to the far left of the Samseong-gak. She explained to us that before you pray, you can lift the stone that sits on the Yongwang altar. However, once you pray, you’re no longer able to lift this stone. So me being me, I decided to put her words to the test. And strangely, she was right.

We were very fortunate to have the head nun as our personal tour guide. It’s not very often that this happens. And as we were saying thank you just before we left, a collection of cars arrived at the temple.

For so many reasons, we were lucky in the time we had at Sujeongsa Temple in Ulsan.

For more on Sujeongsa Temple.

Mihwangsa Temple – 미황사 (Haenam, Jeollanam-do)

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The amazing view of the sea from Mihwangsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Mihwangsa Temple, which means Beautiful Gold Temple, in English, after the creation myth of the temple, was first constructed in 749. It’s the southernmost temple on the Korean peninsula. It’s located on the west side of Mt. Dalsasan, which stands at 489 metres in height, and is known as the Mt. Geumgangsan of the Southern Sea.

Mihwangsa Temple probably has one of the most interesting creation myths that surrounds a temple in all of Korea. Sometime during the Silla Dynasty, a stone ship arrived at a port off the coast of Mt. Dalmasan. On board the ship stood a man adorned in gold. He was standing with an oar in his hands. On shore, people heard a beautiful hymn extolling the virtues of the Buddha coming from the ship. However, when people went to see where it was coming from, the stone ship quickly receded from the shore. But just as soon as people gave up, the ship would return to its former position in the sea. This went on for several days until the great monk Euijo-hwasang, along with two monks and hundreds of residents, offered up prayers to the ship. Finally on board the ship, they found 80 copies of the Avatamsaka Sutra, 7 copies of the Lotus Sutra, statues of Birojana-bul, Munsu-bosal, 40 saints, and 66 Nahan statues, and 53 great enlightened masters, as well as some altar paintings. But most magical of all was a large golden box that they opened. Inside was a black rock that they broke open. A tiny black cow emerged that quickly became a large cow. Later that night, Euijo-hwasang had a dream about the golden robed man from the stone ship. He said he was the king of Wujeon-guk, India. The shape of Mt. Dalmasan was an auspicious place to build a temple for ten thousand Buddhas. So he asked Euijo to place all the sutras and statues on the back on the cow. And wherever it ended up laying, Euijo should build a temple. The next day, Euijo followed the instructions in the dream. The cow finally fell while attempting to cross Mt. Dalmasan. So the temple gets its name from the beautiful music from the stone ship and the golden robe from the man on this ship.

You first make your way towards Mihwangsa Temple past the stately Iljumun Gate and the currently being constructed Cheonwangmun Gate. You’ll finally crest the mountain where the temple courtyard rests upon. You’ll have to pass through a pavilion to gain entrance to the temple grounds. First, have a look to your left to see a white statue of the Dharma, as well as the temple’s bell pavilion.

Finally emerging on the other side of the pavilion, you’ll be greeted by the main hall. The main hall was first constructed in 1601 and there are no paintings adorning this natural wood exterior. As for the interior, and sitting in the centre of the main altar, is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined on either side by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) and Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). The ceiling is decorated with Sanskrit lettering.

To the left of the main hall, and on the same terrace, stands the Myeongbu-jeon. Inside this hall sits Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Jijang-bosal is surrounded by a fiery nimbus and ten seated statues of the Kings of the Underworld. They are fronted by a couple dozen attendants.

Behind both the main hall and the Myeongbu-jeon are two more halls on the upper terrace. The one to the right is the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Interestingly, there is a stone lantern out in front of this hall with several hundred tiny stones left by temple travelers. As for the interior, and hanging on the main altar, are three paintings dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Dokseong (The Recluse). All are beautiful in their age and uniqueness. Perhaps the most interesting is the well populated Chilseong mural that is exceptionally long in length.

The other hall along the upper terrace is the Nahan-jeon. The most interesting aspect to this hall, besides its age, are the faint painted outlines of the Nahan that back the statues of the Historical Disciples of the Buddha. The hall itself dates back to around 1597. And it’s from this hall that you can the most amazing views of the sea out in front of you and the peaks of Mt. Dalmasan behind you.

HOW TO GET THERE: You can get to Mihwangsa Temple from the Haenam Bus Terminal. First, though, you’ll have to get there from wherever it is you live in Korea. Then, you can catch a bus that heads towards Wando. The buses leave every ten to sixty minutes starting at 5:50 in the morning until 21:10 at night. You’ll need to get off at the Weolsongri stop, and the ride should last about 60 minutes. From here, you’ll need to grab a taxi for the remaining ten minute drive to Mihwangsa Temple.


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OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. Mihwangsa Temple not only has one of the best creation myth stories in Korea, it also has some of the most spectacular scenic views of both the sea and the surrounding mountains. And when you toss into the mix the ancient main hall and the Nahan-jeon, as well as the unique shaman paintings, you have more than enough reason to visit the southernmost temple on the Korean peninsula.

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 The currently being constructed Cheonwangmun Gate.

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 The pavilion you’ll pass through to get to the Mihwangsa Temple courtyard.

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 The temple’s bell pavilion.

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 The main hall with the peaks of Mt. Dalmasan off in the distance.

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 A look inside the main hall at the beautiful main altar.

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 To the left of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon and the interior of this hall. Joined by the Ten Kings of the Underworld sits Jijang-bosal.

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 A scenic view at the upper terrace at Mihwangsa Temple.

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 A look up at the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall.

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 Inside is this older looking painting of Sanshin.

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 To the right of the Samseong-gak is the Nahan-jeon.

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 A look at the bronze coloured statue of the Buddha, who is joined by his 16 disciples.

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 The amazing view from the Nahan-jeon.

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 Next to the Nahan-jeon were these figurines left behind by visitors to Mihwangsa Temple.

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 Then it was time to go.

The Story Of…Baekyangsa Temple

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The icy Baekyangsa Temple in Jeollanam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

The beautiful Baekyangsa Temple is located in scenic Naejangsan National Park. With the jagged mountains looming overhead and the rolling streams running down its ridges, Baekyangsa Temple is situated in the centre of this beauty. With a handful of temple halls and stone monuments, I took my time and soaked it all in. After seeing the fifth temple of the day in Jeollanam-do, I decided to call it a day and retire to a neighbouring hotel.

I had prearranged to spend the night at Baekyang Tourist Hotel, but what happened was anything but planned. I had spent the previous night in a rundown dump in Haenam, Jeollanam-do. My room had three different types of wallpaper on the same wall (I don’t even want to guess), and a dog ran up and down the hallway at all hours of the night yapping the entire time. So I figured I would splurge and find better accommodations, which took me to Baekyang Tourist Hotel.

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The view over-top the main hall at the surrounding Naejangsan National Park.

The hotel parking lot was pretty full, and with it being one of the recommended hotels for the neighbouring Yeosu Expo from the previous year, I thought it might be difficult to get a room. I was pleasantly surprised when the desk clerk told me he had a handful of rooms still left. So taking out my debit card, or what I thought was my debit card, I went to pay the 80,000 won fee. But instead of pulling out my debit card from where I usually keep it in my wallet, I pulled out my Jogye-jong card. The Jogye-jong card is a card where you initially make a larger donation to a temple, which is followed by an annual donation of 10,000 won. I might be the only foreigner with this card, because wherever I go, the temple ticketing office always looks surprised that I am a card-carrying member of the Jogye Buddhist Order.

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An example of the Jogye-jong card.

The desk clerk suddenly became animated, and he kept repeating my Buddhist name: Bulwang. He was telling me things in Korean, in rapid succession, that I was pretty sure I understood. Because I had a Buddhist name, the head-monk at Baekyangsa Temple pays for any visiting monk. I was a bit taken aback, because I have all my head hair and I don’t look like a pious monk. But he was quite adamant that I pay nothing and enjoy my stay.

The only drawback to saving 80,000 won is what awaited me inside my beautiful room. Because the desk clerk thought I was a monk, he must have figured that I didn’t need a bed. So when I opened the door to my room, there wasn’t a bed in sight. Instead, I would have a free, yet uncomfortable, sleep on the floor with mats as my sole means of luxury.

Surprises, both good and bad, come in many forms.

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The surprise “bed” fit for a monk.

Unjusa Temple – 운주사 (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do)

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 The valley of stone pagodas and Buddha sculptures that greets you at Unjusa Temple in Hwasun, Jeollnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Unjusa Temple was first founded in 827 by the monk Doseon. Unjusa Temple has one of the more unique feels to it with some 21 stone pagodas and 94 stone Buddha sculptures. According to legend, and the theory of geomancy, the Korean peninsula was thought to be unbalanced because there are fewer mountains on the west coast than there are on the east. So it was thought that the west side of the peninsula would go under water from the sheer weight of the east coast mountains. To prevent this disaster from taking place, Doseon called stone masons down from heaven to build a thousand Buddha statues and pagodas at Unjusa Temple. However, before the very last Buddha statue could be completed, the cock crowed in the morning, which recalled all of the stonemasons to heaven. As a result, two statues were left lying unfinished on the ground. These two unfinished statues, which you can see at the top of a neighbouring mountain, are called Wabul in Korea, or the Stone Statues of the Lying Buddha. In more practical terms, Unjunsa Temple was probably created as a school for stonemasons; but the creation story seems so much more dramatic in style.

You first approach the Unjusa Temple grounds through the rather wide two pillared Iljumun Gate. A couple hundred metres up the road and you’ll pass by a collection of stone Buddhas to your left in an open field. Continue going straight, and you’ll finally come to an opening where the bulk of the temple’s pagodas are situated. The first to greet you is the nine-story stone pagoda that is National Treasure #796. Just behind this simplistically designed pagoda is a collection of smashed stone Buddha bodies and heads. To the far right, and at the base of the mountain, is another collection of intact Buddhas. Hovering over top like a sentry is five-tier stone pagoda. Just beyond this area are a pair of seven-story pagodas. They’re simply known as Chilcheung Seoktap (or Seven Story Stone Pagoda). Just behind these two pagodas is a row of stone Buddha sculptures. As I said, this place is loaded with stone masonry. Perhaps the two most unique stone structures lie behind this row of stone Buddha sculptures. The first is the large sized Hwasun Stone Shrine. I have yet to see anything like this in Korea. Originally, it was constructed as an outdoor shrine, which is made apparent by the two simple Buddha images housed inside the stone shrine. It’s believed to date back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and it’s National Treasure #797. It’s only one of two in Korea. Just behind this shrine is the Hwasun Unjusa Multi-Stored Pagoda. The uniqueness of this pagoda is its circular design. Most Korean pagodas, especially from the Goryeo Dynasty, are square or rectangular in shape. But this 5.8 metre tall pagoda bucks that trend. Also, it’s National Treasure #798. Most of the pagodas and sculptures in this valley date back to the Goryeo or early Unified-Silla period in Korean History.

The actual temple complex lies at the end of the valley. You pass through a pavilion with some fierce guardians adorning its doors to gain entry to the temple courtyard. Straight ahead lays yet another stone pagoda that is slightly damaged that also dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. As for the main hall itself, there are various images of the Buddha adorning the exterior walls to the main hall. Inside, and lining the walls, are various images of a white-clad Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Sitting all alone on a stone base is a Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Just to the right of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon. The exterior walls are decorated with various images of the Underworld. Inside this hall is a golden-haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Underworld). He’s joined by smaller sized figurines of himself on all sides.

Just behind the main hall, and slightly up the hill, you’ll come to two halls. The first one to the left is the Sanshin-gak, which houses a red painting of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Just to the right is a newly constructed hall that houses one of the better kept stone sculptures of the Buddha. Just behind these halls is another row of Buddha sculptures, including a near faceless seated image of the Buddha. It’s also in this area that you get a great view of the pagodas, sculptures and halls in the valley below.

The final area you can explore, and to the left of the valley that you first entered, is a neighbouring mountain that stands at a reasonable 200 metres in height. You know you’re getting closer to the top of this mountain when you see a pair of seven-story pagodas, as well as Buddha sculptures just below them. On top of this mountain lies the pair of 12 metre long stone sculptures of the Buddha from the creation myth story. This type of image is one of only two in all of Korea. Well preserved, you can get a good look at them from the observation deck.

Admission to the temple is 2,500 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Unjusa Temple, you’ll first need to get to Gwangcheon Bus Terminal. Probably the easiest way to do this is from the Gwangju Bus Terminal. From the Gwangcheon Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take city bus #318, which takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get to the temple. You can take this bus or city bus #218, which takes about an hour and thirty minutes. Just be sure, with either one, that the bus has an Unjusa Temple sign on it; either that or simply ask the bus driver, “Unjusa?”


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OVERALL RATING: 9/10. There is just so much to see at Unjusa Temple. Of the initial 1,000 pagodas and 1,000 Buddhist sculptures that were purportedly constructed through the ages, a selection of a 115 still remain. Amazingly, these historic artifacts can be found almost everywhere at the temple and in the least likely of places. The highlights to this temple, besides the sheer volume of stone masonry, are the 12 metre long images of Buddhas on top of the mountain, the rounded pagoda, as well as the massive outdoor stone shrine. If you don’t enjoy yourself at this temple, you simply don’t enjoy Korean temples.

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 The Iljumun Gate that first greets you at Unjusa Temple.

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 The field of pagodas at Unjusa Temple.

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 Just one of the broken statues dedicated to the Buddha.

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 A closer look at the nine-tier pagoda that’s designated National Treasure #796.

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 Just one of the randomly placed pagodas on the neighbouring hillside.

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 Some more of the stone monuments at Unjusa Temple.

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 A closer look at an intact Buddha statue.

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 The Chilcheung Seoktap (or Seven Story Stone Pagoda).

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 The extremely unique Hwasun Stone Shrine. It’s believed to date back to the Goryeo Dynasty, and it’s National Treasure #797.

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 A look inside one of the two openings of the Hwasun Stone Shrine.

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 The front facade that welcomes you to the temple courtyard.

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 One of the temple’s guardians that adorns the front gate.

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 A look at the main hall at Unjunsa Temple.

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 A look inside the main hall. Sitting all alone on the altar is a large sized statue of Seokgamoni-bul. The interior is lined with paintings of a white-clad Gwanseeum-bosal.

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 To the right of the main hall is the Myeongbu-jeon.

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 A look inside the Myeongbu-jeon at all of the statues of Jijang-bosal.

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 The view behind the main hall at two shrine halls and an atypical pagoda.

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 The painting of Sanshin inside the Sanshin-gak.

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 And inside the hall to the right of the Sanshin-gak is this well preserved relief of the Buddha.

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 A near faceless statue of the seated Buddha behind the Sanshin-gak.

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 The view of the temple courtyard and the valley of statues and pagodas.

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 To the left of the temple grounds lies a 200 metre tall mountain. Like the rest of the temple grounds, it’s dotted with pagodas and images of the Buddha.

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 At the top of the mountain is this image of the Buddha that measures 12 metres in length.

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The artistry that greets you along the descent.