Songgwangsa Temple – 송광사 (Wanju, Jeollabuk-do)

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A look through the Cheonwangmun Gate at Songgwangsa Temple in Wanju, Jeollabuk-do.

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Songgwangsa Temple in Wanju, Jeollabuk-do, not to be confused with the more famous temple by the same name in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do, was first constructed in 867 A.D. by the monk Bojo-jejing. Originally, the temple was called Baekryongsa Temple, but the temple was eventually renamed by the famed monk Jinul (1158-1210) during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The temple was largely destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-98), but was later rebuilt in 1620. It was completely restored to its former glory when King Injo (r. 1623-49) designated the temple as a special place for praying for the welfare of the nation as well as for the safe return of his two sons that had been taken hostage by the Qing Dynasty. King Injo was to call Songgwangsa Temple the “great temple of Zen Buddhism.” Interestingly, it’s believed that the main hall, Nahan-jeon, and/or the Jijang-jeon perspire in times of national crisis as well as to one’s prayers. In total, the temple houses three designated Korean Treasures.

Because of its former large size and prominence, the Iljumun Gate that stands at the temple entry was previously located three kilometers away. In more recent times, in 1944, the Iljumun Gate was relocated. In its current location, the uniquely designed gate welcomes any and all visitors to Songgwangsa Temple.

The next gate to welcome you, which is perfectly aligned with the Iljumun Gate, is the Geumgangmun Gate (or Diamond Gate). Passing through this gate, you’ll notice two warriors known as Geumgang-yeoksa housed inside, as well as the child-like Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power).

Just beyond this gate is the largest of the three introductory gates at Songgwangsa Temple. This gate is the Cheonwangmun Gate and it houses Treasure #1255 inside, which is a bit misleading because there are four statues that comprise the designated Treasure. Housed inside this hall are the Four Heavenly Kings that were first made in 1624. Built from clay, they are the oldest of their kind in Korea.

Finally emerging on the other side of the impressive temple gates, you’ll be welcomed by the temple’s bell pavilion slightly to the left. The bell pavilion is Treasure #1244, and it’s the only cross-shaped two-story bell pavilion ever built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). To the right of the bell pavilion, and past the jovial Podae-hwasang statue, are the Jijang-jeon and the Geukrak-jeon. Inside the Jijang-jeon is a large green-haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), and he’s joined by ten equally large-sized statues of the Ten Kings of the Underworld. Rather plainly, Amita-bul sits alongside Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul) on the main altar inside the Geukrak-jeon.

But it’s the Daeung-jeon main hall, with the pyramids of colourful paper lanterns out in front of it that’s the highlight to Songgwangsa Temple. Designated Treasure #1243, the main hall dates back to 1636, when it was rebuilt by National Preceptor Byeogam-guksa. Housed inside this massive main hall are three equally massive clay statues that date back to 1641. Seated in the centre sits Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), who is joined on either side by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) and Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). The ceiling of this hall is beautifully adorned with floating Biseon. The exterior walls are uniquely painted with various large-sized guardian murals.

To the immediate left of the main hall is the rather long Gwaneum-jeon. On the far right wall of the hall is a intricately sculpted statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion), who is backed by an equally elaborate mural of herself.

To the rear of the main hall are three additional shrine halls that visitors can explore, as well as a large statue dedicated to Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). Next to this simple, yet elegant statue of the Buddha of Medicine is the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. All three paintings housed inside this hall are expertly rendered, but it’s the central painting dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars) that stands out for its originality and complexity.

To the right of the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall is the Nahan-jeon, which was first constructed in 1656. Seokgamoni-bul is surrounded, uniquely, by the sixteen Nahan, as well as the expanded 500 Nahan. The sixteen are more expressive and large in size, but the smaller ones are beautiful, as well. To the far right sits the temple’s Yaksa-jeon.

HOW TO GET THERE: From the neighbouring city of Jeonju, you can take Local Bus #806, #814, or #838 and get off at Songgwangsa Temple.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10. The three gates that welcome you to Songgwangsa Temple are really second-to-none in Korea. With their Treasures, as well as beautiful symmetry, they are something not to pass up. Then when you add into the mix all that the Daeung-jeon has to offer in both paintings, as well as historic statues, and you should find your way over to Wanju, Jeollabuk-do to explore Songgwangsa Temple.

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A look through the Iljumun Gate at Songgwangsa Temple.

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And a look at the Geumgangmun Gate.

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One of the Vajra warriors inside the Geumgangmun Gate.

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The child-like Munsu-bosal inside the gate, as well.

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Finally, the Cheonwangmun Gate at Songgwangsa Temple.

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A look inside at the historic Heavenly Kings.

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The treasured bell pavilion at Songgwangsa Temple.

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The jovial Podae-hwasang with the Geukrak-jeon in the background.

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A look inside the Geukrak-jeon at the main altar.

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A look towards the neighbouring Jijang-jeon at Songgwangsa Temple.

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Some of the temple’s artwork.

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The temple’s amazing main hall.

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Some of the stone masonry outside the Daeung-jeon.

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A look inside the main hall at the massive 17th century altar pieces.

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A long view of the Gwaneum-jeon at Songgwangsa Temple.

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The main altar inside the Gwaneum-jeon with the Bodhisattva of Compassion seated all by herself.

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The stone statue dedicated to Yaksayore-bul.

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The Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall at Songgwangsa Temple.

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The intricate painting dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars).

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And a look towards the mountains and the Nahan-jeon.

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