Sudeoksa Temple – 수덕사 (Yesan, Chungcheongnam-do)

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The oldest building in Korea is housed at Sudeoksa Temple in Yesan, Chungcheongnam-do.

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Located on Mt. Deoksungsan in Yesan, Chungcheongnam-do, the exact date of Sudeoksa Temple’s construction is unknown. Because of this ambiguity in its origins, there are numerous stories surrounding its creation. According to records at the temple, the Buddhist monk Sungje-beopsa built the temple during the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C to 660 A.D). It’s also believed that the temple was first established in 599 A.D. by the Buddhist monk, Jimyeong-beopsa. And later, the temple was repaired and restored by the famed Wonhyo-daesa. Either way, it’s believed that Naong (1320-76) repaired the temple during the reign of King Gongmin (r. 1351-74). Like Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Sudeoksa Temple was one of the very few temples to remain unscathed during the extremely destructive Imjin War (1592-98). As a result, it houses the oldest wooden structure in Korea, the Daeung-jeon main hall, which dates back to 1308. The main hall is also recognized as National Treasure #49. Throughout the years, the temple has undergone numerous renovations in 1528, 1751, 1770, and 1803. Currently, Sudeoksa Temple participates in the popular Temple Stay program.

You first approach the temple through streets of restaurants and stores. Eventually, you’ll come to the temple’s ticket booth, which is also where the four pillared Iljumun Gate stands. Further up the path, you’ll encounter the Geumgangmun Gate. The exterior green walls are painted with guardians, and the interior to this gate houses two muscular Vajra warriors. To the rear of the gate are two large painted images of Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) riding his blue haetae and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) on top of his white elephant.

Thirty metres up the trail, you’ll next come to the wide Sacheonwangmun Gate. Like the Geumgangmun Gate, the exterior walls are adorned with four fierce guardian murals. Inside the boxy Sacheonwangmun Gate are four of the scariest and intimidating Heavenly Kings that you’ll find at any Buddhist temple in Korea. The entire path up to the expansive Hwanghajeong-ru Pavilion, you’ll spot a number of pagodas along the way including an elephant-based stone lantern, as well as a seven-tier pagoda and dharma.

Passing under the Hwanghajeong-ru Pavilion, and mounting the rather steep set of stairs, you’ll finally enter the temple’s main courtyard. Straight ahead, and framing the historic main hall, is a three-story pagoda whose finial is crowned by a golden top. The Geumgangbo pagoda was constructed in 2000. Contained inside the pagoda are three sari (crystallized remains) from the Historic Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, that the temple received from Sri Lanka. To the right of this pagoda is the Beopgo-gak that houses the fish gong and the Dharma drum. To the left stands the Beopjong-gak that houses the temple’s large bronze bell.

A little further up and you’ll next come to another pagoda. This historic three-tier pagoda is believed to date back to the early Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Behind this pagoda is the Daeung-jeon main hall, which is not only National Treasure #49, but it’s also the country’s oldest wooden structure. Dating back to 1308, the hall is almost unlike any other more modern building. Squarish in design, Sudeoksa Temple’s main hall is similar to the Geukrak-jeon hall at Bongjeongsa Temple in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do and the main hall at Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Unassuming on the exterior, the main hall houses five statues on the main altar centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). To the right hangs a mural dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). Additionally, there are numerous Goryeo era paintings spread throughout the interior of this historic main hall.

To the right of the main hall stands the Myeongbu-jeon. Contained within this hall is a green haired seated statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). He’s surrounded on all sides by beautiful wooden reliefs of the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

To the left of the main hall is the Gwaneeum-jeon. Out in front of this hall is a white granite statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is also joined by another greener incarnation of Gwanseeum-bosal on the lower terrace. Housed inside this hall is a stout statue of Gwanseeum-bosal under a vibrant red canopy and a contemporary painting of this Bodhisattva.

There are numerous hermitages spread throughout the folds of Mt. Deoksungsan like Geukrakam Hermitage and Seonsuam Hermitage.

Admission to the temple is 2,000 won.

HOW TO GET THERE: There are a variety of ways that you can get to Sudeoksa Temple. From Seoul, you’ll need to get to the Nambu Bus Terminal and board a direct bus to Sudeoksa Temple. The bus ride lasts about two and half hours and should cost about 8,000 won. From anywhere else in the country, you’ll first need to get to the Yesan Intercity Bus Terminal. From there, you can take a rural bus to Sudeoksa Temple. Here is a list of potential buses that you can take: Bus #553 (8:20), Bus #547 (9:40), Bus #558 (10:50, 17:35), Bus #551 (12:00, 15:00), Bus #557 (13:20), Bus #549 (14:00), Bus #555 (15:55), Bus #556 (19:15). These buses will take about an hour and forty minutes to get to the temple.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10. Beautifully situated in northern Chungcheongnam-do, Sudeoksa Temple lies just below the peak of Mt. Deoksungsan. With it housing the oldest wooden structure in Korea, there really is no better reason to visit this ancient temple. Besides this, the entry gates and the wooden reliefs inside the Myeongbu-jeon should be enough to pique your interest.

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The welcoming Iljumun Gate at Sudeoksa Temple.

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One of the adorning dragons on the Iljumun Gate.

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The Geumgangmun Gate at the temple.

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A decorative, yet fierce-looking, guardian on the gate.

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One of the protective Vajra warriors inside the Geumgangmun Gate.

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The elephant-based stone lantern.

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The Sacheonwangmun Gate seen from behind.

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One of the intensely fierce-looking Heavenly Kings.

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The expansive Hwanghajeong-ru Pavilion

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A look around the surrounding environs at Sudeoksa Temple.

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The Geumgangbo pagoda and historic main hall.

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The fish gong inside the Beopgo-gak.

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A better look at the historic Daeung-jeon main hall that dates back to 1308.

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The Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Sudeoksa Temple.

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And to the left is the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.

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A look inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.

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And then it was time to go.

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