The photogenic front facade of Gwanryongsa Temple in Changnyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do.
Hello Again Everyone!!
As I continue to explore Gyeongsangnam-do Province, another city on the list was Changnyeong. While a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of larger cities in the area, Changnyeong certainly didn’t disappoint with its beauty.
Gwanryongsa Temple (관룡사) refers to Gwan, which means to “see” in Chinese characters, while ryong means “dragon.” This harkens back to when Wonhyo-daesa was praying on the neighbouring Mt. Hwawang with his 1,000 followers. On the last day of his 100 days of prayer, he saw nine dragons spring forth from wells and fly around the peaks of Mt. Hwawang. As a result, this temple is famous for being one of eight locations that Wonhyo preached Hwaemgyeong to his followers. Interestingly, the temple has two foundation stories. The first states that the temple was first built in 349. The other foundation story states that it was first built in 583 by Jeungbeopguksa.
As you pass the entrance gate to Hwawangsan Park, and make your way up through the gorgeous cherry blossoms, you’ll see a pair of granite guardian spirit poles in a farmer’s field. This set of guardian spirit poles date back to sometime during the Joseon Dynasty, and there are perhaps only about one hundred of these original guardian spirit poles still in existence. The one on the left is male, while the one on the right is female. They are both fiercely baring their canine teeth. The exact meaning behind their existence is unknown, there are at least three different theories that try to explain them. The first is that they were boundary markers for the Gwanryongsa Temple land, so that people wouldn’t hunt or fish on Buddhist land; the second states that they were meant to ward off evil spirits; while the third theory states that they were used to help counteract any possible geomantic weakness on the land. Whatever the reason that they were first built, keep a sharp eye open for these extremely rare, and original, granite guardian spirit poles.
Finally, having made your way up the beautiful cherry blossom road, you’ll be greeted by the beautiful face of the temple’s front facade. The most noticeable aspect of this front facade is the protruding bell pavilion that houses a nice looking bell and an ancient looking Dharma drum. To the right of this protruding bell pavilion is the stone entrance way; and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have to watch your head. To the right of this entrance way, and greeting you to the temple, are four stele.
Having finally passed by all that Gwanryongsa Temple has to greet you with, you’ll pass through the Cheonwangmun entrance gate. Unfortunately, there’s no paintings or statues dedicated to these four Heavenly Kings. Passing through this gate, you’ll finally enter into the well populated temple courtyard. To your immediate right is the monks’ dorm, while straight ahead is an older looking meeting hall for monks. Between these two buildings is the temple’s main hall. The main hall is largely unadorned on the exterior, all but for some beautiful floral patterns up on the eaves of the hall, and it dates back to 1618 after the original main hall was burnt down to the ground during the Imjin War of 1592. However, this hall, framed by the neighbouring Hwawang mountain range, makes for a postcard-like picture. As for the interior of the main hall, and sitting on the main altar, is a central Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s flanked by Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha) to his right and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) to his left. This hall also has a beautiful floral ceiling that dates back at least a hundred years. On the far right wall is the main hall’s guardian painting. And on the far left wall is a painting of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). He’s joined by a neighbouring, and equally older looking, mural of Amita-bul. But the most amazing feature of this hall is the 5 metre tall older looking painting of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) on the wall behind the main altar. It is both highly original and amazing!
To the immediate left of the main hall is a compact Myeongbu-jeon hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal. He’s joined by the Ten Kings of the Underworld, as well as by helpers and guardians. Uniquely, each of the Ten Kings individually have their Korean name written on paper next to each individual statue. Slightly in front of the main hall and the Myeongbu-jeon hall, and to the left, is the Yaksa-jeon Hall dedicated to Yaksayore-bul. This building was the only hall not to be burnt to the ground by the Japanese during the Imjin War, and it is estimated to date back to the 15 century. The exterior is adorned with some gorgeously old floral patterns. Inside this hall is a statue of Yaksayore that dates back to the Goryeo Dynasty. And while the pedestal dates back to 772, the statue itself was made at a different date during the Goryeo Period. But with that being said, it’s estimated that it was also built some time during the 8th century. This hall is filled with beautiful scenes from nature, as well as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas filling the trim between the ceiling and the walls of this hall.
To the right of the main hall are three equally interesting buildings. Just behind the temple watering hole, is a hall dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). The painting of Yongwang, while stunning, is also one of the fiercest of this king that I’ve seen in Korea. And the painting of Chilseong is both beautiful and old. To the left of this shrine hall is an extremely compact shrine hall dedicated to San shin (The Mountain Spirit) and Dokseong (The Recluse). The older looking painting of San shin is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen in Korea. The third and finally hall is the Nahan-jeon, which is dedicated to the disciples of Seokgamoni-bul. Much like the Myeongbu-jeon hall, all of the Nahan have their Korean names placed in front of each of their statues. And sitting on the altar is a statue of the past, present, and future Buddha and Bodhisattvas (Jaehwagara-bosal, Seokgamoni-bul, and Mireuk-bosal).
Surrounding the temple are some unique items. First, there are numerous stone stupas housing the remains of the prominent monks at the temple. And if you still have enough energy after seeing all that the temple has to offer, you can make your way up, and to the left of the temple compound, to Yongseon-dae. Sitting on this rock outcropping, roughly 500 metres up the mountainside, is a statue of Buddha from the Unified Silla period. It looks a bit like a lesser version of the same statue at Seokguram Hermitage in Gyeongju. The only difference between the two, besides craftsmanship, is that this statue is exposed to the elements non-stop.
HOW TO GET THERE: Depending on where you’re coming from, you can arrive at Gwanryongsa Temple in a couple ways. If you’re coming from Seoul, you can take a bus that leaves five times a day to Changnyeong. And if you’re leaving from Daegu, Busan, or Miryang, you can take a bus that heads to the city of Youngsan. The bus to Youngsan specifically says Youngsan-haeng (영산행) on it. During this bus ride to Youngsan, you’ll have to get off at Gyeseong. And from Gyeseong, you can either take a local bus or a taxi. Again, I would suggest a taxi after such a long bus ride. You simply have to tell the taxi driver “Gwanryongsa” and they’ll know the rest.
View 관룡사 in a larger map
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. Gwanryongsa Temple, if you couldn’t already tell, has a lot to offer the Korean temple adventurer. From the guardian spirit poles, to the 5 metre tall Gwanseeum-bosal mural in the main hall, to the 15th century Yaksa-jeon, to the 8th century stone statue of Yaksayore inside of this hall, to all the shaman paintings, and finally to the stone Buddha statue on the neighbouring cliff side, this temple has it all and so much more. While it’s a bit out of the way, it’s most definitely worth the effort to find this off-the-beaten-trail temple.