Sammaksa Temple/Sangbulam Hermitage – 삼막사/상불암 (Mt. Samseongsan, Anyang, Gyeonggi-do)

Sammaksa Temple

Hello, everyone!

Giuseppe back, with my third temple and yet another mountaintop temple. This time, Sammaksa Temple, “Three Curtain Temple,” near the peak of Mt. Samseongsan, “Three Saint Mountain.”

Sammaksa Temple was first established in 677 during the Silla Dynasty as a small hermitage by the great monk Wonhyo. If this sounds familiar, it’s the same year that Uisang established what is now Yeonjuam Hermitage, just across the narrow valley, on Mt. Gwanaksan. The mountain is actually named after Wonhyo, Uisang, and Yeonpil, “three saints” who spent time here. It’s a well-known fact that Wonhyo and Uisang were close friends and travel companions, but I was not able to find any information at all about the monk Yeonpil, other then he was at the mountain. I don’t know if he was there with Wonhyo and Uisang or came at a later date. Other prominent monks who spent time at the temple during its history were Doseon-guksa, Seosan-daesa, and Muhak-daesa.

Snaking up the mountain road, with a few dramatic glimpses of the granite peaks, you arrive at the temple, which sits high up on a granite brick terrace. A steep set of stairs brings you up between the bell pavilion and the Jijang-jeon, into a tightly compact courtyard. An interesting floral pattern “mural” sits in the center of the courtyard. Straight and to the immediate left upon entering the courtyard is the Myeongbu-jeon, Cultural Property of Gyeonggi-do No. 60, housing the ten Yamas of the underworld, including Ksitigarbha (Jijang-bosal).

Front and center is the Yuk Gwaneum-jeon, the Six Gwaneum Hall, in which are enshrined, you guessed it, seven Gwaneum statues (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). No, six, but I accidentally typed seven and thought I’d make a bad joke about it… 😉 There actually isn’t a main hall at this temple, but the Yuk Gwaneum-jeon serves as the main hall. The temple was formerly known as Gwaneumsa Temple but was changed to Sammaksa Temple after the Joseon Dynasty renovations and the temple was said to resemble a Chinese temple name Sammaksa Temple. I was extremely impressed by the six statues. There isn’t anything specifically impressive about their features or artistry, but as a whole, and just their overall impression, is remarkable. Lined up along the long shrine, from right to left, are Yeoui Gwaneum (The Wish Fulfilling Avalokitesvara), Sibil Myeon Gwaneum (The Eleven Faced Avalokitesvara), Junjae Gwaneum (The Cundi Avalokitesvara), Cheonsu Cheonah Gwaneum (The 1000 Hands and 1000 Eyes Avalokitesvara), Seong Gwaneum (The Sacred Avalokitesvara), and Madu Gwaneum (The Horse Headed Avalokitesvara). I was especially drawn to the ones on the opposite ends, Yeoui and Madu, which also had opposing demeanors. The Yeoui Gwaneum sits relaxed, calmly posed, leaning an arm on her raised knee with her face equally calm and relaxed. The Madu Gwaneum is fierce, with a vicious expression. A small golden horse kneels at the front of Madu’s crown.

Passed the office building to the right is the Cheonbul-jeon, Thousand Buddha Hall. The statues inside weren’t of much interest, including the main trio, with a central Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). The only thing of note at all is that there were a thousand of them.

Up behind the Cheonbul-jeon, at the edge of a large, flat granite stone, is an old three-storey stone pagoda, Gyeonggi-do Tangible Cultural property No. 112, erected to commemorate victory over an invading Mongol army during the early 1200’s. Kim Yunhu, priest of the temple, let an arrow fly from an impossible distance and managed to drop the Mongol general dead in his tracks. As he fell from his horse, as if by a magical arrow, his army took it as an omen and they immediately turned back. If you’re at all like me, you may find it strange that a monk would take a life and stranger still that it would be celebrated; but if you consider the evil intentions of the Mongol invaders, taking the generals life certainly averted a whole mess of death and suffering. Needless to say, they weren’t dropping by for tea and scones!

Though the small complex is worth the visit on its own, following the trail that leads further up the mountain is where things get a little more interesting. The trail, starting just beside the Cheonbul-jeon, ultimately leads to the Samjon-bul. But taking a quick detour around a large traditional house leads to the Sanshin-gak, Mountain Spirit Shrine, carved into a large granite face. There is no roof or building covering it, just open along the mountain, it has a nice appeal. Looping back down to the main trail, there is one of the most interesting carvings on another granite formation. At first, I thought it was some sort of physics symbols, but after asking around, I discovered that it was actually three symbols representing a turtle. From right to left, the first is the Chinese character for turtle, the second is the ancient Chinese Oracle bone symbol, and the third is a combination of the two. Once I knew it was a turtle, it seemed pretty obvious!

Continuing another few minutes along the well constructed path, you arrive at the Samjon-bul, but the first thing you encounter are two prominent stones protruding from the edge of the slope. They are Nam Yeo Geun Seok, Male and Female Gender Stones, as they are said to resemble male and female genitals. They have been worshiped for thousands of years as fertility stones. People came from all across the country to make offers and pray for a safe delivery, long life and health for their child, and to have a son. The male stone, other than being certainly erect, is sort of, “Okay, if you say so…”, but the female stone, on the other hand… well that one is quite convincing! They are Folklore Cultural Treasures of Gyeonggi-do No. 3.

Beside the fertility stones, at last, we arrive at the Samjon-bul, a granite relief carving of Chilseong, the Big Dipper. The large, central figure is Chilseong Guang-yeorae-bul, accompanied by Ilgwang-bosal on the left and Wolgwang-bosal on the right, the Sun and Moon Bodhisattvas, respectively. It was made in 1763 and is Tangible Cultural Treasure of Gyeonggi-do No. 94. Originally an open shrine, it is now protected by a small but elegant structure, built on stilts. There were eight people crammed in it when I first arrived, and I have no idea how they were able to do their bows as when I came back later with just two other people it still felt crammed, but cozy. Looking at their noses, you can see that they’ve been damaged, and though this is often a sign of vandalism, it is (at least was) common belief in Korea that grinding down and consuming the noses of stone statues will lead to conceiving a son.

Now, you can return to the main complex or, as it was recommended by a friend who lives nearby, you can continue up the trail, about 400 meters, and over the ridge to just below the peak where sits Sangbulam Hermitage, a small hermitage with a cave shrine at the rear of the Daeung-jeon, Main Hall. There are great views of Anyang city down below and the surrounding mountains. I’m glad I made the effort for these reasons, but the true gem was the Samseong-gak, Three Spirit Shrine, that had stunning paintings of Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Chilseong (the Big Dipper), and Dokseong, (The Lonely Saint). The paintings are rendered with incredible detail and artistry and have a very interesting earth tone color scheme, opposed to the usual bright, colorful paintings you typically find. Even if temple paintings don’t usually interest you, these are works of art worth seeing.

Back at Sammaksa Temple, they were serving a simple bowl of noodle soup and kimchi and it amazed me that there were no more than a dozen people all morning in the halls but I counted at least 300 people lined up for lunch!

HOW TO GET THERE: First, take the Line 1 subway to Gwanak Station, one stop before Anyang if you’re Suwon bound. From exit 2, continue straight to the main road, cross, and find the bus stop for the 6-2  bus which will bring you to Gyeongin University of Education, the last stop. From there it’s about a 30-40 minute walk, at a good pace, following the paved road all the way up to the temple. There is also a hiking trail that turns off from the paved road not too far along after the parking lot. I haven’t taken it, so I can not comment further.

The easy way is if you can catch the temple shuttle bus directly across from Hanmaum Seonwon. The first shuttle leaves at 8:30 a.m. and is scheduled to depart about every 30 minutes in the morning and a few more times into the afternoon; but I found the schedule to be rather unreliable (at least after 8:30 a.m.). The shuttle is for temple-goers, not hikers, so you may have to tell them you are visiting the temple. The shuttle costs 1,000 won and fills up quickly. To find Hanmaum, again, leave exit 2, walk to the main road and cross (carefully!) at the large intersection. If you can’t see the massive Seon center, with the unique seven-sphere pagoda on the roof, you either plain well can’t see or it’s the worst yellow dust storm in history, and you shouldn’t be out in it, anyway! 😉 The shuttle is a white van and the sign is just down from the intersection. Keep an eye out and you can’t miss it.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10. Sammaksa Temple itself is not overly spectacular but does offer some objects of interest as well as a long history with great monks having stayed here. The setting is beautiful and the fertility stones along with the Samjon-bul give the temple something special to see while there.

Sangbulam Hermitage, I give a 4.5/10. As far as hermitages go, it’s a good one, but it is still a hermitage. Their value is mostly beyond what you’d experience as a visitor. Most of it’s rating is for the main hall cave and the Samseong paintings. Great view, too!

Sammaksa Temple photos!

The Myeongbu-jeon

The Yuk Gwaneum-jeon

Yuk Gwaneum-jeon to the left, office on the right and Cheonbul-jeon in the far center.

Side of Yuk Gwaneum-jeon and Myeongbu-jeon on the left.

Three-story stone pagoda



turtle, turtle, turtle

The path to the Samjon-bul and Nam Yeo Geun Seok

A small Yongwang-gak, Dragon King Shrine, on the way to Sangbulam Hermitage

Sangbulam Hermitage photos


Sanshin, Chilseong, and Dokseong

The view over Anyang valley

Back at Sammaksa Temple:

Day hikers lining up for lunch

slurp, slurp, slurp…

Firing up the noodles

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