The Nahan Jesus that makes the temple so famous at Seonjisa Temple in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.
Hello Again Everyone!!
My wife was actually the one that recommended that we go to Seonjisa Temple for a very unique reason. She had seen it on T.V. and saw that a statue of Jesus was a fixture inside the main hall at this Buddhist temple. So on a sunny Sunday morning, we decided to head over to Gimhae and see why this temple had such a unique reputation.
Seonjisa Temple (선지사) has been in the same location for a thousand years, but more recently it was abandoned. It is thought that the temple’s name, Seonjisa Temple, influenced the naming of a local town such as Seonji, as well as a local pond called Seonji. It wasn’t until recently that the head-monk, Woncheon Sunim, restored the temple to its former splendour. The idea of the temple’s design came to him after he had seen 500 Nahan in Gongjuksa Temple in China, which is located in Unnamseong. According to Woncheon Sunim, the goal of the temple is to make people in this multi-religious world of the 21st century feel comfortable at Seonjisa Temple.
You’ll first approach this temple from a side road that treks up the side-winding roads of a mountain. The first glimpse of the temple is over the temple’s vegetable garden. Around this knoll, either left or right, you’ll enter into the temple’s main courtyard. To the left is the temple’s kitchen, and to the far right is the monk’s dorm.
Straight ahead is perhaps one of the most unique main halls in all of Korea. The main hall is rather large in size, and the main doors are decorated with some rather unique elf looking paintings of the protective Nathwi. The exterior paintings of the main hall are equal to the uniqueness inside the main hall. There are two sets of paintings that surround the main hall. On the upper tier, there are paintings of the Nahan (followers of the Historical Buddha) in various actions and poses. And on the lower tier, there are twelve cartoonish looking paintings of the zodiac symbols. The monkey and the tiger are perhaps the best rendered zodiac signs.
But the real reason Seonjisa Temple has earned such notoriety throughout Korea is for what resides inside the main hall. Uniquely, there are 500 statues of the Nahan seated and standing on the altar inside the hall. Some of the Nahan are Jangyugwansang, Wonhyo-daesa, Dharma-daesa, and Uisang-daesa. This temple is one of the few temples in all of Korea where they worship the 500 Nahan disciples that attained Nirvana (The only other one, at least that I know of, being Geojoam Hermitage in Daegu). What makes these statues so unique is that one of them is a statue of Jesus (Hyansang-jonja). According to the head-monk, Woncheon Sunim, Jesus is the 109th Nahan. This statue of Jesus is to the left of the four Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on the main altar. The statue to the far right is a smaller sized statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), while there is a twin statue (but a bit larger) two statues over from Seokgamoni-bul. Sandwiched between these two statues of The Historical Buddha are statues of two Bodhisattvas. These Bodhisattvas appear to be of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). On the far right wall is a vastly populated guardian painting. And lifting all the altars up are some gorgeously sculpted wooden bases. There is one particular one that has a mermaid carving on it.
Up the mountain, and to the right, is a small shrine hall dedicated to an Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that dates back to 1605. This statue was only recently opened up to the public, and the newer looking shrine hall proves just how recent this was. The interior of the hall is simple, yet welcoming, in design; however, there is an ornately painted mural that backs the statue of the 400 year old statue of Amita-bul. This black mural is populated by the four Cheonwang (Heavenly Kings), as well as Wolgwang-bosal (The Moonlight Bodhisattva) and Ilgwang-bosal (The Sunlight Bodhisattva).
On the upper crest of the temple, perched on a rocky faced hillside, is the Sanshin-gak shrine hall which is dedicated to the shaman Mountain god, San shin. To get to this shrine hall that is over populated by a colony of lady bugs, you’ll first pass by some peculiar purple rocks. The San shin painting is simple but nice, which is in sharp contrast to the uniqueness of the rest of the temple. The views from the Sanshin-gak shrine hall are beautiful of both the temple and the neighbouring valley.
As a bit of an added bonus, my wife and I were invited in by the head monk to have a cup of tea. While we were there, he told us about his theories about the place of Jesus in Buddhism. Hopefully, if you visit, you’ll visit with someone that speaks Korean, because unfortunately, the head-monk at Seonjisa Temple doesn’t speak English. His theories about how interlinked Christianity and Buddhism really should be heard.
HOW TO GET THERE: You can take the local Gimhae buses, either #21 or 30, and get off at Dongseon-maeul. From this area, you’ll be able to see a sign from the road that reads “선지사.” From this sign, the one lane road will twist and turn up the hillside as you make your way towards the temple. There are numerous brown signs that direct you towards the temple. The road is a dead-end. So when you get to the end of the road, you’ll be at Seonjisa Temple.
View 천태사 in a larger map
OVERALL RATING: 7/10. This temple is really out of the way; however, for the diehard temple adventurer, Seonjisa Temple is well worth the trip. The location of the temple is beautiful, as are the purple rocks near the summit of the temple. Added to the natural beauty is the 400 year old golden statue of Amita-bul. But the true highlight of this temple sits inside the main hall, and what the temple is truly known for. While not the easiest to find in and amongst the 500 Nahan, the statue of Jesus is something that stands out. And if you’re lucky enough to enjoy the company of the head-monk do so.