The mysterious cave that houses Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) at Cheonbulsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.
Hello Again Everyone!!
At first, I didn’t even remember visiting this temple because it was so long ago. For sure, I thought it was the first time I was visiting it. But slowly, I started remembering it more and more. The first time I visited it was with my wife (she was my girlfriend at the time) in 2003. Neither of us had a camera, so this time around we were a bit better prepared.
Cheonbulsa Temple, in English, literally means “Sky Buddha Temple.” What this means in practical terms, at least to Buddhists, is that the temple gets its energy from the heavenly palace of Tushita. Like all Korean temples, Cheonbulsa Temple has an interesting origin story. The abbot of the future Cheonbulsa Temple held a memorial service for one thousand days in the cave at Yaksuam Hermitage, near Baekyangsa Temple, in Gwangju. During this service, he received a divine revelation. The divine revelation stated that he should go find a place where the peaks of three mountains meet and build a temple there where a white crane sits. Finding such a place, the head monk built Cheonbulsa Temple in its present location in 1974.
The first thing to greet you, as you approach from the parking lot, is a string of colourful paper lanterns and the temple’s gift shop. Strolling up the walkway that leads up to the temple courtyard, you’ll pass by a coy pond that is well stocked. Unfortunately, the pond is covered with a green mesh that protects the fish from inedible food thrown to them from people. Continuing up the walkway that is bordered by beautiful waterwheels that spin the streams water, you’ll first come to the lower courtyard of the temple. To the left is the two storied bell pavilion that is fronted by a stone pagoda that is decorated with an assortment of floral patterns. And to the right, you’ll see another large sized stone pagoda beside an information office. Behind both of these is a study hall at the temple.
As you continue walking up the walkway, you’ll climb a set of stairs that will gain you access to the main courtyard at the temple. The main hall is beautifully decorated both inside and out. Adorning the exterior walls of the hall are a variety of highly unique paintings. They are an expanded form of the Palsang-do paintings of the Buddha’s life. Also, the main hall has some of the most beautiful lattice work adorning the doors in all of Korea. Next to Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, I would have to say that these are the next best thing. Inside the main hall is a triad of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that is centred by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). You can actually see this Buddha the entire time you’re making your way up to the main hall from the parking lot. Next to this triad is a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). On the left wall is an amazingly large wooden guardian sculpture. And on the right wall is a standing statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) with an eerie black mural behind him. Interestingly, growing on one of the triad Bodhisattvas is a miniscule flower. Fortunately, the temple has a camera and T.V. set up so that you can see it a bit better.
To the left of the main hall is a shrine hall dedicated to the Sea King, Yongwang. Until recently, I had rarely seen these shrine halls. But more recently, I have been seeing more and more of them. Inside this hall is a beautifully designed statue of Yongwang backed by a gorgeous mural of two twin dragons. Yongwang is hovering above a pond of water and surrounded by paintings of various Biseon. To the right of the main hall is a shrine set up for Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). There is also a very rare incense burner made from a large chunk of green jade. The more people rub it, the greener it has gotten.
To the rear of the main hall is another shrine with a row of white Buddhas. From here, you get an amazing view of the temple and the mountains that surround it. Up the hill a bit further, and past the twin burial mounds (which aren’t associated with the temple) is the Samseong-gak. This shrine hall dedicated to two of the more popular Shaman gods in Korea, Chilseong, San shin, and Dokseong, has a very unique design. Sitting in the centre is a statue of San shin. To his right is another statue of Dokseong (The Recluse). The left side of the triad is a window that looks on to a waterfall with another statue of San shin. You can get to this waterfall, that is to the rear of the shrine hall, from the left.
But what the temple is most famous for, and as a tribute to the founding monk, there’s a cave that houses a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal to the right of the main hall. After passing the Yaksa-jeon hall dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine, you’ll make your way through a path that’s surrounded by a bamboo forest. You’ll first be greeted to the cave by a corridor of various statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These statues are delicately designed and are a tribute to what Korean masons can create. What you’re supposed to do when you walk is to pray every three steps. Finally, you’ll come to the crowning cave that sits at the top of this corridor of statues. Watch your head, as the ceiling is a bit low lying. When you appear on the other side, you’ll come to a beautifully built cave that is surrounded by various guardians, a Biseon that sits at the top of the vaulted ceiling, and a golden Gwanseeum-bosal at the centre. Words simply can’t describe just how beautiful this cave is, so I’ll let the pictures do all the talking.
Admission to the temple is free.
HOW TO GET THERE: There are two ways that you can get to this rather hard to get to temple. The first way you can get there is by taking a bus from the Nopo-dong subway station in Busan (Bus #50 or 301). You’ll then have to get off the bus in Dukgye in Yangsan at the four way intersection (덕계사거리). There’s a Dunkin Donuts and a narrow street that you have to pass through to find the bus stop. From here, you can see a local bus stop in front of a raw fish restaurant. This local bus sign will read “Cheonbulsa” (천불사). This bus comes every 30 minutes.
The second way that you can get to the temple, and probably the easier way, is that there’s a temple shuttle bus from the Nopo-dong subway station in Busan. It leaves at 9:20 a.m from around the taxi stop at the subway station. I’m not sure if there’s any other time that this shuttle bus leaves from.
View 천불사 in a larger map
OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. This temple has a lot for the temple adventurer to see. The main hall is beautifully decorated with amazing lattice work and an altar triad that has tiny flowers growing from their bodies. There’s also a very unique Yongwang shrine hall and a man-made waterfall behind the Samseong-gak shrine hall. But what really sets this temple apart, and makes it a highly desirable temple to visit, is the amazing cave that houses Gwanseeum-bosal and the stone statues that guide you towards the entrance of the cave. The only thing about this temple is that it’s a bit tricky to get to unless you have a car.