Hwaeomsa Temple – 화엄사 (Gurye, Jeollanam-do)


The uniquely designed pagoda and lantern at Hwaeomsa Temple.

Hello Again Everyone!

Jirisan National Park was a place I long wanted to visit, but never got around to for one reason or another. I didn’t want to go hiking or camping, or anything like that at all. Instead, I wanted to visit two famous temples that sit on the side of Jirisan Mountain: Hwaeomsa Temple and Ssangyesa Temple. And finally, in the fall of 2005, I visited with my wife.

The first of two postings will cover the most renowned temple at Jirisan National Park: Hwaeomsa Temple (“Flower Garland Sutra Temple”).

Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사) was founded by Yeon-gi Josa in 544, when Buddhism was just gaining a hold of Korea’s religious landscape. The temple was continuously expanded until its total destruction during the Imjin War of 1592. Fortunately for us temple lovers, it was rebuilt three decades later.  And today, it’s one of Korea’s largest and most well respected temples.

Once you’re dropped off at the bus stop at Hwaeomsa Temple village, just south of the temple, you’ll have to walk about a kilometer up a beautiful and scenic valley road. You’ll pass through two gates, one of which is ensnared by dragons sculpted around the stone pillars. In the third gate are four largely sculpted heavenly kings protecting the temple from evil spirits. In the lower courtyard are two similar looking five-tier pagodas. As you continue walking straight, and on the upper level of the courtyard, is the main hall. Usually, the main hall is the largest structure at the temple; however, the main hall is dwarfed by the building that stands just left of it: Gakhwang-jeon.  Gakhwang-jeon has a two-tiered roof, and it’s also one of the largest and oldest buildings, dating back to 1703, in all of Korea. It’s a massive building that houses seven figures on its altar. Another strange feature about this temple is that the Seokgamoni Buddha (the historical Buddha) sits in Gakhwangjeon, and not in the main hall. Accompanying the Seokgamoni Buddha in this building are Amita and Dabo Buddhas, as well as the Gwaneum, Bohyeon, Munsu, and Jijeok bodhisattavas. Directly in front of this massive hall is the largest stone lantern in all of Korea, standing five metres tall. Next to this pagoda is an impressive “sari budo” with four fierce looking lions adorning it.

But even more impressive than the massive Gakhwang-jeon is what stands on the hill just above this building. On the hill stands the most uniquely designed pagoda (next to the ones at Bulguksa Temple) and stone lantern. The five metre tall granite pagoda has three-tiers on top and four lion-shaped pedestals at its base. Each lion represents the four primary human emotions: love, sorrow, anger, and joy. At the centre of these lions stands a human figure with hands held to his chest. There are numerous other designs etched onto this pagoda, so take your time and enjoy the intricacies of this pagoda. And just in front of this pagoda is the equally unique stone lantern with a squatting figure at the centre of its base. Some have suggested that this is the founder of the temple kneeling in obedience to his mother.

HOW TO GET THERE:  To get to Hwaeomsa Temple from Busan, there is a direct bus from Seobu bus terminal at the Sasang subway stop (#227). It costs about 14,000 won, and the trip takes about three hours. If you’re not getting to Hwaeomsa Temple from Busan, you can take a bus to Gurye. From Gurye to Hwaeomsa Temple, you can take a bus that goes to Hwaeomsa Temple village for about 1,000 won.

Admission to the temple is 3,500 won (and trust me, it is well worth it!)

View 화엄사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 10/10.  For its historical significance alone, Hwaeomsa Temple rates highly amongst Korean temples. But if you add the giant splendor that is Gakhwang-jeon, and the temple rates that much higher. And to top it all off, on the hill stands two of the most uniquely designed pagodas and lanterns in all of Korea.  So if you couldn’t tell already, I highly, highly recommend a visit to Hwaeomsa Temple for both its cultural significance and artistic beauty!

A view of Jirisan Mountains that hosts Hwaeomsa Temple.
The beautiful and scenic valley that leads up to the temple.
Another view of the gorgeous valley that winds its way up to Hwaeomsa Temple.
The first gate that welcomes you to the temple.  Notice the stone dragons wrapped around the stone pillars.
One of the four largely built heavenly kings that protect Hwaeomsa Temple from evil spirits.
A unique sculpture at the temple.  I think I’ve only seen something comparable at Magoksa temple near Gongju.
The bell tower at the temple
A better look at one of the fierce lions that adorns the bell tower.
The main hall at the temple.
The massive and ancient Gakhwangjeon at Hwaeomsa Temple.
DSC01970The seven altar pieces that sit inside the cavernous Gakhwangjeon hall.
Another look at the uniquely designed pagoda and lantern up on the hill at Hwaeomsa Temple.
A better look at the figure with hands clasped at the centre of the base of the pagoda.
One of the lions that represent one of the primary human emotions.  Try to guess which one this one is.
And a better look at the lantern with a kneeling figure at its base.
And finally, playful tiling adorning the roof of the monks’ living quarters.

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