The Danseoksan Grotto at Sinseonsa Temple in northwestern Gyeongju.
Hello Again Everyone!!
I had heard good things here and there about Sinseonsa Temple in Gyeongju for quite awhile. So I thought I would bundle up and head up to Gyeongju to see the beautiful temple with the ancient grotto.
Sinseonsa Temple is located in northwestern Gyeongju high above the Ujung Valley. Specifically, Sinseonsa Temple is situated on Mt. Danseoksan, which was first called Mt. Jungaksan. The name Mt. Danseoksan, in English, means “Cut Rock Mountain,” and it stands an impressive 827 metres in height. With its height, it’s the tallest mountain in the Gyeongju area.
This mountain, other than the Danseoksan Grotto, is historically significant for a couple reasons. At the age of 17, and as the famous General Kim Yushin was being trained as a Hwarang (an elite group of Silla youths), he cut a large rock with his sword. This was a divine ability he had learned from an old monk named Nanseung. This cut rock still sits at the peak of Mt. Danseoksan above Sinseonsa Temple.
But as you make your way up the 700 metre climb from where the road gives away to something nearly impassable, you’re probably visiting Sinseonsa Temple for the famous Danseoksan Grotto. When you finally do arrive at the temple, you’ll notice a large protective Plexiglas enclosure to the right of the monks’ quarters that first greet you at the temple. It’s underneath this Plexiglas enclosure that the U-shaped grotto can be found. The Danseoksan Grotto predates the grotto at Seokguram Hermitage by 200 years. The grotto is quite large in size, even if the former roof to the grotto has long since disappeared. In fact, the grotto runs ten metres deep, eight metres high, and three metres in width.
In total, as you enter the grotto from the west, you’ll notice ten distinct carvings adorning the walls of the rock that date back to the early 7th century. The first carvings, in order of entry, to greet you are situated on the northern wall. The first is a Buddhist figure at the base of the wall seemingly pointing east. Above this figure is a triad of Bodhisattvas pointing you towards the left and the much larger statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). The tallest in this triad is 120 c.m. tall, while the smallest is 60 c.m. tall. Parallel to the triad, and before you see the statue of Mireuk-bul, is a cross-legged Buddhist figure. Beneath this figure are two more stone carvings. This time, the two figures look as though they are wearing sock-shaped hats and performing a memorial service for the dead. In fact, they almost look Egyptian in their design.
The three remaining carvings on the north, south, and east side of the grotto are rather large in size. The Mireuk-bul statue stands an impressive eight metres in height. And while it’s a bit crude and boyish looking in its design, it allows us to see how Buddhist images have evolved over time in Korea. This is also the central image at the grotto. In front of Mireuk-bul stands a Bodhisattva that is slowly chipping away with the passage of time. To the east, and a lot better preserved, is a 6 metre tall statue of yet another Bodhisattva. While this grotto isn’t as artistically refined as the masonry at Seokguram Grotto, this ancient Silla grotto is quite impressive in its own right.
Other than this grotto, there are a handful of other buildings at Sinseonsa Temple. The most prominent is the main hall at the temple. It’s from this hall that you can get a great view of the Ujung Valley down below. And to the right of the main hall are a pair of unique looking statues of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The exterior walls of the main hall are adorned with simplistic Shimu-do, Ox-Herding, murals. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, is a triad centred by Seokgamoni-bul. He’s joined to the right by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) to the left. To the right of this main altar is a nice painting of Chilseong (The Seven Stars). And to the left, next to the small figurines of Jijang-bosal, is a beautiful guardian mural.
The final hall that you can see anything in, and past the monks’ quarters to the left of the main hall, is the newer looking shaman shrine hall. This shaman shrine hall is situated a little higher than the other halls at the temple, and it’s also up one of the more dangerous set of haphazardly strewn set of rock stairs. Inside this shaman shrine hall, and hanging on the main altar, are a pair of paintings. To the right is a mural of Dokseong (The Recluse), and to the left is a painting dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). This painting is similar in a lot of regards to the Sanshin painting at Geojoam Hermitage on Mt. Palgongsan in Daegu. The noticeable difference is that this Sanshin painting has a playful tiger kicking around an Immortal Peach. And in front of both of these murals is a set of jade turtle-based candle holders.
HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll have to get to Geoncheon train station, which is just north of Gyeongju. From this train station, you’ll then have to board the bus to Songseon 2 Ri Jeolgol (송선 2리 절골). To get there, you can either take bus #350, #351, #352, or #355. The ride lasts about 35 minutes and it takes 8 stops. From where the bus drops you off, you’ll then have to walk 2.2 km to get to the temple. Head south for about a kilometre, and then east for the rest. Don’t worry, there are a lot of signs leading the way.
OVERALL RATING: 8/10. By far, the main attraction to this temple is the Danseoksan Grotto. This grotto is special for a couple reasons, especially since it’s the first grotto to be created in the Silla Kingdom; in fact, it even predates the much more famous Seokguram Grotto by 200 years. Add into the mix the beautiful renderings of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and alm-givers, and you know why this place is so well revered. Also, the playful tiger inside the Sanshin painting is a must see if you can remember to see it after being blown away by the beautiful and historic grotto.