Ilbungsa Temple – 일붕사 (Uiryeong, Gyeongsangnam-do)


The amazing entrance that leads into the inner-chamber of the cave main hall at Ilbungsa Temple in Uiryeong, Gyeongsangnam-do.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

I had long wanted to visit the city of  Uiryeong, and Ilbungsa  Temple in particular, but never really wanted to get up at 6 to go and visit. That is, until this weekend. It has quite the buzz around it in the Korean blogosphere, so I thought I would visit and see what the entire hubbub is about.

In the year of 727, the 26th year of King Seongdeok the Great’s reign, Hyecho Sunim from Silla had a dream on the way back home from a Buddhist pilgrimage to China and India. The dream was that Jijang-bosal was smiling peacefully on a cliff surrounded by rocks of beautiful and fantastic shapes. And he said that this place would be a treasure to the country if he built a temple where people could console the spirits of the dead.

So as soon as Hyecho Sunim returned to  Korea, he told King Seongdeok, then he looked for a similar place to the one that he saw in his dream. After finding such a place, he built a temple. After it was completed, he called it Seongdeoksa Temple after the great Silla king.

But ever since its creation, Seongdeoksa Temple burnt down repeatedly. And for the longest of time no one dared touch it or even think of rebuilding it because it was so sacred, that was, until 1987 when Haeun Sunim heeded the advice of a fellow monk and decided to rebuild Seongdeoksa Temple. The reason he decided to rebuild the temple is that this spot in the mountain was said to have really strong fire energy. To help avoid any future fire damage, Haeun Sunim decided to construct the main hall inside a man-made cave. With this change to the main hall, the temple was also renamed to Ilbungsa Temple. This cave is eight metres tall and 1,260 m2 in size. As a result of its sheer size, the main hall that’s inside of the cave at Ilbungsa Temple is the largest Buddhist cave hall in all of Asia, as recognized by Guiness Book of World Records.

When you first arrive at Ilbungsa Temple (일붕사) you’re greeted by a sheer mountain face that the temple rests upon. The left side of the trail that leads up to the temple grounds is lined with various stone statues. And even further up the mountain’s face is a compact courtyard that also houses the temple’s stupas. It’s from this area that you can find the stairs that lead up to the top of the mountain where the temple resides.

The first actual building to greet you at the temple is the Cheonwangmun Gate that also acts as the bell pavilion on the second floor of the structure. Housed inside of the Cheonwangmun are the Four Heavenly Kings that look as fierce as ever. Passing through this gate, you gain admittance to the temple. To your immediate left are the temple’s visitors’ centre and the monks’ dorms. Straight ahead is an apartment looking white building that houses the retiree population at the temple.

It’s to the left that all the important halls at Ilbungsa Temple reside. On the lower courtyard, and as you face the mountain, is a shrine hall dedicated to the founder of the temple. Inside, there’s a painting of him in a golden frame. To the left of this hall is a nine-tier stone pagoda.

Up the stairs that extend over a coy pond, is the upper courtyard. It’s in this upper courtyard that you can see numerous temple halls. To the far left is another residence hall for monks. Perched precariously on the face of the mountain is the Dokseong-gak which houses a large sized statue of Dokseong (The Recluse). To the right of this shrine hall is a small waterfall; unfortunately, when I visited, because it’s been so dry this year, there was no water. And to the right of this is a hall with beautiful latticework on the main doors, and there are also some beautiful paintings of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) around the exterior of this hall, as well. Inside is a rather unique interior. Sitting in the centre is what looks to be Amita-bul. He’s joined by Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). All three of these statues are atypical. They look nothing like the traditional looking Korean statues. And they are surrounded by equally atypical statues of Jijang-bosal on all of the hall’s walls.

One of the real highlights to this temple is the main hall. The main hall is actually inside of a man-made cave. The front façade of the main hall looks like any other main hall building you would see in Korea. It isn’t until you enter that you realize you’re in for something special. The spacious path that leads into the main hall is decorated with stunning murals of the twelve zodiac signs, as well as an amazing dragon mural on the ceiling of the cave entryway. Stepping into the large cave opening that acts as the main hall, you’ll notice three large stone etchings that rest on the main altar. In the middle is a masterfully stone carved relief of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This hall is lined with various paintings and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

The final structure in this upper courtyard is a pavilion that houses a stone statue of Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). In front of this pavilion is the temple’s water fountain with a statue of Yongwang (The Dragon King) inside of this sheltered area. To the left of the Yaksayore-bul shrine is a bronze statue of the founding monk. And in front of this statue are three monkeys that embody the “Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil” idea.

The other amazing aspect to this temple is the golden Geungnak-jeon hall that resides 500 metres behind the main temple grounds. It’s a bit of a hike as the road is almost exclusively up hill. The first sign that you’re close to the hall are the headstones for the recently departed. The golden Geungnak-jeon sits in the centre of a pond, elevated above the water. The hall is surrounded by the Shimu-do murals, and they are expertly rendered. As for the interior, and of little surprise, is a triad of statues that sit on the altar centred by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). He’s flanked by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to the right and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). This triad is surrounded by an ornately decorated red canopy.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll have to get to the city of Uiryeong from wherever you might be residing in Korea. From the Inter-City Bus Terminal, you’ll have to take a taxi to Ilbungsa Temple (일붕사). The ride will last you about 40 minutes (23.7 km) and cost you between 15,000 to 20,000 won.

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OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. This temple is all but unknown in the ex-pat community. However, this hidden gem can’t remain hidden forever. With its amazing cave that acts as the main hall, the waterfall that flows through the middle of the temple grounds, and the golden Geungnak-jeon hall that sits on top of a pond, and you have more than enough reason to visit Ilbungsa Temple.

The mountain face, literally, that greets you at the temple entrance.
The statues that line the path that lead up to the temple grounds.
The two tiered Cheonwangmun Gate and bell pavilion that allow you admittance to the temple grounds.
The pagoda-holding Damun Cheonwang, who is just one of the Four Heavenly Kings.
The shrine hall dedicated to the founding monk at llbungsa Temple.
A look at the nine-tier pagoda in the lower courtyard.
On the rock face, and to the left, is the precariously perched Dokseong-gak.
The waterless waterfall. It’s been a really rainless spring.
A good look at the upper courtyard at Ilbungsa Temple.
The beautiful entrance to the hall for the dead.
Sitting on the altar inside of this hall is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Afterlife) in the centre.
Perhaps the most unique main hall in all of Korea. Inside of this rather ordinary looking main hall is…
A spacious man-made cave. And sitting in the centre of the rock-sculpted main altar is Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy).
On the upper tier of the main courtyard is the San shin-gak and a beautifully sculpted rock of what looks to be Dokseong.
The highly unique San shin painting with both a male and female San shin (Mountain Spirit).
Three monkeys that represent the ideology of “Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.”
The Yaksa-jeon pavilion dedicated to Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha).
A better look at the medicinal Buddha.
The headstones that first welcome you to the outer part of the Geungnak-jeon courtyard.
Your first look at the golden Geungnak-jeon hall.
A better look at the bridge that spans the pond and allows you access to the golden Geungnak-jeon.
The ornately decorated interior and altar inside of the Geungnak-jeon hall. Sitting on the main altar is Amita-bul, who is flanked by Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal. And just like the exterior, the interior is painted a rich golden colour.
To the left rear of the Geungnak-jeon hall is this San shin-gak.
And to the right rear is another bridge that spans the murky pond and allows you access to the Dokseong-gak.

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