Golgulsa Temple -골굴사 (Gyeongju)

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The impressive 9th century Seokgamoni Buddha sculpture with pockmarked caves surrounding it.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Manbulsa Temple had been on that list of temples I had wanted to visit in the four and a half years I’ve lived in Korea, but because of the difficulty of getting to them, I never got to visit.  Golgulsa Temple (골굴사) in Gyeongju was another one of these temples. So another temple that had been on the list of hard to reach temples was checked off yesterday.

Golgulsa Temple (“Bone Cave Temple) is located in a narrow valley on Mount Hamwol. The temple dates back to the 6th century.  It was first built out of solid rock by Saint Kwang Yoo and his followers from India. Golgulsa Temple is known for two things: Seonmudo (zen martial arts) and a 20 foot tall stone carving of the Seokgamoni Buddha (The Historical Buddha). The practice of Seonmudo dates back to Silla Dynasty, when the priests Won’gwang and Wonhyo taught the martial art of mind and body to an elite corp of military personnel. Seonmudo was passed on from generation to generation until it was finally surpressed by Japanese colonizers during their occupation from 1910-1945. Finally, in the 1970’s, Seonmudo was revived under the watchful eye of the head monk Yangik. Training people started in the 1980’s.  And in 1990, a practice studio was built for monks and people to learn the ancient martial art. Free demonstrations are given daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The other key attraction at Golgulsa Temple, and what has historically drawn more people to the temple, is the 20 foot tall depiction of Seokgamoni Buddha (The Historical Buddha) on a mountainside rock face. This sculpture dates back to the 9thcentury during the Silla Dynasty.

As you first approach the temple from the highway, you’ll first encounter the unimposing gate. Continuing up this road, you’ll come across the dorm for the temple stay and the parking lot.  To the right is the practice facility for Seonmudo.  And the day we went, it was busy with foreigners coming in and out of the building.  It’s good to see that Seonmudo is doing so well! To get to the actual temple, you’ll have to continue up a winding road that runs on an increasingly elevated pitch. Half way up this road, you’ll encounter the monk dorm: this will be the first time you’ll be able to see the Seokgamoni Buddha sculpture off in the distance and under the Plexiglas and steel protective casing. A little further up the road, and a little more out of breath, you’ll finally come to the base of the temple. Looking straight up from where you stand, you’ll see a pagoda to the far left, the main hall slightly to the left, and a maze of caves pock marked throughout the limestone face of the mountain.  This maze includes the statue of the Historical Buddha. Trekking up the long staircase, you can either turn left or right. Left will bring you to the main hall and right will bring you to the Seokgamoni Buddha statue. Take your time, and first stop off at the main hall.  The main hall has a beautiful view of the valley below.  Also, there are numerous uniquely illustrated paintings adorning the exterior of the newly built main hall which highlight the temple’s affiliation with Seonmudo. After you’ve got your fill of the main hall, finally make your way up through the limestone maze of smaller sized caves.  In total, there is said to be twelve of these caves. The first of these caves is dedicated to the Mountain God: San Shin, as well as another shrine to its immediate right. A little further up on the rock face is a shrine dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). At a plateau, there is a worship hall in one of the larger caves on the limestone rock face. This shrine is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The  Bodhisattva of Compassion). Now, get ready for some hand over hand rope climbing to get to the 20 foot tall sculpture of the Seokgamoni Buddha. Through a limestone “O” ring, you’ll make your way along a narrow passage way and then finally up to the sculpture.  Make sure you bring comfortable and sure of foot shoes as this route is a bit tricky. Finally, at the top of the mountain, you’ll have both a great view of the valley below and the awe-inspiring Seokgamoni Buddha from the 9th century. The sculpture is protected by a small rock overhang and a Plexiglas protective casing. The years haven’t been all that kind to the statue as flakes of it have fallen off throughout the years. It’s an amazing sight to be had! Finally, when you’re ready to make your way down, be just as careful, as it’s just as tricky on the way up as it is on the way down. To the left of the main hall, and perched on an opening, is a strange looking pagoda symbolic of the Seonmudo order of martial arts. From here, you can get some great pictures of the entire rock-face and main hall.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll have to get to Gyeongju.  From Gyeongju, you can take either bus 100 or 150 that goes towards Gampo. You can catch this bus across from the intercity bus terminal. Get off at the Andong-ri intersection and walk the 20 minutes to the temple entrance.  Keep your eyes open as there are only a couple signs that mark the way to Golgulsa Temple. And it’s free to get into Golgulsa Temple.

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OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10. Golgulsa Temple truly blew me away.  It’s rare when I’m actually that impressed by a temple. But Golgulsa Temple is an impressive temple to visit. You can spend a night at the temple for 50,000 Won and participate in the ancient martial art of Seonmudo. Or, you can visit the impressive caves and 20 foot tall Seokgamoni Buddha that stands at the top of the mountain at Golgulsa Temple. Either way, you’re sure to be inspired when you visit. I highly, highly recommend this lesser known temple in Gyeongju!

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The entrance gate at Golgulsa Temple.
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The practice hall for Seonmudo at the temple.
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The jovial dharma that sits in the parking lot as you continue your ascent towards the main hall and sculpture. Picture 011
The monk’s dorm with the Seokgomani Buddha off in the distance (top left).
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Finally, at the base of the rock face. To the left is the main hall and to the right is the ancient sculpture of the Historical Buddha.
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A look to the right at the ancient stone sculpture of The Historical Buddha.
Picture 044A look to the left is the uniquely painted main hall at Golgulsa Temple.
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One of the unique paintings linking the temple with its Seonmudo past, present and future.
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A Seonmudo martial artist that’s as light as a crane.
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An extremely unique painting that combines the life of the Historical Buddha and the central sign for Seonmudo (you’ll see it again in pagoda form).
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The journey towards enlightenment.
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A painting depicting the harmonization of the mind and the body through Seonmudo.
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The main altar piece at the main hall at Golgulsa Temple.
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Another monstrous creation that hangs on the walls inside the main hall. It’s a lot like the black creature at Garamsa Temple in Yangsan.
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The shrine for Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit.
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A pantheon of Buddhas, centred by Jijang Bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), in a rock outcropping.
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A shrine hall formed around a cave.
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 Inside is a a statue of Gwanseheum Bosal (The Bodhisattva of mercy) with smaller statues perched on natural cave outcroppings.
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 The view of the valley below from on top of the shrine hall dedicated to Gwanseheum Bosal.
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 Finally, at the top of the mountain: the 9th century statue of the Historical Buddha is awe-inspiring.
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A closer look at the statue reveals stones slowly flaking away upon its breast.
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As was mentioned earlier, the pagoda that symbolizes the Seonmudo martial arts.
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And one last look at the main hall with the pock-marked limestone caves and the 9th century stone statue of the Historical Buddha.