The bell design that memorializes the significance that Baeknyulsa Temple has on the history Korean Buddhism.
Hello Again Everyone!!
Unlike most temples or hermitages in Korea, Baeknyulsa Temple in Gyeongju, on Mt. Sogeumgangsan, is vital to the birth of Buddhism in Korea. Originally, the temple was called Jachusa Temple, and can be found in the historically important text: the Samgukyusa. In English, “Ja” means pine seeds, while “chu” means chestnut. Not long after the temple was named Jachusa Temple was it changed to Baeknyulsa Temple. It was common at that time in Korean history, during the Silla Period, that if a temple had the same sound or meaning, the whole temple name could change. With this in mind, “Baek,” in English, means pine seeds, while “yul” means chestnut. So the name of the temple, Baeknyulsa Temple, means Pine Seeds and Chestnut Temple, in English.
Historically, and drawing on the vital importance of the temple’s importance to the growth of Buddhism in Korea, is the story that revolves around the death of Ichadon (이차돈), (501-527 A.D.).
During the early reign of King Beopheung (r. 514-540 A.D.) wanted to establish Buddhism as the state religion in the Silla Kingdom. However, state officials opposed him. Finally, in the 527, Ichadon, who just so happened to be a monk, as well as an advisor to the king, came up with a way to circumnavigate court opposition. Ichadon and King Beopheung came up with a plan, whereby Ichadon would suggest that the king had officially granted that Buddhism would become the state religion. Of course, the king would deny this. By denying this, Ichadon would accept the punishment of death for such treacherous behaviour. Before his execution, Ichadon prophesied to the king that a wonderful miracle would occur at his execution that would convince the court of the power of Buddhism. Ultimately, the court did see Ichadon’s supposed act of treason as that: treason. As a result, he was sentenced to death. At his execution, the earth shook and the sun darkened, while beautiful flowers fell from the sky, as Ichadon was beheaded. Ichadon’s head flew all the way to Mt. Sogeumgangsan, as milk poured forth 100 feet in the air from his neck, instead of blood. Ichadon prophecy was seen to be fulfilled, and the power of Buddhism was accepted as the state religion of the Silla Kingdom in 527 A.D. Ichadon’s body followed its head, and Ichadon was buried on Mt. Sogeumgangsan. And it’s around this burial site that Baeknyulsa Temple was established. Unfortunately, the size and scope of the temple was greatly reduced during the Imjin War (1592-99), when the temple complex was heavily damaged. The temple was reconstructed during the reign of King Seonjo (r. 1567 to 1608). Now, there are only four structures that stand at Baeknyulsa Temple: the main hall, the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall, the monks’ dorms, and the bell pavilion.
You can approach Baeknyulsa Temple in one of two ways, which is situated about 300 metres up Mt. Sogeumgangsan behind the four-sided Buddha sculpture. The first way you can go is to the left, up the path, and through a bamboo grove. That, or you can take a steep set of side-winding stairs to the right of the temple complex. If you go to the left, you’ll approach the main hall from the rear; and if you approach from the right, you’ll approach the main hall from the front.
Approach from the stairs, you’ll see Baeknyulsa Temple appear over the folds and forest of the mountain. Having gained the temple courtyard. You’ll notice the bell pavilion to the left, and the monks’ dorms are to the rear of the bell pavilion. Have a close look at the bell inside the bell pavilion, because it has an image of the miraculous beheading of Ichadon on it.
To the right of the bell pavilion, and up a small set of stairs, is the main hall at the temple. The exterior walls are all but unadorned, all but for the dancheong traditional colours. As for the interior, and sitting on the main hall, you’ll see a triad centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined to the right and left by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). All three appear under a large unpainted, all natural, canopy. To the right, and rather interestingly, is a compact shrine with statues and paintings dedicated to the Nahan. And to the left of the main altar is a fierce guardian mural, as well as a elegant painting of Ichadon that sits in the corner.
Behind the main hall, and a up a long set of stairs, is the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. The exterior walls are adorned with Shinseon (Daoist Immortals), as well as an intense mountainside tiger. As for the interior, there are three large sized paintings of shaman deities. In the centre is an understated painting of Chilseong (The Seven Stars). He’s joined to the right by a rather relaxed looking Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). And to the left is Dokseong (The Recluse), who sits under a large sized red pine).
If you’re so inclined, and from the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall, you can make your way up the rest of the mountain to the top of Mt. Sogeumgangsan, which stands a very reasonable 280 metres in height. At the top of the mountain, which is little with beautiful boulders, is a guard post for mountain fire prevention. It’s also from this mountain that you get a stunning view of downtown Gyeongju, as well as the neighbouring Mt. Namsan off in the distance.
HOW TO GET THERE: The easiest way to get to Baeknyulsa Temple is to take a taxi from the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. It’ll take 13 minutes, but it’ll cost you around 5,000 won. The cheaper way to get there is to take city bus # 70 from out in front of the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. However, the bus ride will take about 40 minutes to get to the temple parking lot. From the temple parking lot, you’ll have to walk about 500 metres up a steep path, and past Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site, to get to Baeknyulsa Temple.
OVERALL RATING: 7/10. For its importance in the spread of Buddhism in the Silla Kingdom, but its future influence in the spread of Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula for generations and millennia to come, Baeknyulsa Temple rates as high as it does. Add into the mix the beautiful bell that memorializes Ichadon’s sacrifice, the unique Nahan shrine inside the main hall, as well as the gorgeous views from the top of Mt. Sogeumgangsan, and you know why this little known temple is a must in the Gyeongju area for any temple adventurer.