The Story of…Cheontaesa Temple

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The view from the mouth of the waterfall at Cheontaesa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

So often, you’ll go to a temple and it’s packed with people like at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju or Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. For some people, like me, this takes a little bit away from the zen-like feeling I kind of expect at a Korean Buddhist temple. However, expectations aren’t always met by reality.

Fortunately, there are temples and hermitages outside the sphere of touristy trappings in Korea. There are more of these less frequented temples than I can even count with numerous halls and unique features to both enjoy and experience.

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The beautiful grounds at Cheontaesa Temple

For me, the closest zen-like feeling, or seon-like feeling if you’re Korean, that I’ve experienced at a Korean temple was at Cheontaesa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Bored one day, I decided to visit an out of the way temple that’s at a bend in the road. Seldom visited, least of all by expats, I was able to enjoy the temple primarily to myself.

There are numerous halls, paintings, and shrines to be enjoyed at Cheontaesa Temple like the large sized Dokseong-gak Hall, the well populated Cheonbul-jeon Hall, and the unique shrine dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King). Also, there is a massive relief dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that must stand well over ten metres in height. This relief is joined by a neighbouring stream that runs up against a Buddhist cemetery.

But the real highlight, and where I had my “moment,” is at Yongnyeon Falls. The falls flow about a fifteen to twenty minute hike up a valley. This hike is a bit treacherous at times; in fact, you’ll need to repel up a few boulders using a thick rope to get there. But when you do finally get to the falls, and climb all the way up the brown staircase, you’ll be standing right next to the mouth of the falls.

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The boulders you’ll have to climb to get to the falls.

Amazingly, you can climb down a precarious set of rocks to stand right next to where the water goes over the falls and takes the twenty metre plunge. There’s a rock bed at the top of the falls, where you can take a bit of a breather. It’s also from these heights that you get an amazing view of the valley down below, where Cheontaesa Temple rests, as well as the jagged surrounding cliffs from Mt. Cheontaesan. Everything is simply perfect from this vantage point. And it’s from here, while simply enjoying the view, that I had my zen-like moment. It’s really hard to even describe, and I think words would cheapen the experience. It was really something amazing and indescribable to feel.

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The somewhat dehydrated Yongnyeon Falls, where I had my zen-like moment.

Suffice it to say, it was a pretty unique moment I had at the mouth of the waterfall, looking down from its heights, as the water poured out into the valley below. I’ve had a few other moments like these, but certainly nothing quite as strong as my experience at Cheontaesa Temple.

For more on Cheontaesa Temple.

Samgwangsa Temple – 삼광사 (Busanjin-gu, Busan)

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 The beautiful Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Samgwangsa Temple is built on the side of Mt. Baekyangsan in Busan. Samgwangsa Temple falls under the Cheontae Order in Korean Buddhism.  Specifically, the temple is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).  It was established in 1983, and it’s been added onto ever since.

But don’t let the relatively youthful age of the temple fool you. While the temple lacks in age, it quickly makes up for it in colour and artistry. When you first arrive at the temple, you’ll be greeted by a set of massive buildings. To your immediate right is a large building that is used for various temple activities like lessons and classes. Next to this large structure is the temple’s bell pavilion. This bell pavilion is meant for the national security and welfare of Korea. Inside this two storied bell pavilion is a massive three and a half metre tall bronze bell that took three years to complete. It’s rung at both dawn and dusk ceremonies.

To the left, as you stand in the temple courtyard, is another temple hall. This hall is an assembly hall that can house over 10,000 people at once. The name of this hall is Jikwan-jeon hall. The hall houses prayer rooms, a library, a Buddhist college, and a room that enshrines the images of ten thousand Buddhas. Interestingly, there’s also a room that you can stay in overnight so that you can pray anytime of the day.

Up the hill, and overlooking the Jikwan-jeon shrine hall, is the Jijang-jeon shrine hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion), which was completed in 1996. Unfortunately, this two storied building is made of concrete, which takes a bit away from the natural feeling of a more traditional Korean-style Buddhist temple. The exterior of this hall is painted, once more, with some highly original and interesting paintings like paintings dedicated to what looks to be Wonhyo-daesa, as well as a set of beautiful floating Biseon. The second floor houses the hall where Jijang-bosal and the Ten Kings of the Underworld reside. Without a doubt, this hall is one of the most beautiful and ornately decorated Jijang-jeon shrine halls in all of Korea. Sitting on the main altar is a large jade statue of Jijang-bosal, and he’s surrounded by ten equally large statues of the Ten Kings of the Underworld that are backed by paintings of the worlds they rule over in the Buddhist underworld. Finally, there’s a gorgeous golden Dragon Ship of Wisdom that is suspended from the ceiling.

Next to the Jijang-jeon is a new pagoda looking shrine hall, which will be a Geungnak-jeon when it’s completed, and it will be dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Unfortunately, this building will also be made of concrete. From the vantage point of these two shrine halls on the hillside, you can get a great look at the entire temple complex and the neighbouring mountains.

Finally, as you look straight across the courtyard when you first arrive, you’ll notice the main hall that is flanked to the right by a stunning nine-tier pagoda. The main hall is painted with some beautiful Palsang-do and Shimu-do paintings. Also, there are some beautiful and fierce-looking Nathwi painted below the main entrance doors at the hall. Sitting on the main altar inside the expansive main hall is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre. He’s flanked by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to his left and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul) to his right. Resting on the left wall is a guardian woodcarving, and on the right wall is an ornate woodcarving dedicated to Jijang-bosal.

Next to the main hall, and really the main highlight to the temple, is the nine-tier Daebo Pagoda. This pagoda stands thirty metres tall, and it’s topped with a gold plated lotus flower. On the base are the twelve zodiac animals, and above them are the eight scenes from the Historical Buddha’s life. Surrounding the body of the pagoda are 53 sculptures of Buddhas. This pagoda rests in a stone alcove. Carved on this stone alcove are various protective guardians and Nathwi sculptures. The most impressive aspect of this pagoda, other than its imposing size and artistry, is that it enshrines ten relics of the Buddha; seven from Myanmar and three more from the Dalai Lama himself. Admission to Samgwangsa Temple is free, and it’s open 24 hours daily.

HOW TO GET THERE:  If you’re not a local to the area, Samgwangsa Temple can be gotten to in one of two ways.  The easiest, but more expensive, is to take a taxi from downtown Seomyeon.  It should be about 5,000 won. The other way to get to the temple is by taking bus 44, 63, 81, 83-1, 103, 112, 133, or 201. With one of these buses, you should get off at Seongyeong apartments. Also, bus #15 from Yeong-gwang bookstore (영광도서) in Seomyeon goes directly to the temple. As you come out of the subway, there is an exit with a long escalator that leads up to the bookstore.

OVERALL RATING:  8.5/10.  For just the pagoda and masonry alone that surround it, Samgwangsa Temple is worth the 8.5 out of 10 rating.  But when you include the beautiful paintings on all of the buildings (especially the main hall), the Jijang-jeon interior, and the bell tower, you will quickly understand why Samgwangsa Temple is so highly rated and loved by people that visit this modern temple. If you can, I would highly recommend visiting Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha’s Birthday, because as ornate and colourful as this temple is everyday, it is over the top colourful and ornate during Buddha’s Birthday in May. And the 8.5 rating quickly becomes a ten out of ten on Buddha’s special day.

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A look at the main hall at Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.
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The exterior walls that surround the main hall are adorned with these Palsang-do murals, as well as Ox-Herding murals.
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The triad that sits on the main altar. In the centre sits Seokgamoni-bul. He’s joined to the right and left by Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal.
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The guardian relief to the left of the main altar.
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And the Jijang-bosal relief to the right of the main altar.
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The massive nine-tier Daebo pagoda to the right of the main hall.
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It’s surrounded by this stone enclave of guardians, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas.
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A better look at one of the guardians.
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Just below the massive pagoda is the massive bell at Samgwangsa Temple.
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The view of the temple from the Myeongbu-jeon Hall.
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The main altar inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall with an all white granite statue of Jijang-bosal  adorning the ornate interior.
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Just two of the beautifully decorated Ten Kings of the Underworld inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall.
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The golden vessel and mural that carry the dead to the next life.
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A look down at the temple courtyard during Buddha’s birthday.
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A look at just a handful of paper lanterns that adorn the entire grounds at Samgwangsa Temple.
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And a few hundred more, of the thousands, that commemorate Buddha’s birthday.
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The neon blue and purple dragons that light up the night sky at Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha’s birthday.
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Under a canopy of paper lanterns, and next to the massive Daebo pagoda, a couple walks.
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And one last look at the colourful Samgwangsa Temple during Buddha birthday celebrations.