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.

Cheontaesa Temple – 천태사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

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The beautiful view of the valley that houses Cheontaesa Temple from the head of Yongnyeon Falls.

Hello Again Everyone!!

It was only by chance that I even found Cheontaesa Temple here in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. I was originally trying to find another temple on the Yangsan website,, when I found Cheontaesa Temple on the south western outskirts of the Yangsan city map. And it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The name Cheontaesa Temple (천태사) comes from the Cheontae Buddhist order that was established in the area during the 7th century. Also, Cheontaesa Temple is situated on the southern side of Cheontaesan Mountain, which also aids in the naming of the temple.

When you first approach the temple from Local Road 1022, you’ll make your way past some of the temple facilities like the washroom. Walk up the 500 metre long road, which also acts as an entry way to Cheontaesan Mountain, until you arrive at the temple’s office. The first thing that will greet you to the temple is a beautiful two-tiered bell pavilion that also acts as the entrance way to the temple as well. Passing under the bell pavilion, you’ll also pass by the painted Four Heavenly Kings, Cheonwang, that protect the temple from any evil spirits that rest on the walls under the temple’s bell.

 Immediately to your left is a shrine hall dedicated to the Shaman spirit, Dokseong (The Recluse). This is a highly unique hall as Dokseong is usually housed with two other Shaman Spirits: San shin (The Mountain god) and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). But this temple is a little different than other temples in Korea, as there is a greater emphasis given to the shaman gods.

To your immediate left you’ll see some of the monk dorms. At this time, you’ll also be able to see the second level of the bell pavilion. There’s a smaller sized bell in a wide open pavilion that you can see up close. A little further up the temple road, and next to the shrine hall dedicated to Dokseong, is the Nahan-jeon Hall. This hall is dedicated to the disciples of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). On the altar of this hall sits Seokgamoni-bul. And all around him sit 500 of his Nahan disciples. Just be aware, when you first walk into this hall, there’s a large guardian immediately in front of you when you open the hall’s door. I was completely surprised when I saw this, and nearly wet my paints. So be aware!

Straight ahead is the main hall. The exterior of the main hall is adorned with some nicely painted murals of the Palsang-do paintings (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). Inside the hall, you’ll meet all of the most popular Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas inside like Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) that sits in the centre of a triad upon the altar. On the left wall is a walled off area that acts as a shrine for the dead. Above the entry on the left side of the wall, understandably, is a painting of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). To the right of the walled-off shrine for the dead is a painting of Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) riding his white elephant. And on the right side of the main hall is a large sized guardian painting. Above the entry is a painting of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And next to the guardian painting is a beautiful rendering of Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). As I said, the main hall at Cheontaesa Temple is packed with all the most popular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Korea.

Out in front of the main hall, and to the right, is a little shrine dedicated to Yongwang, the King of the Sea. The figure is serenely standing with a stone dragon’s head spouting out water beneath him. Behind this shrine and the main hall, and still to the right, is a hall dedicated to two more Shaman gods, this time it’s San shin and Chilseong. The exterior of the hall is plainly painted. When you enter this hall, you’ll first be greeted by Chilseong who sits on the right side of the altar and then by San shin, who sits on the left. Both paintings are beautifully rendered and have accompanying statues that sit on the shrine hall’s altar.

There’s a lot of newer construction going on at this temple like the rocks that are being broken on the neighbouring left side of the mountain. It looks like another shrine will be created to match the one that lies on the right side of the temple grounds. To the right is an amazingly beautiful black sculpture of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) that is accompanied by two Bodhisattvas. The sculptures are sculpted out of the side of the Cheontaesan Mountain face. And these large 10 metre tall sculptures have a beautiful large red canopy that rests over their heads, and there are numerous headstones for those that are buried at the temple. As you first approach this graveyard, of sorts, you’ll be welcomed by an older looking Podae-hwasang statue that looks out on the mountains and valleys around you. Also, from this vantage point, you have a birds-eye view of all the temple buildings.

And if that wasn’t already enough, you can also explore Yongnyeon Falls that lays a further 15 to 20 minutes up the valley. The Falls are directly behind the temple; however, there are no signs to guide you. You’ll have to just keep heading up the temple road until it ends. You’ll have to climb a pretty rough trail of large rocks, so please be careful because it’s tough going in parts. There are some red spray painted arrows that guide you in the right direction so be aware of them. The best time to visit Yongnyeon Falls is in the spring. You can climb right up to the head of the Falls and look directly down into the gorge below; but again, practice restraint and caution. On the right day you can sit and catch a beautiful breeze from the height of the Falls. The view of the valley below and the gray faced boulders that make up Cheontaesan Mountain are breath-taking. So take your time and enjoy the relaxing view.

For more information on Cheontaesa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: You can reach Cheontaesa Temple and Yongnyeon Falls after going along Local Road 1022 by car or bus for 15 minutes from Wondong Station. From the gated entrance the temple is only 3 minutes away, and the Falls are another 15 to 20 minutes up the trail.

View 천태사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 7/10. While this temple is difficult to get to, it’s worth the effort to find. This temple is a bit different than most in that it houses a lot more shaman gods like Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Recluse), San shin (The Mountain Spirit), and Yongwang (The King of the Sea), while having very few halls for either Buddhas or Bodhisattvas other than the main hall. The large sculpture of Amita-bul, and the beautiful Yongnyeon Falls that lies directly behind Cheontaesa Temple, make this temple an amazing find.

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A view of the two-storied bell pavilion that first greets you at Cheontaesa Temple.
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The view of the temple that welcomes you to Cheontaesa Temple as you pass through the lower level of the bell pavilion.
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The shrine hall that houses the statue of Dokseong (The Recluse).
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And a look inside the Dokseong shrine hall with a statue of the namesake on the main altar.
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A look up as you continue to approach the main hall. On the left is the Nahan-jeon Hall with 500 statues of the Buddha’s followers inside.
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A look at one of the paintings adorning the Nahan-jeon Hall.
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And a look inside the Nahan-jeon Hall with a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) at the centre of the main hall. On the far right is a guardian statue that nearly made me have an accident.
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Continuing up the temple trail is the main courtyard at Cheontaesa Temple. On the left is the main hall, in the centre is a shaman shrine hall, and to the right is a shrine dedicated to Yongwang, the shaman King of the Sea.
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A look at one of the Palsang-do paintings that adorns the main hall. In this painting, the Buddha is being tempted by Mara and his three daughters. This painting is unique because it actually depicts Mara, and not just his daughters.
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The altar inside the main hall with a statue of Seokgamoni-bul at the centre of the triad.
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On the left wall, above the entrance, is this painting o Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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And on the right wall, beside the guardian painting, is this depiction of Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) riding his blue lion.
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A better look at the shrine dedicated to Yongwang, the King of the Sea. He is standing above a dragon head that spouts out mountain water.
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Inside the Shaman shrine hall are paintings and statues dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars) on the right, and Sanshin (The Mountain god) on the left.
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A look at the temple from behind the main hall.
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To the right of the temple compound, and up the embankment, is this massive sculpture of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). If you look at the light post on the far right, it’s about 2 metres tall to give you a bit of perspective.
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A look down the row of Buddhist headstones up at the towering mountain and the continuing valley that the temple rests in.
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A look up at Cheontaesan Mountain beside a stone sculpture of Podae-hwasang.
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And the trail that eventually leads you to the top of Yongnyeon Falls.
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Finally, a look up at Yongnyeon Falls after a 15 minute hike up a very treacherous and rocky trail.
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A look across the valley floor that the falls descend down.
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And a look up at the towering gray edifice that is Cheontaesan Mountain.
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And one last look down at the valley below with Cheontaesa Temple off in the distance from the head of Yongnyeon Falls.