The Story of…Donghaksa Temple

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The main hall and courtyard at Donghaksa Temple in Gonju, Chungcheongnam-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

I had first visited Donghaksa Temple, just outside Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, back in 2004. Ever since quickly visiting the temple in the spring of 2004, on a late afternoon day with a friend, I had wanted to go back. The opportunity to revisit this beautifully situated temple came during the summer of 2011.

Unlike the previous time I had visited Donghaksa Temple, the sky was overcast and starting to rain. I was feeling a bit unwell, and the weather certainly wasn’t helping.

The long walk up to the temple was a bit hazardous, as they were just starting to lay the ground work for paving the road. However, during this stage of construction, and because of the rain, the road was nothing more than a massive mud puddle.

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 The beautiful stream that flowed beside the muddy road at Donghaksa Temple.

During our trek up to the temple through the mud, it had been raining on and off. Sometimes it was nothing more than spitting and other times it was a deluge. Having finally arrived at the temple courtyard, we started to explore Donghaksa Temple when the rain rolled in once more. Not only that, but it brought thunder and lightning with it. With umbrella in hand, a la a lightning rod, we quickly took shelter in the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall. Other than the occasional nun that went running by seeking shelter, my wife and I were the only ones crazy enough to visit a temple during a thunderstorm.

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 The downpour as seen from the Samseong-gak.

With all that being said, and if it’s possible for a temple to be romantic, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As the rains beat down all around us, and the thunder and lightning lit up the neighbouring valleys with noise and light, we looked out onto the storm without a care in the world. It was just the two of us, in the eye of a storm, waiting for the storm to pass us by as we hunkered down.

For more information on Donghaksa Temple.

Donghaksa Temple – 동학사 (Gonju, Chungcheongnam-do)

Picture 416The wandering valley that leads up to Donghaksa Temple.

 Hello Again Everyone!!

It had been a long time since I lasted visited Donghaksa Temple in Gongju, and it’s been just as long since I wanted to visit it again. The only difference this time is that it was raining like crazy and the paved road that leads up to the temple was under construction and had been turned into a mud. All the same, it was quite the temple adventure.

Donghaksa Temple (동학사) is beautifully situated in the east valley of Gyeryongsan Mountain. Legend has it that the temple was first built in 724 by the priest Sangwon Josa. Originally, the temple was called Sangwonsa Temple when the monk Heoeu built the pagoda to preserve the remains of his master Sangwon. However, the temple was burnt down in 1754. Fortunately, the temple was rebuilt sixty years later in 1814 by Geumbongworin hwasang. The temple then underwent further rebuilding and reconstruction in 1864 by Boseon seonsa. Originally this temple was built for monks, now it is used for both a study and teaching centre for Buddhist nuns (biguni).  It was the first of such temples in Korea, and in total there are about 150 nuns that study and reside at the temple. When we were there, there were at least ten to fifteen nuns that we saw doing their daily duties of maintaining the temple’s halls and grounds. With this in mind, please be sensitive to the needs of those nuns that make the temple their home.

When you first approach the temple down the heavily constructed main road, you’ll first pass by two hermitages: Mitaam Hermitage and Gilsangam Hermitage. Both are nicely maintained and worth a look if you have the time. Continuing up the trail, and next to the beautiful stream that wanders beside you, you’ll first arrive at a memorial shrine compound that houses three halls. The most prominent of these halls is Sungmo-jeon, which is a hall that was first built in 1456 by the Joseon Dynasty scholar, Kim Shi Seup. He and several other officials refused to shift their loyalty from the deposed boy king, Danjong, who had been usurped by his uncle, King Sejo. Six individuals were killed for attempting to restore Danjong to the throne. This shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The other two shrine halls that exist at this compound are Donggyesa and Sameungak. Donggyesa hall contains the memorial tablet dedicated to Bak Jae Sang who died under the Japanese. This hall was built in 1956. Finally, Sameungak hall is dedicated to the wisest scholars in the country in the 14th century: Jeong Mong Ju, Yi Mokeun Saek, and Gil Yaeun Gae. The hall was first built in 1394.

Continuing up the trail, after a one kilometre walk, you’ll finally come to Donghaksa Temple. The temple and temple grounds are well maintained and beautifully kept.  Straight ahead is the main hall. The main hall is beautifully decorated both inside and out. On the outside of the main hall are the Palsang-do paintings depicting the Historical Buddha’s (Seokgamoni-bul) life. These paintings are beautifully rendered, and it’s the first time that I’ve seen these paintings accompanied by an English explanation to all eight paintings. The highlight of this temple are the gorgeously designed front doors to the main hall. Inside the main hall there is a beautiful triad of Buddhas on the altar with a guardian painting to the right. From the main hall you can get a great view of Munpilbong Peak, which was ghostly in the falling rain. The most impressive hall at the temple is the Samseong-gak hall dedicated to the three Shaman deities. All three, Chilseong(The Seven Stars), Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), are beautifully depicted. There is, however, a fourth addition to the hall, which I’ve never seen at any other temple in Korea. On the left wall, with the crystal lotus flowers, is a painting of Yongwang (The Dragon King). The inside of the hall is also illustrated with various murals that are older looking. There are especially beautiful paintings of phoenixes up on the ceiling that are a bit faded. Next to this hall are extensive halls for the housing and education of all the nuns at the temple. To the right of the main hall is the kitchen area of the temple.  In the courtyard is an older looking pagoda from the Silla Period with a newly constructed base. This pagoda dates back to 723 A.D. Also, there is a garden with various flowers including pots for water lilies. While this temple is smaller in size, it has a refined feminine touch that makes it different than a lot of the temples throughout the rest of Korea.

Admission to the temple is 2,000 won.

For more information on Donghaksa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: The easiest way to get to Donghaksa Temple is to take a bus from Daejeon. You can either take express city bus number 12 from the express bus terminal or Daejeon Station. These buses go through Yuseong city before reaching the park entrance below Donghaksa Temple. You can also take Bus 107 from the Hyeongchungwon Station (Daejeon Subway Line 1, exit 3) if you live in Daejeon.

View 동학사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10. Donghaksa Temple makes for a nice little adventure away from the city life. It definitely has the refined touch of a nunnery to it. Look for the stunningly decorative front doors to the main hall with their various tree designs. Also, the Samseong-gak hall for the Shaman gods is another beautiful aspect to the temple with the beautifully rendered gods and the rare presence of Yongwang, the King of the Sea, amongst the fading phoenixes and crystal lotus flowers. Finally, as you walk up the beautiful valley with the wandering stream, you’ll come across the unique Sungmo-jeon hall that is dedicated to the loyalist of the deposed child-king, Danjong, who were unwilling to shift their loyalty to the usurping king, Sejong. With so many other beautiful temples in the area, including Donghaksa Temple, these temples can make for quite a nice little get away.

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Just one of the beautiful cascades that rolls its way up to Donghaksa Temple.
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The entrance to the memorial shrine halls, the most prominent of which is Sungmo-jeon.
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Inside the courtyard to the three memorial shrine halls just outside Donghaksa Temple.
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The unique water fountain that you can drink from after the one kilometre hike.
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The first building that greets you to the temple is this bell pavilion.
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The main hall at Donghaksa Temple.
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Just some of the beautiful flowers in the temple’s courtyard.
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Just one of the lotus flowers that adds a feminine touch to the temple that is dedicated to nuns.
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A look along the main hall at the dorms at the temple.
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The first painting in the series of Palsang-do murals. Uniquely, these paintings have English explanations on them.
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Inside the main hall is the beautiful triad of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
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The shrine hall, Samseong-gak, is dedicated to three of the Shaman gods common to all major temples in Korea.
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 A painting of Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, inside the shrine hall. This painting has a feminine San shin in front of it.
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This highly unique painting of Yongwang, the Dragon King, can be found in the shrine hall. I’ve never seen a similar painting throughout all of Korea.
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The fading, but beautiful, mural of a phoenix adorning the shrine hall ceiling.
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A look at the main hall from the shrine hall.
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And a look at the nun’s dorms just before the thunder, lightning, and rain rolled in.
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Trapped at the shrine hall as the rain just pours.
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Waiting to be rescued with an umbrella as I look out at the main hall from Samseong-gak hall.
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One last look at the temple courtyard pagoda. The rain had lessened, but it was still falling.