The Story Of…Seondosa Temple

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The famous Amita-bul sculpture at Seondosa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

This past spring, I had the great opportunity, and fortune, to travel around the western part of Gyeongju with David Mason and his friend. We visited temples, hermitages, shrines, and tombs. We even enjoyed a nice lunch together. But what we were unable to do was visit the peak of Mt. Seondosan. We travelled all around it, but the day was drawing to a close when we finally got around to it. So to make up for it, I finally found myself in Gyeongju again this past fall to hike up Mt. Seondosan.

There are numerous ways that you can hike to the top of Mt. Seondosan, but I chose the trail that is on the eastern face of the mountain. In fact, there are two trails on this eastern side of Mt. Seondosan. To be clear, I chose the wrong one, which will become clearer soon.

In total, the hike up to the top of Mt. Seondosan, and Seondosa Temple in turn, is a kilometer in length. You’ll first start off just west of four tombs, one of which is the famed King Jinheung’s tomb. While walking this trail, you’ll pass by numerous tombs and a scorched landscape laid bare by a recent forest fire. There are quite a few places you can catch your breath during the hike up to the top of Mt. Seondosan, which stands at 390 metres in height. Take your time and enjoy some amazing views of this haunting landscape, but don’t do what I did when taking a rest. As I lowered myself onto a burnt out log, I accidentally put my hand in a bush of thistles. Ya, ouch!

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An eerie picture from where I put my hand in the thistles

However, as haunting, and painful, as this landscape is in parts, it was also hard to travel because the trail has become overgrown with bushes and fallen debris. The kilometer hike to the top of Mt. Seondosan felt at least double the initial length.

It wasn’t until I got to the top of the mountain, just below Seondosa Temple, that a four-wheel motorcycle went speeding by me on a narrow dirt road. Onboard this bike was an older Korean man and woman, who waved to me as they parked at Seondosa Temple. Before I had even seen them as they turned the corner, I was kicking myself for not having taken this much easier dirt road; instead, I had chosen the much harder bushwhacking trail. Usually, I do a lot of research into a temple before I visit it, but there was so little out there to help me this time. Doh!

I guess the moral of this story is look before you leap. But then again, the adventure is part of the journey.

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One last look at the completely disfigured face of Amita-bul

Seondosa Temple/King Jinheung’s Tomb – 선도사/진흥왕릉 (Gyeongju)

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 The triad of statues that you can find at Seondosa Temple in western Gyeongju.

Hello Again Everyone!!

This weekend, I decided to head back to Mt. Seondosan to visit Seondosa Temple. Originally, it had been part of the plan the day I toured around Gyeongju with David Mason; but it was late in the day, so it was scrapped for another day. Well, that other day turned out to be this past weekend.

Mt. Seondosan, which is on the western part of Gyeongju, was regarded as the Pure Land in Korean Buddhism by the Silla people. This was especially true of the peak area of the mountain, which is where Seondosa Temple is located.

You first approach the trail head area of the climb just north of four royal tombs, one of which is the Silla king’s, King Jinheung (more on him later). There are in fact two trail heads, one to the left and one to the right. I would suggest the much easier road trail to the right; but unfortunately (and unknowingly), I took the much tougher left trail. In total, the hike to the top of Mt. Seondosan, which stands 390 metres tall, is about a kilometer in length. However, if you take the overgrown trail, like me, it will seem twice that distance. As you take this trail, which leads past several laypeople’s tombs, you’ll quickly notice that much of the landscape has been scorched by a recent fire. This has made the mountain landscape haunting in parts.

When you finally do get to the top of the mountain, with whichever trail that you’ve taken, you’ll be greeted by a wall of buildings. The very first building of the set is the Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall, which lies between a storage building and the monks’ dorms. This building looks a lot like the storage shed beside it, but don’t be fooled because there are three highly original paintings inside of this building. The first of the set, and the one hanging in the centre, is a Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) mural. In the painting, there is a large ferocious tiger looking over Sanshin’s shoulder. And both Sanshin and the tiger are joined by a pair of white cranes and red pine trees. To the left of the Sanshin mural is probably the most original Yongwang (The Dragon King) mural I have yet to see at a Korean temple. Yongwang is joined by a pair of attendants and a pair of expressive dragons that swirl around in the mural. The final mural of the set lies to the right and is dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars).

Past the monks’ dorms lies the diminutive main hall at Seondosa Temple. Unfortunately, this hall was locked when I visited, so I was unable to see inside. But to the left of the main hall, and just around the corner, is the real highlight to Seondosa Temple: the Buddha Image Carved on the Rock Surface in Seoak-dong, Gyeongju.

This large rock triad is centred by a highly disfigured Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). In total, this central figure stands in relief at 6.85 metres in height. The face of Amita-bul has been split on either side (not sure if this was on purpose or through age), and Amita-bul’s face is now shaped like a V. In fact, Amita-bul’s entire body is well worn and almost indistinguishable in parts. Amita-bul is joined to the left by a crowned Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Like Amita-bul, Gwanseeum-bosal is damaged on its left side. To the right stands Daesaeji-bosal (The Power and Wisdom of Amita-bul). Of the three statues, Daesaeji-bosal is the least damaged of the lot. It’s believed the triad dates back to the 7th century.

A bit smarter, and more aware, I decided to take the road trail back down the mountain. This allowed for some more amazing, yet haunting, views of Mt. Seondosan. When you finally do get near the base of the mountain, you’ll come across four royal tombs. The first, and perhaps most important tomb, as you make your way down the mountain, is King Jinheung’s tomb. King Jinheung reigned from 540 to 576 A.D., and he was the 24th king during the Silla Kingdom. King Jinheung was a strong advocate of Buddhism. He did this so he could strengthen the nation. He also founded the famed hwarang, who were a group of warrior youths. King Jinheung also annexed the neighbouring Gaya Kingdom, which further expanded Silla territory. The tomb itself measures 20 metres in diameter and 5.8 metres tall. And out in front of the tomb are two memorial tablets dedicated to the prominent king, King Jinheung.

For more on Seondosa Temple.

HOW TO GET THERE: First, you’ll need to get to Gyeongju, if you want to see Seondosa Temple. From the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal, you can catch a taxi to get to the east side of Mt. Seondosan and Seondosa Temple. The taxi will cost you about 4,000 won, and it’ll take about 10 minutes. From where the taxi drops you off, you should be able to see the trail head markers that lead you towards Seondosa Temple. Take the road trail that is a much easier kilometre hike than the bushwhacking trail I took.


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OVERALL RATING: 6/10. While a bit of a trek to get to, Seondosa Temple has a beautiful and ancient triad of reliefs waiting for you. The highly disfigured reliefs are unique in their own right, and different from most anything you’ll see in all of Gyeongju. Add to it the highly original shaman paintings and the view, and you’ll have a good reason to make the kilometre hike. Then, when you take into consideration the rest that Mt. Seondosan has to offer, like King Jinheung’s tomb, you’ll have an even better reason to visit this little traveled part of Gyeongju.

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 A kilometre that way to Seondosa Temple.

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 The golden fall colours of Mt. Seondosan.

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 And the haunting remains of a forest fire on Mt. Seondosan.

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Nearing the peak of Mt. Seondosan with a combination of burnt trees and autumn colours.

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The first view of Seondosa Temple.

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Both the triad of statues and the main hall at Seondosa Temple.

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A closer look at the triad of statues with Amita-bul in the centre joined by Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal on either side.

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An up close and personal with the fractured Amita-bul.

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The view from the main hall down onto Gyeongju below.

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The storage shed-looking Samseong-gak shaman shrine hall at Seondosa Temple.

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Inside the Samseong-gak, and rather uniquely, this Sanshin painting hangs in the centre on the main altar.

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To the left is this highly expressive painting of Yongwang.

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The much easier road trail that leads to the base of the mountain.

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Along the way, you’ll come across the tomb of King Jinheung (to the right).

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The memorial tablets that rest in front of King Jinheung’s tomb.

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 One last look before completing the decent.