Now and Then: Silsangsa Temple

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A look at Silsangsa Temple from the turn of the last century.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Silsangsa Temple is located in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do, and it was first established in 828 A.D. by the monk Jeunggak (Hongcheok). The name of the temple means, in English, “True Nature Temple.” In the early 800s, Hongcheok traveled to Tang China with Monk Doui to learn more about Buddhism. After a time, they returned to the Korean peninsula after both were certified in the new Seon (Zen) lineage. It was at this time that Hongcheok was named a National Master (Guksa) by the Silla king. In the same year as the temple’s creation, Hongcheok established the Silsang-sanmun, or the “True Nature Mountain Gate,” in English, as one of the Nine Mountain Schools. The reason that he decided to build Silsangsa Temple on the northern part of Mt. Jirisan was based on geomantic principles. Hongcheok believed that if he didn’t build a temple on this site that Korea’s spiritual energy would flow over and into Japan. Around the same time, Master Doui similarly constructed Borimsa Temple, which was another member of the Nine Mountain Schools (Gajisan). After the establishment of Silsangsa Temple, Master Hongcheok continued to spread the new Seon teachings throughout the Silla Kingdom. Uniquely, Silsangsa Temple is founded on an open plain and not up in the mountains like a lot of Korean temples. Currently, it’s surrounded on most sides by farmers’ fields.

Throughout the years, the temple has been renovated, re-built, and destroyed. In the early 900s, Silsangsa Temple was expanded under royal order according to the geomantic advice of master Doseon. Tragically, the temple was destroyed in 1597 by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-98). Slowly, the temple was rebuilt, when in 1684 the Geukrak-jeon was restored. Eventually, the temple complex would grow large enough to house thirty-six buildings by 1700. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the temple faced a period of decline, as well as a destructive fire. In fact, the temple was completely destroyed by fire in 1882. After this fire, the temple was restored to its current, much smaller, size. And during the Korean War (1950-53), parts of the temple were harmed by fighting forces that passed through this area of combat. Fortunately, most cultural relics were spared.

While visibly not quite as grand as its former glory, parts of that past still remain. In total, the temple houses eight Treasures. In addition to these eight Treasures, the neighbouring Baekjangam Hermitage, which is directly associated with Silsangsa Temple, houses National Treasure #10 in the form of a highly unique Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.), three-story, stone pagoda. Silsangsa Temple also houses the largest steel statue of a Buddha in Korea in the form of a Unified Silla Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha). Also, the temple lies within the park limits of the picturesque Jirisan National Park.


One of the temple buildings at Silsangsa Temple.


 Another building at Silsangsa Temple.


The temple grounds around the turn of the last century.


One of the temple’s stone lanterns out in front of the main hall.


One of the original spirit poles that stands guard out by the entrance of the temple.


The ancient biseok dedicated to Hongcheok.


Silsangsa Temple’s main hall today.


The temple grounds at Silsangsa Temple.


The biseok dedicated to the founding monk, Hongcheok.


The exact same spirit pole as it appears now.

Silsangsa Temple – 실상사 (Namwon, Jeollabuk-do)


 The amazing gaze of the Unified Silla-era Yaksayore-bul statue at Silsangsa Temple in Jirisan National Park.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Silsangsa Temple was first constructed in 828 by the monk Jeunggak. Upon returning from Tang China, Jeunggak built this temple and it was one of nine special seon (zen) temples, better known as the Gusan Seonmun (The Nine Holy Seon Buddhist Mountains). The temple was built in its location to allow for Korea’s good spirit to take root and prosper and so it couldn’t be taken away to Japan. The temple faced a period of decline when it was destroyed during the Imjin War in 1597. The temple was reconstructed and restored in 1700. Silsangsa Temple was almost completely destroyed once more in 1882 as a result of a fire. Bad luck continued when it was partial destroyed, once more, during the Korean War.

Rather remarkably, the temple is surrounded on most sides by rice fields and beautiful views of Mt. Jirisan. You first enter the temple through the Cheonwangmun Gate. Inside are some of the happiest and non-threatening Heavenly Kings, you’ll find inside this type of gate. As you enter, and just to your right, is a three-tier pagoda made of roof tiles. Just behind it is the temple’s compact bell pavilion. Just to the right of these two structures is an elevated portion of land. Formally, a nine-story wooden pagoda once took up residence at Silsangsa Temple. Standing over twenty metres in height, it must have been something pretty special; unfortunately, all that remains now are some of the foundation stones.

In the back right corner of the temple complex looks to be a newer-looking temple hall. Inside this minimally painted hall is one of the most amazing iron statues of Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) in all of Korea. From the Unified Silla Period, the iron statue stands 2.69 metres in height. While it’s undergone a few repairs throughout the years, it stern determination still rests on its face with enlightenment in its eyes. Have a look and take your time, because there are very few others that compare in age and artistry to this statue at Silsangsa Temple.

Slightly to the left, and back towards the leveled pagoda, is the Myeongbu-jeon. Again, there is very little colour on the external walls. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, is an older looking statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). He’s joined on either side by standing statues of Domyeong-jonja (The Disciple of Jijang-bosal) and Mudok-gui Wang. Mudok-guk Wang, who is a king, was a guide for Jijang-bosal in his former life. Of note, he captured the key to hell in a box. As a result, he manages hell. He also gets rid of evil thoughts in people. This triad on the main altar is surrounded by the Ten Kings of the Underworld.

In the open courtyard stands a pair of pagodas and a uniquely designed stone lantern. Both three-story stone pagodas date back to the Unified Silla Period and stand 5.4 metres in height. Of note, both are in remarkably great shape for their age. Between these pagodas, and slightly behind them, is the round based stone lantern. With lotus designs and a set of portable stairs, you can light a candle in any one of the eight long openings around it’s centre.

Behind this collection of stone monuments is the understated main hall. Plain in colour, Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) sits in the centre of the main altar. He’s joined on either side by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). In the back right corner is a rather simple painting of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). To the left of the main hall is a compact shrine hall dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars).

The final hall you can visit is the Geukrak-jeon, which is to the far left of the main hall and beyond the monks’ dorms. You’ll need to cross a bridge to get to this hall. In fact, you’ll have to enter into a compound with monks’ dorms to your right. Inside the only vibrantly painted hall at Silsangsa Temple sits a solitary statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Hanging on the far right wall is an older guardian mural with an interesting depiction of Yongwang (The Dragon King). The Geukrak-jeon dates back to the 19th century, when its predecessor was burnt to the ground by Confucian scholars attempting to take the temple by force.

In front of the Geukrak-jeon compound is a stele dedicated to the memory of Jeunggak. While slightly the worse for wear, you can still see its smooth turtle head and face. And just to the left rear of this stele and the Geukrak-jeon compound is the intricate stupa that houses the earthly remains of monk Jeunggak.

Just as I was leaving, and because I didn’t see it when I first arrived, I took the time to take a look at the three stone spirit poles that date back to 1725. Uniquely, all three are male and wear caps. Instead of being fiercely designed to ward off evil spirits, these three poles seem more humourous than anything. Near the ticket booth to the temple, there remains only one with the other being washed away by water. The other two are just over the bridge as you make your way to the temple grounds.

Admission to the temple is 1,500 won, but there was no one at the booth when I visited, so it was free. I assume admission just depends on when you go.

HOW TO GET THERE: From the Namwon Intercity Bus Terminal, which is the closest city to Silsangsa Temple, you’ll need to take a bus to Inwol Bus Terminal (인월버스터미널). From Inwol Bus Terminal, take a local bus bound for Sannae (산내). Get off at the Silsangsa Temple stop. Perhaps even ask your bus driver if they’re going to Silsangsa Temple just to be sure.

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OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. While Silsangsa Temple is a temple with a more glorious past than its present, it still has some pretty unique highlights.The iron statue of Yaksayore-bul is one of the best examples of artistry from the Unified Silla Period. Also, the rarely seen stone spirit poles are humourous in design. Finally, the remnants of the temples past glory found in the foundation stones of an ancient pagoda, the near perfectly preserved pagodas and stone lantern, as well as the stupa and stele dedicated to Jeunggak are just some of the stone features to the strangely located Silsangsa Temple.


 The Cheonwangmun Gate that first greets you at Silsangsa Temple.


 One of the rather jovial, and not so intimidating, Heavenly Kings.


 The amazing view from the Cheonwangmun Gate at neighbouring Mt. Jirisan.


 The temple’s bell pavilion and roof tile pagoda.


 A view across the leveled wooden pagoda at the foundation stones and Mt. Jirisan off in the distance.


 The newly built hall that houses the amazing Yaksayore-bul.


 A first look at the iron Buddha that dates back to the Unified Silla Period.


 A better look at its serene, yet stern, expression.


 The intricacies of design: Look at the feet curled up in the lotus position.


 The plainly painted Myeongbu-jeon with the twin pagodas to the right.


 The triad of statues inside the Myeongbu-jeon with Jijang-bosal front and centre.


 A better look at the well preserved stone pagodas from the Unified Silla Period.


 And the matching stone lantern with the main hall in the background.


 A look inside the main hall with a monk conducting morning prayer.


 The Chilseong-gak to the left of the main hall.


 The painting of Chilseong inside the shrine hall sporting its own name.


 The well-worn stele dedicated to Jeunggak.


 The stupa dedicated to the founding monk with the Geukrak-jeon framing it.


 The statue of Amita-bul inside the Geukrak-jeon.


 One of the bulbous nosed spirit poles at the entrance of the temple.


 Yet another. This one has a pretty good set of bulging eyes.


And finally, across the river lies this tall hatted spirit pole.