Colonial Korea: Buseoksa Temple – 부석사 (Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

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The flag supports out in front of Buseoksa Temple in 1916.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Buseoksa Temple is located in the southwest portion of Mt. Bonghwangsan in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The name of the temple means “Floating Rock Temple,” in English, and relates to the creation myth that surrounds the temple (more on that later). The temple was first established in 676 A.D. by the famed monk Uisang-daesa, who also had the nickname of “Temple Builder” for all the temples he helped construct like Hwaeomsa Temple, Naksansa Temple and Beomeosa Temple.

After living in China for ten years, where he furthered his Buddhist studies, Uisang-daesa returned to the Korean peninsula. Uisang-daesa built Buseoksa Temple under the orders of the Silla king, King Munmu (r. 661-681 A.D.). Uisang-daesa used Buseoksa Temple as a base to help spread the message of Hwaeom Buddhism (Flower Garland Buddhism) for which he is famous.

As for the myth that surrounds Uisang-daesa and Buseoksa Temple, it pertains to a love story that’s recorded in the Samguk-Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). As a teenager in the Silla capital of Gyeongju, Uisang fell in love with Seonmyo (Virtuous Mystery). They fell in love, but Seonmyo was chosen as a part of a tribute mission to Tang China. During her absence, Uisang became a Buddhist monk to help his broken heart. After learning this news, Seonmyo threw herself from the boat that was carrying her up the Yellow River. She was to survive this attempted suicide, and she was adopted by a wealthy merchant.

Uisang also used the Yellow River on his journey towards furthering his studies in China. Briefly, he was reunited with Seonmyo. And while their passion still burned for each other, Uisang refused to betray his monastic vows. Before departing, he promised to see her one more time, which he eventually did seven years later. During that time, Seonmyo had embroidered a beautiful silk monk gown as a gift for him. Not wanting to falsely lead her on, he refused this gift. The next morning, without saying good-bye, Uisang boarded a boat that would bring him back to the Korean peninsula. Heart-broken, Seonmyo threw the silk gift into the river. Following her gift into the river, she drowned herself out of despair. It was from this love story that Seonmyo was reborn as a dragon that would protectively look over Uisang.

As a dragon, Seommyo followed Uisang back to Korea to protect him. And Uisang would need her help when he attempted to build Buseoksa Temple. Instead of being inviting, the locals violently tried to stop Uisang from building the new temple because of their local shamanic belief in Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Seonmyo, as a dragon, lifted a boulder in the air three times to make the locals cower submissively. This worked. The boulder came to rest behind the main hall, the Muryangsu-jeon Hall, which is also the second oldest building in Korea (dating back to 1376). After this, Seonmyo the dragon died and her bones were used as the foundation for the creation of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall. So that’s how the temple gets its name: Floating Rock Temple.

With the main hall, the Muryangsu-jeon Hall is the second oldest wooden building in Korea, dating back to 1376, after being destroyed after a rebel army destroyed it in 1358. The expansion and rebuilding of the temple dates back to this period in history. Under the guidance of Woneung, and under the patronage of the Goryeo king, King Gongmin (r. 1351-74), which lasted from 1372-77, Buseoksa Temple was rebuilt. Amazingly, Buseoksa Temple was spared any damage during the destructive Imjin War (1592-98), which saw almost all major temples completely destroyed by the invading Japanese. Next to Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, Buseoksa Temple houses the second most National Treasures at a single temple site. In total, and including the Muryangsu-jeon main hall, Buseoksa Temple houses five National Treasures and five additional Treasures.

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Buseoksa Temple in 1916.

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A closer look at National Treasure #17, the Stone Lantern at Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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A closer look at the Stone Lantern at the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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Treasure #249, the Three Story Stone Pagoda at Buseoksa Temple.

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An auxiliary building at Buseoksa Temple in 1932.

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Buseoksa Temple grounds in 2011.

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From the foundation myth of Buseoksa Temple. This painting is from Naksansa Temple and was taken in 2014.

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A painting from the creation myth that surrounds Buseoksa Temple. Lady Seonmyo is to the right with Uisang riding in his dragon-guided boat. This picture was also taken at Naksansa Temple.

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The beautiful Buseoksa Temple in 2011.

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Muryangsu-jeon Hall that dates back to 1376 and is National Treasure #18.

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The clay seated statue of Amita-bul inside the Muryangsu-jeon Hall. The statue is National Treasure #45.

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The floating rock from the creation myth story that surrounds Buseoksa Temple. It lies to the left rear of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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The shrine dedicated to Lady Seonmyo to the right rear of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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The gift bearing painting of Lady Seonmyo.

Buseoksa Temple – 부석사 (Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

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A look up at the beautiful temple pavilions and halls at Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Hello Again Everyone!!

It was a long way to travel, but with two weeks of summer vacation, it was well worth the three and a half hour car ride. I had long wanted to see this temple. It had been on my “to visit list” for quite some while, and the wait was well worth it.

Buseoksa Temple (부석사) means “Floating Rock Temple” in English. The temple itself dates back to 676, when it was established by the famous monk, Uisang, under the orders of the Silla King, Munmu. Monk Uisang studied Buddhism in China for 10 years, and upon his return to Korea, he helped spread Buddhism throughout Korea. In fact, he used Buseoksa Temple as a base to spread the message of Hwaeom Buddhism for which he is renowned.

There is a famous story associated both with Uisang and the temple as it pertains to Uisang’s stay in China. In China Uisang met lady Seonmyo in Dang, China while he was studying. When Uisang told Seonmyo that he was going back to his country, Seonmyo jumped into the sea and drowned herself after realizing that Uisang’s boat had left for Korea. After her death, and so the story goes, Seonmyo became a dragon. As a dragon, Seonmyo followed Uisang to Korea to protect and be with him. When Uisang ran into difficulty in building a new temple, and they tried to stop him, Uisang brought down three stones from heaven to stop the crowd that had gathered to block him. One of the stones that floated down from the heavens now stands to the left of the main hall, Muryangsu-jeon. So the temple is named after this “floating rock” story.

You first approach Buseoksa Temple from a long country road. The views of the valley below from this country road are gorgeous. As you first approach the temple courtyard, you’ll first pass by a newly built museum that houses all the valuable Buseoksa Temple artifacts. The design of the Buseoksa Temple is beautiful, with the main hall sitting on top of a terraced hillside as though it’s crowning the temple. On the first terrace you’ll see twin pagodas that date back to the Late Silla Period. To the far right, as you ascend the hill, you’ll see a newly built and colourfully painted Jijang-jeon Hall which houses Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Up the main stairway, and straight ahead, is the weather-worn Beomjonggak. In this openly designed pavilion sit the fish-gong and drum. To the far left are the monk dorms. Passing through this beautiful pavilion, you’ll next come to the picturesque Anyangnu Pavilion (Entrance to Heaven), which beautifully frames the main hall, Muryangsu-jeon. Muryangsu-jeon is the second oldest wooden structure in all of Korea. It dates back to 1376, and it was one of the few wooden structures that avoided destruction during the Imjin War. The hall is compact and smaller in size, typical of Goryeo Dynasty architecture. The name tablet that hangs over the entrance to the hall was written by King Sukjong. Inside the hall, there’s a regal rendering of Amita-bul (The Buddha the Western Paradise). On the left side of Amita-bul is a beautiful rendering of a guardian painting. Besides this painting, the interior of the hall is all but colourless from age.

To the right of the main hall is small shrine dedicated, to what looks to be, lady Seonmyo. A painting of her is situated inside this hall. To the right of this hall is a large sized pagoda that stands over five metres tall. The pagoda was built sometime in the United Silla Period. Up the hill, just past the pagoda, a trail leads to two separate compound areas. The trail that forks to the right has a single shrine hall, Josa-dang, which is dedicated to the temple’s founding monk, Uisang. This hall is the second oldest hall at the temple; it dates back to 1490.There is a statue of monk Uisang in the centre, with a highly unique painting of his life behind the statue. To the left is another guardian painting. Flanking the statue of Uisang are three other paintings of famous monks. In front of these monks are various depictions of guardians protecting the monks from evil spirits. And on the path that forks to the left, this trail leads you to an area that houses three temple halls. The small one to the far right is unknown; however, the larger one in the centre is called Nahan-jeon and is dedicated to the disciples of the Buddha. The building to the left is Jain-dang. Inside are housed three ancient stone statues. The one in the centre is the Historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. The flanking figures are similar in design and they depict Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Light). These two Birojana-bul statues were first located in a ruined temple near Buseoksa Temple, and they were thought to be made in the 9th century as a result of their design that was prevalent at the time.

As you descend down the hill and make your way through the main hall courtyard, you’ll notice a beautiful stone lantern that dates back to the middle of the 9th century. Past this lantern, and to the left of the main hall, is a gathering of rocks to which the temple gets its name. Adjacent to these rocks is a shrine set up to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Down the cobble-stoned walkway, and past some of the most well-manicured grounds at any temple I’ve visited, you’ll see the hall dedicated to the three Shamanistic gods: San shin, Chilseong, and Naban Jonja. Beside this hall is the residence of the head-monk at Buseoksa Temple. Just down the hill, you’ll come to the compact bell pavilion at the temple, which houses a beautiful, but modest, temple bell.

Admission to the temple is 1,200 won, which is very, very reasonable for a temple like this one.

HOW TO GET THERE: Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do is definitely one of the more difficult temples to get to just because of where it’s situated. It’s not really located near any major city like Seoul, Busan, or Daegu. First, you’ll have to get to Yeongju from wherever it is that you’re located. From Yeongju, you can get to Buseoksa Temple by catching a city bus from opposite the Yeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. Catch bus number 55 bound for Buseoksa Temple. The bus ride takes about 50 minutes. Or if you get off in Punggi Station, you can catch a bus from Punggi Station bound for Buseoksa Temple. It takes about 30 minutes; either that, or you can splurge and take a taxi from the station. This ride will only take you between 20 to 25 minutes depending on traffic (which is almost non-existent).

View 부석사 in a larger map

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10. This temple rates so highly for several reasons. The number one reason, however, is the main hall, Muryangsu-jeon, which dates back to 1376 and is the country’s second oldest wooden structure. The temple is situated on perhaps the most beautifully maintained temple grounds in all of Korea. Lastly, there are numerous halls and structures to see to keep you busy for quite some time like the Nahan-jeon hall on the hill and the Anyangnu Pavilion that you pass under to gain access to the temple’s main courtyard. The only drawback, and why the temple doesn’t rate a perfect 10 out of 10, is that it can be really hard to get to. Other than that, I highly recommend that you take the time to visit this little visited temple by foreign tourists.

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A look up from the lower terrace at Beomjonggak Pavilion.
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One of the twin pagodas that dates back to the Late Silla Period.
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A better look up at Beomjonggak Pavilion.
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Inside the Beomjonggak Pavilion are housed the wooden gong and drum.
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To the right of Beomjonggak Pavilion is the Jijang-jeon Hall dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
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On one of the exterior walls is a painting dedicated to the Dragon Ship of Wisdom.
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Inside, adorning the altar, is a statue of Jijang-bosal without his 10 Kings.
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A look up at Anyangnu Pavilion from Beomjonggak Pavilion.
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The walk up to Anyangnu Pavilion.
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A look up at the main hall, Muryangsu-jeon, through Anyangnu Pavilion.
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A better look at Muryangsu-jeon. The main hall is the second oldest wooden structure in all of Korea, and it dates back to 1376.
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The wooden name tablet that hangs above the entrance at the main hall.
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The massive Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) sits solitarily on the main altar at Muryangsu-jeon.
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The guardian painting that rests to the left of Amita-bul.
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Up to the right is this five metre tall stone pagoda that dates back to the United Silla Period.
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Up the hill, to the right, is this hall dedicated to the founding monk of Buseoksa, Uisang.
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Inside the hall, Josa-dang, sits a mural and statue dedicated to Uisang. He’s accompanied by paintings of other famous Korean monks.
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To the left of the Josa-dang hall is another compound that houses the Nahan-jeon (right) and Jain-dang (left). Nahan-jeon houses statues of the Buddha’s disciples, and the hall to the left houses three ancient stone statues dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul and Birojana-bul (The Budhha of Cosmic Light).
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To the left is the statue of Birojana-bul and to the right is Seokgamoni-bul, both of whom reside inside the Jain-dang Hall.
Picture 410The statues of the Nahan, the disciples of the Buddha, that reside inside the Nahan-jeon Hall.
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Back down the hill, and left of the main hall, are the “floating rocks” that gave Buseoksa Temple its name.
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A view down the cobble-stoned path and a look around at the beautifully manicured temple grounds.
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The entrance to San shin-gak: the hall which is dedicated to the three Shamanistic gods.
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In the centre is Chilseong (The Seven Stars); to the left is San shin (The Mountain god); and to the right is Dokseong (The Recluse).
Picture 492Just down the hill, on the lower terrace, sits this bell pavilion.
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And inside the bell pavilion is this stout bell with orange moss growing over it.