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Hermitage History and Myth
Boriam Hermitage is located on Mt. Geumsan (704.9 m) in the southern part of Namhae, Gyeongsangnam-do. Boriam Hermitage was first established in 683 A.D. by the famed monk Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.) near the end of his life. Wonhyo-daesa was drawn to this location because of the amazing appearance of the mountain. Wonhyo-daesa saw light emitting from the mountain. Wonhyo-daesa described this light as a “light beyond description.” So he named the mountain Mt. Bogwangsan, and he named the new temple Bogwangwa Temple.
Boriam Hermitage gained famed as the site where General Yi Seong-gye (King Taejo), who would become the founding king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), performed ritual prayers. It’s believed that Yi Seong-gye (King Taejo) stayed at Boriam Hermitage for one hundred days to seek guidance to sufficiently lead his new kingdom, as well as to have the wisdom and good fortune to establish this new kingdom. It’s also believed that Yi Seong-gye (King Taejo) promised Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and the local Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) that he would wrap the entire mountain in silk if he was successful in his establishment of a new dynasty: the Joseon Dynasty. Sadly this promise was never fulfilled; but his future successor, King Hyeonjong of Joseon (r.1659-1674) would carry out this promise by renaming the mountain where Boriam Hermitage is located from Mt. Bogwangsan to Mt. Geumsan. It was also at this time that the temple was renamed to Boriam Hermitage from Bogwangsa Temple. Boriam Hermitage means “Enlightenment Hermitage” in English. At this time, Boriam Hermitage was designated as the “vowing temple of the royal family.”
Boriam Hermitage is one of the five most famous temples in Korea for the worship of Gwanseeum-bosal. It’s a Gwaneum-doryang, and it’s reputed that Boriam Hermitage is one of five sites where Gwanseeum-bosal is supposed to dwell in Korea.
More recently, Boriam Hermitage has undergone three renovations and reconstructions in the 20th century. The first took place in 1901, followed by one in 1954. The final of the three renovations took place in 1969 with the completion of the large, stone statue dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal that overlooks the South Sea.
Boriam Hermitage has quite an interesting myth, as well, related to the three-story pagoda that was meant to enshrine the partial remains of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) that were brought with Queen Heo on her voyage. The stone pagoda sits on a rock ledge that overlooks the South Sea at the hermitage. According to this myth, the pagoda was first built from the stones that Queen Heo brought with her from India. Queen Heo is the legendary/mythical queen mentioned in the 13th century text the Samguk Yusa. According to the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), Queen Heo became the wife of King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya (42?-199 A.D.) at the age of sixteen. After arriving on the Korean peninsula by boat from a distant kingdom called the Ayuta Kingdom, Queen Heo became the first queen of Geumgwan Gaya. Together, King Suro and Queen Heo would have twelve children (two of whom took on her family name). But while Queen Heo is referenced in the Samguk Yusa and the Garak-gukgi (The Record of Garak Kingdom), which is now lost, there is no mention of Queen Heo in any pre-modern Indian sources. What further casts doubt on this myth is that the stones that make up the three-story pagoda are made of granite. What’s more likely is that the pagoda was first built during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Either way, even if the myth seems unlikely, it’s an interesting myth that attempts to connect Boriam Hermitage to the ancient Gaya Confederacy (42-562 A.D).
Some of this information can be found in David Mason’s book “An Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism.”
Arriving at the base of Mt. Geumsan, which is apart of Hallyeohaesang National Marine Park, you’ll need to pay the 2,000 won entrance fee to the national park to gain access to Boriam Hermitage. After paying the Hallyeohaesang National Marine Park entry fee, there are three ways to get to the top of Mt. Geumsan. The first is that you can walk the nearly four kilometre trail up the mountain, which I don’t recommend. The second way you can get to the top of the mountain is by a shuttle bus. This shuttle bus leaves frequently from the base of Mt. Geumsan. The third way you can get to the top of Mt. Geumsan is by car, but you’ll probably need to wait in line until a parking spot opens up in the limited parking lot spaces for Boriam Hermitage. If you do in fact drive to Boriam Hermitage, I recommend getting there early to avoid the lines.
After finally getting to the top of Mt. Geumsan, you’ll pass by the ticket booth at Boriam Hermitage. Entry to the hermitage is a very reasonable 1,000 won. The hike from this booth to the main hermitage grounds is a beautiful one kilometre hike. Boriam Hermitage is very popular, so just follow the crowds to make sure you don’t get lost. Along the way, you’ll catch glimpses of the South Sea off in the distance. This view is what makes Boriam Hermitage so famous and popular.
Finally nearing the hermitage grounds, you’ll come to a second parking lot. This smaller parking lot houses a convenience store. It’s also from this second parking lot that you’ll finally get a clear view of the South Sea and the tiny islands that dot the horizon. The view is breath-taking.
A little further up the trail, and at a fork in the trail, you’ll need to turn left. Descending down a large set of stairs, you’ll finally be in the compact hermitage grounds. To your immediate left, and past the hermitage’s administration office, is the Manbul-jeon Hall (10,000 Buddhas Hall). Inside this temple shrine hall, as the name kind of alludes to, are ten thousand Seokgamoni-bul (Historical Buddha) statuettes. These statuettes line all of the interior walls to the Manbul-jeon Hall. And sitting in the centre of the main altar triad is a larger sized statue of Seokgamoni-bul. It’s from out in front of the Manbul-jeon Hall that you get, arguably, the most impressive view of the South Sea from Boriam Hermitage.
Stepping into the centre of the hermitage courtyard, you’ll be flanked by the Wontong-jeon Hall to your right and an observation hall to your left. Both are fairly long in length. Surrounding the Wontong-jeon main hall are paintings of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). And sitting all alone on the main altar inside the Wontong-jeon Hall is a diminutive statue of Gwanseeum-bosal on a red silk pillow.
Behind the Wontong-jeon Hall, and up a steep set of stone stairs, is the temple’s Sanshin-gak Hall. Inside this rather plain shaman shrine hall is a beautiful painting dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). The main highlight to this painting is the uniquely painted tiger that peers around the side of the Mountain Spirit.
To the left of the Wontong-jeon Hall is the Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion). And the final area that visitors can explore at Boriam Hermitage is down a flight of stairs next to the Jong-ru. Down these stairs, and up a smaller set, is a ledge that houses a tall, slender statue dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal. This stone statue looks serenely out onto the sea. And to the statue’s right is the aforementioned three-story pagoda. Like from the Manbul-jeon Hall, there are some breath-taking views of the South Sea from here.
How To Get There
From the Namhae bus terminal, which is called “Namhae Gongyong Terminal – 남해공용터미널,” you’ll need to catch a taxi to get to Boriam Hermitage. The ride should last about twenty-five minutes, or 16.1 k.m., and it’ll cost you 20,000 won one way.
Overall Rating: 8/10
While the hermitage buildings aren’t the most impressive that you’ll see at a Korean Buddhist temple, this is more than made up for by the spectacular views from the heights of Boriam Hermitage. The views from the standing Gwanseeum-bosal statue and the Manbul-jeon Hall have the greatest vistas of the South Sea. Truly, the neighbouring landscape is second-to-none; and arguably, the most beautiful that you’ll find at a Korean temple or hermitage for that matter.