Cheonggoksa Temple – 청곡사 (Jinju, Gyeongsangnam-do)

The Unique Wooden Seated Indra and Brahma of Cheonggoksa Temple are Korean Treasure #1232 in Jinju, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Temple History

Cheonggoksa Temple is located in Jinju, Gyeongsangnam-do on the southern slopes of Mt. Wolasan (468.9 m). Cheonggoksa Temple was first built in 879 A.D. by the famed monk Doseon-guksa (826-898 A.D.). Doseon-guksa is perhaps best known for his geomancy methods, or “Pungsu-jiri” in Korean. And the location of Cheonggoksa Temple was chosen according to Pungsu-jiri. After watching a blue crane fly from the banks of the Nam River and land on the present temple location of Cheonggoksa Temple, Doseon-guksa knew that the location had divine energy because of the topography’s numerous auspicious signs. So Doseon-guksa decided to build a temple on the location where the blue crane had landed. In fact, the bridge at the entry to the temple is called “Banghak-gyo,” which reminds visitors about the creation myth surrounding the temple’s name. In English, “Banghak-gyo” means “Visiting Crane Bridge.”

The temple was later reconstructed in 1380 by the monk Silsang-daesa. Like so many other temples on the Korean peninsula during the Imjin War (1592-1598), Cheonggoksa Temple was completely destroyed by the invading Japanese in 1592. Cheonggoksa Temple was later rebuilt in 1612. And Cheonggoksa Temple was later renovated and expanded at the end of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) by the monk Pou-daesa.

In total, Cheonggoksa Temple is home to one National Treasure and three additional Korean Treasures, as well as an incense burner known as the Bronze Incense Burner with Silver Inlay from Cheonggoksa Temple that’s housed at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. It’s typical in Buddhist ceremonies to have special implements to conduct these ceremonies with. One of the most important is the incense burner. There are a variety of incense burners that are used during Buddhist ceremonies, but the one from Cheonggoksa Temple that’s housed at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul is called a wide-rimmed bowl with a flared base, or a “hyangwan” in Korean. The inscription on the incense burner indicates that it’s from Cheonggoksa Temple. This incense burner was dedicated to Queen Sindeok (1356-1396), who was the second wife of King Taejo of Joseon (r. 1392-1398), who was the first ruler of the Joseon Dynasty. Queen Sindeok died in 1396, with this incense burner being made in 1397 as an offering for her. This incense burner is made from bronze, but the inlaid patterns that adorn it are made from silver. And the patterns that adorn this incense burner are lotus vines and the Chinese character for “Beom,” which is meant to represent inclusiveness of the Buddhist sutras.

The Bronze Incense Burner with Silver Inlay from Cheonggoksa Temple (Picture Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea in Seoul).

Temple Layout

You first approach Cheonggoksa Temple past the temple parking lot to the right. It’s up this wooded trail that you’ll come across a pond to your left. It’s from this vantage point that you get a great view of the temple beautifully framed by the surrounding mountains. A little further up the trail, and you’ll pass under the broad Iljumun Gate.

A little further along, and you’ll come across the temple’s Budowon. In total, there are eight different stupas, or “budo” in Korean, taking up residence inside this Buddhist cemetery. These stupas are joined by a darkened three-story pagoda with Manja around its base. There’s also a stone lantern near the entrance of the Budowon.

Climbing the side-winding stairs, you’ll pass through the uninhabited Cheonwangmun Gate and then under the Hwanhak-ru Pavilion to gain entry to the main temple courtyard at Cheonggoksa Temple. Straight ahead of you is the Daeung-jeon Hall. The Daeung-jeon Hall dates back to 1612, and it’s Gyeongsangnam-do Tangible Cultural Property #51. The exterior walls are adorned with the basic dancheong colours and a fading Manja crowning the roof of the main hall. Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find three large statues taking up residence on the main altar. Seated in the centre is a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined to the right and left by statues of Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). This triad is believed to date back to around 1615, which is based on a later inscription that was added in 1750. There are no inscriptions identifying the makers of the three statues; however, they do appear similar to the statues found at Gwanryongsa Temple in Changnyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do by the monk sculptor Hyeonjin that were later made in 1629. The middle statue of Seokgamoni-bul stands 170 cm in height, and the triad is Korean Treasure #1688.

To the rear of the main altar inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a smaller mural dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul. But it’s to the left of the main altar that you’ll find the greatest surprise inside the Daeung-jeon Hall. Here you’ll find a pair of statues. The wooden statue to the left is Jaeseok-cheonwang (The Heavenly King Deity, or Indra). And the wooden statue to the right is Daebeom-cheonwang (The Great Dharma Heavenly King, or Brahma). Both Indra and Brahma were originally deities in Hinduism. After the creation of Mahayana Buddhism, both Indra and Brahma were absorbed into Buddhism as guardians. That’s why these two deities have such importance in Buddhist art. According to the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), these two deities are painted and not sculpted in Korea. And it was common to find both Indra (Jaeseok-cheonwang) and Brahma (Daebeom-cheonwang) in Buddhist paintings during the Joseon Dynasty. That’s why the statues of both Indra and Brahma are so important at Cheonggoksa Temple. They are the only historic statues of these two deities in all of Korea. The technique of the statues date them to the late Joseon Dynasty. There is also a painting of the two backing the statues. Both Indra and Brahma are the two central figures, and the expressions on their faces are more merciful like a Bodhisattva; unlike the accompanying images of the Four Heavenly Kings (Sacheonwang) in the painting that have more fearful expressions on their faces. The Wooden Seated Indra and Brahma of Cheonggoksa Temple is Korean Treasure #1232.

To the immediate right of the Daeung-jeon Hall stands the uniquely named Eopgyeong-jeon Hall, which is more commonly known as either the Myeongbu-jeon Hall or the Jijang-jeon Hall. The “Eopgyeong” reference refers to a mythical mirror that’s held up to the dead in the afterlife by the Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld). In this mirror, all the good and evil actions that were performed by the deceased are reflected back at the spirit when they stand in front of the Eopgyeong-dae (Karma Mirror). Housed inside this newly refurbished shrine hall, which dates back to 1612 and is Gyeongsangnam-do Cultural Material #139, it houses a green haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) on the main altar. This central statue is joined inside the Eopgyeong-jeon Hall by the Ten Kings of the Underworld. Together they are Korean Treasure #1689, and they date back to 1657. In total, there are twenty-three historic statues housed inside this temple shrine hall, and they were carved by a team of monk sculptors including Inyeong, Tanjun, Jibyeon, Hakyeom, Seomyeong, Beopyul, Jongtan, and Seonu.

And to the right rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find two additional shrine halls: The Nahan-jeon Hall and the Chilseong-gak Hall. Together they are joined by a historic three-story pagoda to the right. Housed inside the Nahan-jeon Hall, and sitting on the main altar, are a triad of white statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul. This triad is then joined by sixteen accompanying wooden sculptures of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). And to the left of the Nahan-jeon Hall is the Chilseong-gak Hall that houses older elaborate murals dedicated to each of the Seven Stars (Chilseong).

To the left rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall is a shrine hall that’s separated into three sections similar to the structure found at Beomeosa Temple in Geumjeong-gu, Busan. The first of these divided sections to the right houses a replica of a much older mural dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). Dokseong has long, curly, white eyebrows and a set of three birds that rest on a red pine tree branch above the Lonely Saint’s head. The shrine to the left is dedicated to prominent monks that once called Cheonggoksa Temple home. In fact, a mural of Doseon-guksa hangs in the centre of the half-a-dozen murals housed inside the Josa-jeon Hall. As for the central section of this peculiar shrine hall, you’ll find a pair of murals dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). The image to the left is a female Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Both the statue and painting dedicated to the female Sanshin have strong, determined features. And the male Sanshin, who doesn’t have an accompanying statue to the mural, has an almost snickering facial expression like he knows something we don’t.

Also, and something that shouldn’t be overlooked, which is housed inside the temple’s museum, is the Hanging Painting of Cheonggoksa Temple (The Vulture Peak Assembly). This large Gwaebul mural is National Treasure #302. Standing 10.4 metres in height and 6.4 metres wide, the large mural dates back to 1722. The central image in the mural is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), who is joined on either side by Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom).

How To Get There

From the Jinju Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to board Bus #261 to get to Cheonggoksa Temple. After twenty-seven stops, or thirty-four minutes, you’ll need to get off at the Shingi-maeul stop. From this stop, you’ll need to walk 1.5 kilometres to get to Cheonggoksa Temple.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Cheonggoksa Temple is packed with rarities, which can make for quite the experience for the temple adventurer. From the female Sanshin (Mountain Spirit), to the pair of seated statues of Indra (Jaeseok-cheonwang) and Brahma (Daebeom-cheonwang), and onto the 18th century large Gwaebul that depicts the Vulture Peak Assembly, Cheonggoksa Temple has a long list of beauty and rarities for the temple adventurer to enjoy. While Cheonggoksa Temple is lesser known, it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.

The mountainside entry and Iljumun Gate at Cheonggoksa Temple.
The Budowon with the temple in the background.
The front facade to Cheonggoksa Temple.
The historic Daeung-jeon Hall that dates back to 1612.
The historic triad inside the Daeung-jeon Hall. The triad dates back to 1615, and they’re Korean Treasure #1688.
A closer look at the Wooden Seated Indra and Brahma of Cheonggoksa Temple, which are Korean Treasure #1232.
A look inside the Eopgyeong-jeon Hall at the main altar. The wooden statues of Jijang-bosal and the Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld) are Korean Treasure #1689.
The uniquely designed three-in-one shrine hall to the left rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The right section is dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint).
The left section is the Josa-jeon Hall, which is dedicated to monks that once called Cheonggoksa Temple home including Doseon-guksa.
And the central section to the three-in-one temple shrine hall is dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Interestingly, there are two Sanshin murals: one female and one male.

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