Cheontaesa Temple – 천태사 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

The Large Stone Relief Dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) at Cheontaesa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Temple History

Cheontaesa Temple is located in western Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. The name of the temple comes from the name of the mountain where the temple is located, which is Mt. Cheontaesan (630.9 m). More generally, both the temple and the mountain are named after the Cheontae-jong Order, which is based upon the Tiantai school of Buddhism. This school of Buddhism is also called “The Lotus School” for its focus on the Lotus Sutra teachings.

Tiantai is the name taken from Tiantai Mountain, the mountain where Zhiyi (538-597 A.D.) the fourth patriarch lived. Unlike other earlier schools of Buddhism which had been transplanted forms of Indian Buddhism, Tiantai was entirely Chinese in origin. These transplanted forms of Indian Buddhism had very little modification to their basic doctrines and methodology. It’s through Tiantai that a native form of Chinese Buddhism was established under Zhiyi. Zhiyi developed an original Chinese Buddhism based upon both doctrine and the meditative practice of Buddhism. Tiantai became doctrinally broad. Tiantai relies doctrinally upon a specific interpretation of the Lotus Sutra. The major Tiantai treatises studied specific Zhiyi texts. They are grouped into two major categories: The Three Great Tiantai Treatises and The Five Lesser Tiantai Treatises. In addition to these doctrinal texts, Tiantai teaches that Buddhahood can be attained through observing the mind through meditation. Specifically, the Tiantai form of meditation focuses on Samatha (Tranquility of the Mind) and Vipassana (Insight).

Tiantai, like most other forms of Buddhism, would make its way eastward. Tiantai was introduced to the Korean peninsula a few times earlier, starting in 730 A.D.; however, it isn’t until the 11th century that Tiantai would take root during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) through its re-introduction by the monk Uicheon (1055-1101). Thanks to Uicheon, and probably his royal connection as the fourth son of King Munjong of Goryeo (r. 1046-1083), Cheontae Buddhism became a major influence in Goryeo Buddhism. After returning to the Korean peninsula from Song Dynasty China in 1086, Uicheon attempted to end the conflict between the doctrinal (Gyo) school of Buddhism and meditative (Seon) Buddhism. Uicheon believed that the hybrid of Tiantai Buddhism would help quell the dispute at the heart of the conflict within Goryeo Buddhism at this time. So in 1097 A.D., the Cheontae school of Buddhism was established.

Like Tiantai Buddhism, Cheontae Buddhism holds the Lotus Sutra as the ultimate form of the Buddha’s teachings. Specifically, Cheontae Buddhism focuses on three teachings of the Buddha:

1. All things are empty and without essential reality.

2. All things have an impermanent reality.

3. All things are both absolutely unreal and are impermanently real at the same time.

With this in mind, all experiences in the sensory world are in fact an expression of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings). As a result, they are the key that ultimately leads to enlightenment. This helps explain why Cheontae-jong Order temples in Korea like Guinsa Temple in Danyang, Chungcheongbuk-do and Samgwangsa Temple in Busan-jin, Busan are ornate and extravagant.

But in 1424, the Cheontae school of Buddhism was consolidated into Seon Buddhism as one form of Korean Buddhism during the anti-Buddhism policies of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It isn’t until more recently, in 1967, that the Cheontae-jong Order was re-established under the guidance of the monk Sangwol Wongak (1911-1974). The Cheontae-jong Order is the third largest Buddhist sect in Korea. It has a total of one hundred and forty temples spread throughout the Korean peninsula. And there are some two million followers to this form of Korean Buddhism.

It’s under this backdrop that Cheontaesa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do is built and thrives with a handful of shrine halls and outdoor shrines to this day.

Temple Layout

From the road, you’ll pass under the stately Iljumun Gate. For a couple hundred metres, you’ll make your way up to the main temple courtyard. The first thing to greet you, besides the administrative office to your right, is the two-story Cheonwangmun Gate. On the first floor of this two-story entry structure is a narrow passageway that leads you towards the heart of the main temple grounds. On either wall are two of the four Heavenly Kings. And on the second story of the entry structure is the temple’s Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion) with both a Brahma Bell and a Dharma Drum.

Having mounted the stairs that make their way through the Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll find a shaman shrine hall to your left. This is one of the larger Dokseong-gak Halls that you’ll find in Korea dedicated solely to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). The exterior walls are largely unadorned all but for the traditional dancheong colours. Stepping inside the Dokseong-gak Hall, you’ll find a large, expressive statue dedicated to The Lonely Saint sitting all by himself on the main altar. There’s a fiery wisdom pearl dangling over his head, descending down from the ornate red canopy (datjib).

A little further, and towards the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find the Nahan-jeon Hall to the right of the Dokseong-gak Hall. Resting on the main altar, in the centre of the triad of statues, is an image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This triad is joined on the main altar by two rows, one on either side of the main altar triad, eight on each side, of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). And these are then joined by an expanded five hundred more smaller sized statues of the disciples of the Buddha. Of note, there’s a guardian near the entry of the Nahan-jeon Hall. If you’re not prepared for it, you’ll be surprised by it. Additionally, this guardian holds an ax-like weapon with a unique painting of a dragon head across its blade.

Straight ahead of you is the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls of the main hall are adorned with a beautiful set of Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals). Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find the main altar occupied by a triad centred by Seokgamoni-bul. This statue is joined on either side by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). On the far left wall, there’s a shrine for the dead. Here, you’ll find a painting dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). To the right of this shrine is a solitary painting dedicated to Bohyeon-bosal, who is riding a white elephant. To the right of the main altar triad, you’ll see a large Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). Above the entry to the main hall is a beautiful mural dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And next to this mural is a mural dedicated to Munsu-bosal. The main hall at Cheontaesa Temple is packed with beautiful murals and iconography.

To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and up a stone stairway, are a pair of outdoor shrines. Back in 2011, when I last visited Cheontaesa Temple, these two shrines were under construction. The first of the two, which is to your right, is a cave with Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha) inside it. And to the left is large statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) wearing one of the more unusual headdresses that you’ll find on either a Buddha or Bodhisattva in Korea.

To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find another outdoor open air shrine. This shrine is dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King). The colourful, slender wooden image of Yongwang stands atop a dragon. And this dragon spouts water from his mouth towards the dragons below. To the left of this Yongwang-dang Hall is the Chilseong/Sanshin-gak Hall. The exterior to this shaman shrine hall is plainly adorned with a few floral patterns. Stepping inside this shaman shrine hall, you’ll instantly notice the large sized murals dedicated to both Chilseong (The Seven Stars) to the right and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) to the left. And the entire interior of the Chilseong/Sanshin-gak Hall is filled with masterfully executed tiny figurines dedicated to Sanshin.

To the right of the main temple courtyard, across a bridge, and up an embankment, you’ll find fields of stupas (probably of donors). Before entering into this Budowon, you’ll first be greeted by a jovial statue dedicated to Podae-hwasang (The Hempen Bag). Straight ahead of you is a fifteen metre tall relief dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). The image of Amita-bul is carved right into the black face of Mt. Cheontaesan. Amita-bul is joined on either side by Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul) and Gwanseeum-bosal. The triad rests underneath a large red canopy that reads “Muryangsu-gung” in Korean.

Much like the new additions to the temple to the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and up the mountainside, there have been a few new additions to the right of the main hall and surrounding the large relief of Amita-bul. First, there’s an artificial cave with highly ornate statues dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal inside. The central image of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is surrounded by a few dozen golden hands that are there to support those in need.

And to the left of the massive stone relief at Cheontaesa Temple is another artificial cave. This one is dedicated to Jijang-bosal, and it has hundreds of tiny figurines dedicated to the Bodhisattva of the Afterlife lining the walls and leading up to the central image of a standing statue of Jijang-bosal, as well. Joining this shrine hall to the left is an outdoor shrine with a blue, wooden Dragon Ship of Wisdom. It’s also in this area that you’ll find one of the stranger outdoor shrines that I’ve come across in Korea. There are a couple dozen blunt wooden spears with gold tips sticking out from the wall of the rockface. In the centre is a stone. This shrine is known as Sowon Seokgul, or “The Wish Fulfilling Stone Cave” in English. The backstory behind this unique outdoor shrine is that the head monk at Cheontaesa Temple was praying for one thousand days, when he had a dream about this naturally occurring Buddha which he must have found. The monk would say that whoever has this stone image of the Buddha hanging near them would be protected from accidents, and the stone image would also grant one wish. The name of the Buddha is “Hwanhui Jangmani Bojeok-bul – 환희 장마니 보적불” in Korean. However, it’s unknown as to why it’s designed the way it is.

Finally, and to the rear of the Cheontaesa Temple grounds is the Yongnyeon-pokpo Waterfall. The hike is about fifteen to twenty minutes up the valley floor. The head of the trail lies directly to the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall. There are very few signs along the way. Also, you’ll have to climb a pretty rough trail of large rocks, so please be careful if you do in fact decide to make your way towards the Yongnyeon-pokpo Waterfall. There are some red spray painted arrows adorning rocks guiding you in the right direction. You can climb all the way up to the head of the falls and look directly down into the gorge below. But again, practice caution at all times. On the right day, you can sit and catch a beautiful breeze from the heights of the Yongnyeon-pokpo Waterfall. The view of the valley below, in combination with the rock walls of Mt. Cheontaesan, is breath-taking. So take your time and enjoy the amazing view.

How To Get There

You can reach Cheontaesa Temple from the Wondong Train Station. By taxi, the ride should take about ten minutes, and it’ll cost you about 9,000 won. You can take a taxi or the bus. If you go by bus, you’ll need to take Bus #137A from the Wondong Train Station. The bus ride will take about twenty to twenty-five minutes, and the bus will let you off right outside the temple grounds.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Cheontaesa Temple is absolutely packed with temple shrine halls and outdoor shrines. As for the outdoor shrines and shrine halls, you’ll find quite a few dedicated to shaman deities like Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Yongwang (The Dragon King), as well as one of the larger shrine halls dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) in Korea. In addition, there are several outdoor shrines like the artificial caves dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal and Yaksayeorae-bul, as well as the extremely uniquely designed Sowon Seokgul with its blunt golden spears jetting outwards. But the two main attractions for most visitors to Cheontaesa Temple is the fifteen metre tall relief dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) and the Yongnyeon-pokpo Waterfall to the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall and up Mt. Cheontaesan.

Springtime at Cheontaesa Temple.
The Iljumun Gate at the entry of the temple.
The two-story Cheonwangmun Gate with the temple’s Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion) on the second floor.
The main altar inside the Dokseong-gak Hall with a look at the Lonely Saint.
The cave shrine hall to the left of the main hall and up a set of stone stairs. Inside is this statue of Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha).
And to the left of the cave shrine is this outdoor shrine dedicated to the uniquely attired Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).
A look inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Yongwang (Dragon King) outdoor shrine at Cheontaesa Temple.
The mural dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) inside the Chilseong/Sanshin-gak shaman shrine hall.
A closer look at the amazing fifteen metre tall stone relief dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
The subterranean shrine hall dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to the right of the massive stone relief dedicated to Amita-bul.
The strange wish fulfilling stone cave shrine, or “Sowon Seokgul” in Korean, to the left of the Amita-bul stone relief. It’s between the stone relief and the neighbouring Myeongbu-jeon Hall.
A look up at the rather dry Yongnyeon-pokpo Waterfall.
And the view from atop the Yongnyeon-pokpo Waterfall.

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