Gyeongsangnam-do,  Tongdosa

Geukrakam Hermitage – 극락암 (Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do)

The Hong-gyo Bridge at Geukrakam Hermitage on the Tongdosa Temple Grounds in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Hermitage History

Geukrakam Hermitage is located on the Tongdosa Temple grounds in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do in the foothills of Mt. Yeongchuksan (1082.2 m). The name of the hermitage is closely associated with Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise), who typically resides inside a Geukrak-jeon Hall at a temple or hermitage. In English, “Geukrak” means “Ultimate Bliss” for the Western Paradise that Amita-bul resides.

Geukrakam Hermitage was first founded in 1344. From its creation to the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), very little of the hermitage’s history is known. The only thing that is recorded about the hermitage is that it was reconstructed by the monk Cheolhong in 1758. More recently, and because of the monk Gyeongbong (1892-1982) who came to the hermitage in 1955, the hermitage grew in popularity. It was also at this time until the 1980s that the entire hermitage grounds were reconstructed.

In total, Geukrakam Hermitage is home to five Gyeongsangnam Cultural Heritage Materials. They are the Suje-jeon Hall, the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural), a bronze gong, a stone Gwanseeum-bosal statue, and a Amita-bul Hubul-taeng. All of these are housed at either Geukrakam Hermitage or the Tongdosa Temple museum.

Hermitage Layout

When you first approach the grounds, you’ll notice the imposing Mt. Yeongchuksan in the background framing the entire hermitage grounds. Passing through the hermitage parking lot, you’ll see a beautiful bridge spanning a large pond to your right. This bridge is the Hong-gyo Bridge. During the summer months, lotus flowers grow in the pond; while in the springtime, a beautiful old cherry blossom tree grows next to the pond. Backing this pond is the large Yeongwol-ru Pavilion. The first floor of this structure seems to be for storage, while the second story acts as dorms for visitors.

To the left of the Yeongwol-ru Pavilion, you’ll climb up an uneven set of stairs and pass through a two pillar entry gate. To your left are the monks’ dorms. And straight ahead of you is the Suje-jeon Hall (Caring for Human’s Longevity and Fortune Hall). Originally when the shrine hall was made during the Joseon Dynasty, it was built as a Chilseong-gak Hall. Later, and in 1903, the shrine hall was converted by the mayor of Yangsan, An Jong,-seol, into a shrine hall for the longevity of the Korean royal family. Also, this shrine hall formerly housed the “Amita Hubul-taeng,” which is now housed inside the Muryangsu-jeon Hall at Geukrakam Hermitage. The exterior walls to the Suje-jeon Hall have scenic murals of waterfalls and white cranes, as well as a snowy depiction of the hermitage during the winter months. Stepping inside the Suje-jeon Hall, you’ll find a central mural dedicated to Jeseok-cheon (Indra) on the main altar joined by seven different murals dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars). Currently, there is also an-all new Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) mural housed inside the Suje-jeon Hall. The Mountain Spirit is joined in the painting by a blue-eyed tiger.

To the right of the Suje-jeon Hall is the very large Muryangsu-jeon Hall. There is an outer corridor to this shrine hall before stepping inside the main hall. Hanging on the far right wall of this wooden corridor is the historic Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). In this historic mural, you’ll find a total of eighteen figures. It’s believed that this mural dates back to 1818. Included in the mural are images of Dongjin-bosal, Jeseok-cheon (Indra), Beom-cheon (Brahma), and various shamanic deities. And hanging on the far left wall is the bronze plate gong that dates back to 1900-1907. It’s about 85 cm in diametre, and it has a beautiful light green patina to it.

Stepping inside the Muryangsu-jeon Hall, you’ll find a simple interior. Resting all alone on the main altar is a tiny little statue dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal. This historic statue dates back to 1835. The statue dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion holds an equally tiny bottle in its lap. And backing this stone statue is the “Amita Hubul-taeng.” This fading main altar mural was first painted in 1821, and in the centre of the mural rests Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Amita-bul is joined by the Sacheonwang (The Four Heavenly Kings), Yongwang (The Dragon King), Beom-cheon (Brahma), Jeseok-cheon (Indra), and accompanying Bodhisattvas. As for the exterior of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall, you’ll find rather large, but elemental, Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals).

To the right of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall is the Samso-gul Hall, which is off-limits to the general public. But it’s between the Muryangsu-jeon Hall and the Samso-gul Hall that you’ll find a pathway leading to the rear of the main hall. Up a meandering pathway, you’ll finally come to the Dokseong-gak Hall after about about a one hundred metre stroll. Inside this shrine hall, the interior is lit with simmering glass lotus flowers. And on the main altar is a statue dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) inside a glass enclosure.

How To Get There

From Busan, you’ll first need to get to the Nopo subway stop, which is stop #134. From there, go to the intercity bus terminal. From the intercity bus terminal get a bus bound for Tongdosa Temple. The ride should last about 25 minutes. The buses leave every 20 minutes from 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. From where the bus drops you off at the Tongdosa Temple bus stop, you’ll need to walk an additional 10 minutes to the temple grounds west of the bus stop.

From Tongdosa Temple, you’ll need to continue up the main road for another 700 metres until you come to a fork in the road. Instead of heading straight, turn right and continue heading in this direction for 1.4 kilometres. There are a cluster of hermitages that are well marked in this area. Follow the signs that read “Geukrakam – 극락암.”

Overall Rating: 5/10

While not the largest hermitage at Tongdosa Temple, Geukrakam Hermitage is definitely one of its more beautiful with the Hong-gyo Bridge at the entry and the historic Suje-jeon Hall. In addition to these two highlights, other things to keep an eye out for are all the Gyeongsangnam Cultural Heritage Materials like the Shinjung Taenghwa, the bronze plate gong, and the main altar Amita-bul Hubul-taeng. And to top it all off, the sparkly interior of the Dokseong-gak Hall to the rear of the hermitage grounds is another thing not to overlook when at Geukrakam Hermitage.

The Hong-gyo Bridge during springtime.
Some white lotus flowers in the pond beneath the Hong-gyo Bridge during the summer months.
A look through the hermitage entry gate at the Suje-jeon Hall.
The Suje-jeon Hall in the sunshine.
A fading mural of Geukrakam Hermitage that adorns the exterior of the Suje-jeon Hall.
The interior of the Suje-jeon Hall with separate murals depicting Chilseong (The Seven Stars).
Also housed inside the Suje-jeon Hall is this depiction of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit).
The view from the Suje-jeon Hall.
Three nuns making their way through the entry gate in the early morning light.
The Muryangsu-jeon Hall at Geukrakam Hermitage.
One of the large Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals) that adorns the exterior of the main hall.
The entry to the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.
The corridor out in front of the entry to the main hall with the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) at the end of the corridor.
The main altar inside the Muryangsu-jeon Hall in 2010.
The pathway leading up to the Dokseong-gak Hall.
A white hare in the shubbery at Geukrakam Hermitage.
A Bodhidharma-looking image of Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) adorning one of the exterior walls to the Dokseong-gak Hall.
And the main altar inside the Dokseong-gak Hall.

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