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Girimsa Temple, which means “Sacred Forest Temple,” in English, is located in eastern Gyeongju. The name of the temple is a transliteration of one of the two main temples that the Buddha and his disciples were active in during Seokgamoni-bul’s (The Historical Buddha) lifetime: Venuvana and Jetavana. Of the two, it’s Jetavana that Girimsa Temple is named after. The reason that Jetavana was so important is that it’s where the Buddha spent twenty years of his life and taught the majority of his teachings. In fact, of the forty-five vassas (three month retreats), the Buddha stayed at Jetavana for nineteen of them. In Korean, the name for Jetavana is “Giwonjeongsa.” And the name of the forest at Jetavana is “Girim,” in Korean.
Girimsa Temple was first constructed in 643 A.D., purportedly, by the Indian monk Gwangyu. Supposedly, Gwangyu taught five hundred students at Girimsa Temple. However, there seems to be little evidence to support this claim. Additionally, the temple was originally named Imjeongsa Temple.
Later, Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.) rebuilt Imjeongsa Temple and renamed it Girimsa Temple. And according to the Samguk Yusa, or “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” in English, there’s a story about Girimsa Temple and King Sinmun of Silla (r.681-692) in it. In the Samguk Yusa, it says that “The thirty-first king of Silla, King Sinmun, received a flute called the Manpasikjeok from the previous king who had transformed into a dragon in the East Sea, and he took a rest on the western riverside of Girimsa Temple on his way back to his palace.” This story places the origin of Girimsa Temple in the latter half of the 7th century.
During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the monk Gakyu was the head monk at Girimsa Temple. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), Girimsa Temple acted as a base for the Righteous Army that helped defend the Korean peninsula from the invading Japanese. And towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Girimsa Temple was one of the thirty-one most important temples on the peninsula. Tragically, in 1863, several of the temple shrine halls at Girimsa Temple were destroyed by a huge fire. Fortunately, they were rebuilt through the donations of the Gyeongju official, Song Uhwa. Up until 1945, Girimsa Temple was the largest temple in Gyeongju; but because of its location, and access to it, Girimsa Temple became a branch temple to the famous Bulguksa Temple.
In total, Girimsa Temple is home to five Korean Treasures and two Cultural Properties Materials.
As you make your way towards Girimsa Temple, you’ll notice the towering Mt. Hamwolsan (584m) off in the distance as you cross a picturesque bridge on your way towards the stately Iljumun Gate, or “One Pillar Gate,” in English. An uphill trail leads you towards Girimsa temple, which is divided into three parts. The hike up to the main temple grounds is beautiful, especially in the fall with the beautiful foliage and the meandering stream to the east.
Eventually, the forest will recede, and you’ll be welcomed to the main temple grounds by the Cheonwangmun Gate. The cobble stone pathway leading up to the Four Heavenly Kings Gate is joined by the bell pavilion, or “Jong-ru,” in Korean, on the upper courtyard. Entering into the Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll be greeted by four large sized Four Heavenly Kings.
After passing through the Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll find yourself facing the Jinnam-ru Pavilion. Very little is known about this pavilion, which literally means “Suppression of the South [Japan] Pavilion,” in English. One possible answer as to the name of the pavilion is that it was a base for the local Righteous Army during the Imjin War. The current building is believed to have been rebuilt during the mid-18th century. And it now acts as a lecture hall at the temple. The Jinnam-ru Pavilion is Korean Cultural Properties Materials #251.
To the left of the Jinnam-ru Pavilion, and between the Eungjin-jeon Hall and the Jinnam-ru Pavilion, you’ll enter the main temple courtyard at Girimsa Temple. The Eungjin-jeon Hall was first believed to have been built during the reign of Queen Seondeok (r.632-647). The current Eungjin-jeon Hall was reconstructed in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Housed inside the Eungjin-jeon Hall are five hundred white stone statues of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). And resting on the main altar is an all-white stone statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This central statue is joined on either side by Yeondeung-bul (The Past Buddha) and Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).
Out in front of the Eungjin-jeon Hall is an ancient three-story pagoda that dates back to Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). Joining this stone pagoda in the main temple courtyard are sixteen foundation stones that mark the site of a former wooden pagoda that once took up residence at Girimsa Temple. This wooden pagoda dated all the way back to 660 A.D. near the start of the temple’s original founding.
Behind these foundation stones, which are largely overgrown with local vegetation, is the Yaksa-jeon Hall. The Yaksa-jeon Hall at Girimsa Temple is believed to date back to 1600, and it’s Korean Cultural Properties Materials #252. The Yaksa-jeon Hall underwent two reconstructions in 1654 and 1678. Housed inside the Yaksa-jeon Hall are three statues on the main altar. In the centre appears a seated image of Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha). This statue is joined on both sides by two standing images of Wolgwang-bosal (The Moon Bodhisattva) and Ilgwang-bosal (The Sun Bodhisattva).
The most impressive hall at Girimsa Temple is the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall. This hall is believed to have been renovated in 1629, and it’s Korean Treasure #833. The exterior walls to this shrine hall are unpainted, as are the beautifully intricate floral latticework that adorns the front doors. Stepping inside the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall, you’ll be greeted by three large statues that rest on the main altar. These statues, which are centred by Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy), are Korean Treasure #958. Birojana-bul is joined on the main altar by Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha, and the Buddha of the Easern Paradise) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). These large clay statues are believed to date all the way back to the early 16th century. These statues were created by placing clay on top of the juniper wooden frame.
On the upper courtyard, you’ll first encounter the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. Housed inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall is one of Korea’s most beautiful and ornate statues of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This standing statue of Gwaneeum-bosal is a thousand armed and eleven headed image of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It’s truly stunning. The Gwaneum-jeon Hall is joined in the upper courtyard by the rather long Samcheonbul-jeon Hall, which means “Thousand Buddhas Hall,” in English. Joining Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on the main altar is Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). And joining this triad on the main altar are three thousand smaller sized, green ceramic Buddha statuettes, which give the shrine hall its name.
A little further to the left, and you’ll find a pair of shrine halls. The first is the Samseong-gak Hall. Housed inside this shaman shrine hall are beautiful renderings of Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Sanshin who seems to have both a male and female Mountain Spirit in the painting of the shaman deity. Next to the Samseong-gak Hall, and across the courtyard, is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. Housed inside this hall is a green-haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). This central statue is joined on either side by ten seated statues of the Shiwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld). Of note, the entire upper courtyard is filled with beautiful flowers.
The final section at Girimsa Temple, which is divided into three main sections consisting of the lower and upper courtyard, is the museum and monks’ dorms at the temple. The museum is definitely worth a visit, as it not only houses a collection of late 18th century Shiwang murals, but it also houses Korean Treasure #415. This Korean Treasure is a dry-lacquered statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. This statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is topped by a separate crown engraved with arabesque patterns. The face is large and plump, and the statue is wearing earrings. A robe is draped over both of the statue’s shoulders, and it’s wearing an ornate necklace with three strands of beautiful, and intricate, jewelry. Gwanseeum-bosal sits with legs crossed. Its left hand rests on the pedestal with one of its legs pulled upwards.
Admission to the temple is 3,000 won.
HOW TO GET THERE: From Gyeongju, you can take either Bus #100 or Bus #150 that heads towards Gampo. You’ll need to get off either of these buses at the Andong-ri intersection. You can either wait for the infrequent Bus #130, or you can walk the forty minutes to Girimsa Temple.
OVERALL RATING: 8/10. I’ve been to Girimsa Temple a few times now; and every time I visit it, I appreciate it that much more. From its ornate multi-armed and headed standing statue of Gwanseeum-bosal inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall (arguably the most beautiful in Korea), to the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall and its main altar statues, to the unknown Jinnam-ru Pavilion, and the Korean Treasure of Gwanseeum-bosal inside the temple museum, this lesser known temple in Gyeongju definitely has a little something for everyone.