Gwanchoksa Temple in Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do is located on the diminutive slopes of Mt. Banyasan (100 m). The temple was first founded in 968 A.D., at the start of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), by the monk Hyemyeong-daesa. The temple was rebuilt several times throughout the centuries. And the history of the temple is intermingled with several myths and legends.
Gwanchoksa Temple is home to a National Treasure and a Korean Treasure. The National Treasure is the Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple, which is also known as the Eunjin Mireuk Statue. For the longest of times, it was known as a Korean Treasure, Korean Treasure #218. Then in 2018, that statue became National Treasure #323. As for the Korean Treasure, it’s the Stone Lantern of Gwanchoksa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #232.
Admission to the temple is 1,500 won.
According to a legend, while a woman was picking wild herbs on Mt. Banyasan, she heard a baby crying. When she went to the spot where she heard the baby crying, there wasn’t a baby; instead, there was a large stone sticking out from the ground. Learning this, the government ordered the monk Hyemyeong to make a Buddha statue from this large stone. Hyemyeong tried to build the Buddha statue employing some one hundred professionals from 968 A.D. to 1006 A.D. However, when they attempted to stand the Eunjin Mireuk Statue, it was too big, so they couldn’t make the statue stand. They were very worried that they wouldn’t ever be able to make the large statue stand. One day Hyemyeong saw two child monks playing with a Buddha statue made of dirt. This statue was cut into three parts. After witnessing this, Hyemyeong rushed back to the temple and told his sculptors to make the ground flat. Following what he had just seen, Hyemyeong told the sculptors to place the bottom part of the statue first on the ground. Afterwards, the middle and upper portions of the Eunjin Mireuk Statue were placed together to complete the statue.
Hyemyeong was to later learn that these two child monks were in fact Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). The reason that they appeared to Hyemyeong in this way was to teach him. And with the Eunjin Mireuk Statue completed, it suddenly started to rain. And for the next twenty-one days, it rained. It was said that there was auspicious energy surrounding the statue at this time and people saw a light shining forth from between the eyes of the statue. In fact, one day a Chinese monk followed this light and ended up at Gwanchoksa Temple. And he said that the light was like a candle’s light, so that’s how the temple became known as “Gwanchoksa.”
There are a couple other legends involving Gwanchoksa Temple. One day, when China had a war with Korea, the Chinese made it all the way up the neighbouring river next to Gwanchoksa Temple. The Eunjin Mireuk Statue disguised itself as a monk with a satgat (a traditional bamboo hat). The statue walked across the river so that the Chinese thought that the river was shallow. Thinking this, the soldiers jumped into the river and drowned. Angry, the Chinese general hit the statue’s satgat with his sword, and the statue’s crown on top of the Eunjin Mireuk Statue was broken. This part of the Eunjin Mireuk Statue still remains broken to this day.
And one more legend concerning the Eunjin Mireuk Statue describes a time when the Korean peninsula was at peace. It was at this time that the body of the statue shined. It was believed to be a sign of the auspicious energy that surrounded the statue. But once a war had broken out on the Korean peninsula, the Eunjin Mireuk Statue started to sweat and the flower in its hand lost its colour. It’s also believed that if you pray to the Eunjin Mireuk Statue that all your wishes will come true.
The Modern History of Gwanchoksa Temple
Here’s an interesting story from the Korea Review newspaper from 1905 during the Korean Empire (1897-1910). A group of Koreans reportedly damaged the “Stone Standing Maitreya Bodhisattva of Gwanchoksa Temple” in Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do. Korean monks demanded compensation first from a twelve year old boy who was caught damaging the historic statue. However, when it was discovered that the boy was an orphan, the Korean monks went after a Korean man, who was identified as being “one of the bystanders” at the site of the incident. Unfortunately, the monks were unable to receive any form of compensation from the bystander for the damage.
After a while, a Japanese Buddhist monk came to live at Gwanchoksa Temple, or in the town. This Japanese monk would go on to obtain some form of influence over the monks at the temple. Both the Korean monks at Gwanchoksa Temple and the Japanese monk stormed the bystander’s house to confiscate things of value that would help compensate the temple for the damage caused to the statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).
It’s unclear if the monks were able to gain anything of value, but the whole incident didn’t end there. At this time, a Methodist missionary named William B. McGill, along with some Korean Christian believers, had built a church and purchased property in the area to build a school. The Korean monks and Japanese monk from Gwanchoksa Temple found out that the accused bystander was a Christian and a member of this church. When the monks were finally able to locate this man, the members of the church protected him.
The monks contacted the local magistrate to challenge the church’s occupancy of the property they owned. McGill, who was afraid for his well-being from Japanese residents, quickly telegraphed another missionary, Rev. Robert Sharp, requesting his assistance. The Japanese residents and the local government officials stormed the church with guns, knives, and clubs and completely destroyed the church and injured some of its members. The violence finally ended when the Japanese police arrived. McGill would complain that none of the Japanese residents involved in the violence faced arrest.
It’s unclear if the aforementioned Korean monks and Japanese monk were involved in the later violence. However, it’s clear that the monks were able to rile up the local Japanese population to act upon their animosity towards the local Christian population.
This incidence, which was during a tumultuous time in Korea’s past after the signing of the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905 that made Korea a protectorate, served two purposes. First, it shows how Korean monks worked with Japanese Buddhists at this time to pursue and protect their own interests. On the other hand, it shows us how Japanese Buddhists both ingratiated themselves with the local Korean monks, while also combating Christian missionary influences on the Korean peninsula.
You first approach the elevated temple grounds from the north. Eventually, you’ll pass through a stately two-pillar Iljumun Gate. After passing through the Iljumun Gate, you’ll next encounter the Cheongwangmun Gate with some shrunken-headed Four Heavenly Kings inside this entry gate. Now making your way up the slight incline, as you make your way zig-zagging up the pathway, you’ll pass under the Banya-ru Pavilion to gain entry to the temple courtyard at Gwanchoksa Temple.
The first temple shrine hall to greet you at Gwanchoksa Temple is the impressive two-story Daegwangmyeong-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are adorned with various murals of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). And the floral latticework on the front doors to the Daegwangmyeong-jeon Hall are beautiful. Stepping inside the Daegwangmyeong-jeon Hall, you’ll be welcomed by a rather long and slender main altar and canopy. Sitting in the centre of a triad of statues is that of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This statue is joined on either side by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) and Nosana-bul (The Reward Body Buddha). And hanging on the far left wall is a large Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). Also taking up residence inside the Daegwangmyeong-jeon Hall are hundreds of smaller golden Mireuk-bul (Future Buddha) statues similar to the famed historic Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple that awaits you.
To the right of the Daegwangmyeong-jeon Hall is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Gwanchoksa Temple. Housed inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall is a green haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). With a staff pointed outwards, he greets any and all visitors to his temple shrine hall. There is also a mural dedicated to Samyeong-daesa (1544-1610) inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, as well. And next to the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, and up a meandering set of stairs, is the temple’s Samseong-gak Hall. This shaman shrine hall houses three rather underwhelming murals dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), Chilseong (The Seven Stars), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit).
But it’s down the stairs, and back in the main temple courtyard, that’s probably the real reason you’ve traveled all the way to Gwanchoksa Temple. The Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple is 18.12 metres tall, and it was built from 968 – 1006 A.D. The Eunjin Mireuk-bul consists of two large stone pieces. And it’s the largest historic stone Buddha in Korea. The design of the statue is typical of early Goryeo Dynasty designs. And according to a temple legend, before the statue was built, the founding monk, Hyemyeong-daesa, was really worried about how he would find the funds to construct such a large statue. Later, he decided to build the statue anyways, after he realized it was meaningless to worry about the funds, when he saw children playing with mud on the river bank. As was already mentioned, the Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple was a Korean Treasure; however, in 2018, it became National Treasure #323.
As for the actual design of the historic statue, it has an oval shaped head and two piercing cat-like eyes that appear to be meditative in composition and otherworldly, almost alien, in comparison to other statues of Mireuk-bul in Korea. The statue is topped by a 2.43 metre tall crown. This crown is adorned with bells on each of the two levels of the rectangular crown.
Standing in front of the Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple is the Stone Lantern of Gwanchoksa Temple. This stone lantern is Korean Treasure #232. The stone lantern, or “seokdeung – 석등” in Korean, was first built in 968 A.D. by Hyemyeong-daesa. The stone lantern consists of a three-tiered pedestal. The upper and lower portions to this pedestal have a roughly carved lotus flower design. Around the middle section of this pedestal, you’ll find seven bands carved horizontally around it. The stripe in the centre is thicker than the others, and it’s adorned with eight blossoms. Atop this pedestal is a light chamber, which is squarish in design. This design was rather typical of the Goryeo Dynasty. The four windows to the light chamber are disproportionately large. The large finial that sits atop this light chamber is supported by four rather slender pillars from the light chamber. The roof stones to the stone lantern are adorned with floral patterns around the edges, and the eaves of the lantern have a gradual curve upwards at the corners. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the stone lantern is the flame-shaped ornament at the top of the structure. The entire stone lantern looks strong, yet vulnerable. It’s also the second largest historical stone lantern in Korea next to Stone Lantern at Gakhwangjeon Hall of Hwaeomsa Temple, which is National Treasure #12.
In front of the stone lantern, and in front of an old three-story pagoda, you’ll find a Stone for Worship Taking at Gwanchoksa Temple. The square stone is where people paid respect to the Buddha. The worship stone is rectangular in shape, and it has two-stories. In total, there are three lotus flower reliefs on top of this worship stone. The largest, and most beautiful, of the three is in the centre. Each flower has eight petals. The tips of the petals are sharp. There is some debate as to when this worship stone was first created, but it’s assumed to have been made at the same time as the founding of the temple in 968 A.D.
The final temple shrine hall that visitors can explore at Gwanchoksa Temple stands out in front of both the Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple and the Stone Lantern of Gwanchoksa Temple. This is the Mireuk-jeon Hall. As the name kind of hints at, it’s dedicated to Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). Rather interestingly, there are several paintings surrounding the exterior walls to this hall that are dedicated to the founding of Gwanchoksa Tempe. Stepping inside the Mireuk-jeon Hall, you’ll notice that there’s no statues on the main altar, which is reminiscent of the Daeung-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple. Instead, what you’ll find is a golden ring painted directly onto a window that looks out onto both the historic statue and stone lantern. To the side of this main altar window is a Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) and an altar for the controversial Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) and his wife, Yuk Young-soo (1925-1974).
After seeing everything in and around the temple grounds, you can then pass through the historic Haetalmun Gate. This gate is believed to have first been constructed during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
How To Get There
From the Nonsan Intercity Bus Terminal, you can simply take a taxi to get to Gwanchoksa Temple. The ride will take about seven minutes, and it’ll cost you between four to five thousand won (one way).
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Without a doubt, the Standing Stone Mireuk-bosal Statue of Gwanchoksa Temple, or the Eunjin Mireuk Statue, is the main highlight to Gwanchoksa Temple. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more impressive statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) in all of Korea. It’s both beautiful and otherworldly in the same breath. In addition to this amazing, historic statue is the Stone Lantern of Gwanchoksa Temple, the murals around the Mireuk-jeon Hall and the two-story Daegwangmyeong-jeon Hall.