Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage – 관음선원 (Sangju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

The Korean Treasures at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage in Sangju, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Hermitage History

Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage is located in northwestern Sangju, Gyeongsangbuk-do in the southern foothills of Mt. Noeumsan (725.5 m). Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage is a hermitage directly associated with Namjangsa Temple; as such, it’s located some 300 metres north of Namjangsa Temple on the temple grounds. The name of the hermitage comes from the Bodhisattva Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). It’s believed that the hermitage was first founded by Jingam as a meditation centre at the end of Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). After its original construction, Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage was rebuilt several times including in 1668 and 1752. Later, and in 1797, the monk Boin rebuilt the Gwaneum-jeon Hall at the hermitage. This was subsequently followed by reconstruction of the hermitage in 1802 and 1878. And the reconstruction and expansion of the hermitage continues to the present day.

Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage is home to two Korean Treasures. They are the Wooden Amitabha Buddha and Bodhisattvas Altarpiece at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #923; and the Wooden Seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #2067 as of June, 2020.

Hermitage Layout

You first approach the hermitage up a long winding country road to the rear of Namjangsa Temple. This road can be especially hazardous during a recent snowfall. From the hermitage parking lot, you’ll pass through a newly built entry pavilion, which also acts as small dorms for visitors from the inner courtyard.

Having stepped inside the main hermitage courtyard at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage, you’ll notice a two-story structure to your right. This is the administrative office and kitchen, as well as a lecture hall on the second story of the structure. To your left of this structure, however, is the main draw to the hermitage. This rather long historic structure has a triple function. The first, and to the far right of the building, is the administrative office at the hermitage. And to the far left of the structure is the hermitage’s traditional storage area. But it’s in the centre of the structure, with the signboard over the entry, that you’ll find the Gwaneum-jeon Hall at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage.

Stepping inside the central Gwaneum-jeon Hall, you’ll find a glass enclosure with both Korean Treasures housed inside it. The solitary image on the main altar is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion), and it’s the Wooden Seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple (T #2067). There is a lack of information as to when this statue was first made. It’s believed, however, to date back to the 15th century judging from its features such as its aristocratic appearance, the round coiled topknot, and several other features. There are just a few of these Buddha and Bodhisattva statues in Korea from the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which makes this statue an important one in the study of the history of Buddhist sculptures in Korea. During the repair and re-application of gold powder to the statue in 2012, a paper prayer was found inside the statue from an earlier repair that was completed in 1701.

And behind the Wooden Seated Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple is placed the other Korean Treasure at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage: the Wooden Amitabha Buddha and Bodhisattvas Altarpiece at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple (T #923). Typically a main altar statue or triad is backed by a large painting made of cloth or paper. The main altar statue at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage, on the other hand, is backed by a golden wooden relief sculpture. This altarpiece relief measures 184 cm wide and 165 cm tall. Housed inside this altarpiece relief are four Bodhisattvas that are placed on either side (two on each side) of the central image of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). On either side of the Bodhisattvas are two of the Buddha’s disciples: Ananda (5th–4th century B.C.) and Kashyapa. And on either side of the two disciples are the Four Heavenly Kings. Lotus flowers form at the bottom part of the relief. Amita-bul places his hands on his knees, and his thumb and middle finger are touching. The four Bodhisattvas are holding lotus flowers or clasping their hands. The figures in this altarpiece have square faces and bodies. It’s believed that the Wooden Amitabha Buddha and Bodhisattvas Altarpiece at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple dates back to the 17th century.

The final structure that visitors can explore at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage is the Samseong-gak Hall to the left rear of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the shaman shrine hall are adorned with beautiful scenes from nature, as well as the Sinseon (Taoist Immortals). Stepping inside the Samseong-gak Hall, you’ll find three beautiful older murals dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit).

How To Get There

To get to Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage, you’ll first need to get to the main temple, Namjangsa Temple. There are no direct buses that go to Namjangsa Temple from the Sangju Intercity Bus Terminal. Instead, you’ll need to take a taxi from the Sangju Intercity Bus Terminal to get to Namjangsa Temple. Fortunately, the distance isn’t terrible. In total, the taxi ride will last about 15 minutes, over 6.6 km, and it’ll cost you round 7,000 won (one way). To the rear of Namjangsa Temple, and heading north along the dirt road for 300 metres, you’ll eventually come to Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage.

Overall Rating: 6.5/10

It’s a bit tricky to rate Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage because it’s so small; and yet, it has two Korean Treasures. But the little known Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage has two of the more beautiful Korean Treasures that you’ll find at any Buddhist temple or hermitage in all of Korea. Of the two, it’s the Wooden Amitabha Buddha and Bodhisattvas Altarpiece at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage of Namjangsa Temple altarpiece that’s the rarer of the two. There are only two known historic altar reliefs that includes neighbouring Namjangsa Temple and Yongmunsa Temple in Yecheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. In addition to the simply stunning wooden altarpiece is the graceful image dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal on the main altar. Excluding these two very obvious highlights, other things to keep an eye out for are the triad of shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall and the older Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) housed inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. While definitely a bit harder to get to; but in conjunction with a trip to neighbouring Namjangsa Temple, you can see a total of seven Korean Treasures in one location, which is almost unheard of at a smaller temple or hermitage. And they have two very friendly hermitage dogs, as well.

The entry gate at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage.
And a look through the gate towards the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
The administrative office at the hermitage.
A look towards the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
An up-close at the entry to the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
The Korean Treasures housed inside a glass enclosure at Gwaneumseonwon Hermitage.
The Samseong-gak Hall to the rear of the main hall.
The image of Chilseong (The Seven Stars) inside the Samseong-gak Hall.
Joined by this image of Dokseong (The Lonely Saint).
And this image of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit).
One of the images adorning the Samseong-gak Hall.
And another.
And yet another in the series.
And one final one.
The view from the Samseong-gak Hall towards the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
And one of the two hermitage dogs saying good-bye. (Picture courtesy of Joseph Bengivenni).

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