Jeseoksa Temple – 제석사 (Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

Inside the Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon Hall at Jeseoksa Temple in Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Temple History

Jeseoksa Temple is located in the eastern part Gyeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do. Gyeongsan is also the home to the famed monk Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.). A little more on Wonhyo-daesa later. As for the temple, Jeseoksa Temple is named after Jeseok-bul (King of Heaven Buddha, or Indra). According to legend, the temple was built some four hundred years earlier. A local farmer found a statue of the Buddha and a part of a pagoda, so it was decided to build a temple on the current Jeseoksa Temple grounds. It is claimed by some that these artifacts date all the way back to Later Silla (668 – 935 A.D.). And some go even further by claiming that the temple was originally built by Wonhyo-daesa. However, there is no documentation to prove this claim. According to the Samguk Yusa, or “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms” in English, Wonhyo-daesa built two temples. One of these temples was built where he was born, while the other was built where he once lived. One of these temples was called Sarasa Temple, and the other was called Chogaesa Temple. So it’s guessed by some scholars that the older temple that was discovered on the present Jeseoksa Temple grounds was originally from the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – 935 A.D). And according to the “Korean Temple History Book – 한국사찰전서,” the Daeung-jeon Hall at Jeseoksa Temple was built in 1962, while the neighbouring Chilseong-gak Hall was built three years later in 1965.

Now, as for Wonhyo-daesa, for which the temple is so intimately connected, he would donate all of his family’s wealth and enter to become a Buddhist monk at the age of fifteen. He would go on to build his first temple called Chogaesa Temple at his home. And later, he built Jeseoksa Temple beside a Sara-su tree, which was where he was born. With his friend, Uisang-daesa (625 – 702 A.D.), they would attempt to enter Tang Dynasty China (618–690, 705–907). On their way, they decided to sleep inside a cave and take shelter from a storm. While he was sleeping, Wonhyo-daesa became thirsty, so he reached out his hand towards a bucket of water in the dark. After taking a drink, he thought that the water was good. The next day, Uisang and Wonhyo woke up and realized that they were inside a tomb and not a cave. And the water that Wonhyo drank came from inside a skull. At this moment, Wonhyo suddenly realized, “All the phenomenon in this world are from your own mind and every law is only realization/awareness? There is no other law beside your mind, why would you look for other things?” Instead of travelling on towards Tang China like Uisang-daesa would do, Wonhyo left his friend and returned to the Silla Kingdom. Later, Wonhyo would study at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. It was here that he would die.

Temple Layout

As you first enter the compact temple grounds, you’ll pass through a corridor-like entry gate. Painted on the entry doors, you’ll notice a pair of fierce Narayeon Geumgang and Miljeok Geumgang (The Twin Guardians of Korean Temples) murals. To the left, and past an old gnarled tree, you’ll see the visitors centre and nuns’ dorms.

Straight ahead of you, on the other hand, is the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls are adorned with the traditional Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). And the front latticework beautifully depicts reliefs of the Four Heavenly Kings with quizzical looks upon each of their faces. There are also intricate dragon heads up near the eaves of the front facade, and detailed reliefs of Gwimyeon (Monster Mask) at the base of the front entry doors of the Daeung-jeon Hall. Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a triad of golden statues resting on the main altar. In the centre rests an image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). To this statue’s right and left are images of Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This triad is meant to represent the idea of Samsara. Rounding out the Buddhist artwork inside the Daeung-jeon Hall is the temple’s Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) as well as a Dragon Ship of Wisdom mural.

To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and past a tortoise-based biseok, you’ll find the newly constructed Samseong-gak Hall (which seems to have replaced the former Chilseong-gak Hall). Housed inside this shaman shrine hall are three murals dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). But it’s the longer ear lobed mural dedicated to Sanshin that sits with his leopard-looking tiger that stands out the most among the three.

But it’s the temple shrine to the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall that’s the main highlight to Jeseoksa Temple. This temple shrine hall is known as the Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon – 원효성사전, and it was first built in 2003. The exterior walls to this hall are adorned with various murals from the life of Wonhyo-daesa. These murals include the fish pointing scene from the founding of Oeosa Temple in Pohang, as well as the friendship between Uisang-daesa and Wonhyo-daesa.

But the true highlight to this structure hangs inside the Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon Hall. Housed inside this temple shrine hall are a collection of eight paintings that are artistically similar to the traditional Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life) set, but they’re original in their own right, as well. Instead of depicting the traditional scenes from the Historical Buddha’s Life, they depict eight original scenes from Wonhyo-daesa’s life. And the entire life of Wonhyo-daesa is brilliantly captured in this set of eight murals.

So in the traditional Palsang-do, you’ll find eight paintings. These paintings, in order, depict: 1. The Announcement of the Birth; 2. Birth; 3. The World Outside the Palace; 4. Renunciation; 5. Asceticism; 6. Temptations; 7. Enlightenment; 8. Death.

An up-close of the first mural in the Wonhyo version of the Palsang-do set.

As for the Palsang-do set dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa inside the Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon Hall, and located left to right inside the hall, you’ll find:

1. In the first mural, you’ll see Wonhyo-daesa being born underneath a chestnut tree, where his mother subsequently passed away. By the age of twelve, Wonhyo’s father died in battle and his grandfather passed away when he was seventeen years old.

2. In the second mural, you’ll find Wonhyo has left home, and he’s shaved his head at Yongchwisa Temple in Yangsan. He studies at Hwangnyongsa Temple. And he learns from a monk named Nangja at Bangosa Temple. Finally, you’ll find Wonhyo studying hard at Oeosa Temple in Pohang with the monk Haegong.

3/4. In the third and fourth mural of the set, Wonhyo meets Uisang-daesa, who was eight years his junior. Together, they try to study in Tang China at different times. The second time, Wonhyo is sleeping in a tomb near Danghangseong and attains enlightenment there. Afterwards, he gives up the idea of studying abroad with Uisang-daesa.

An up-close of the fourth painting in the Wonhyo Palsang-do set.

5. In the fifth mural, and after attaining enlightenment, Wonhyo comes home and he makes his home a temple. He calls this temple Chogaesa Temple, which means “Open the First Door Temple” in English. Wonhyo approaches war-widows and the lower class in Silla society and teaches them “Namu Amita-bul.” With this, people can now become like the Buddha and enter Nirvana.

6. In the sixth mural, you see Wonhyo marrying Princess Yoseok. In doing this, he becomes not quite a civilian and not quite a monk in Silla society. He skirts both groups.

7. In the seventh mural in the Wonhyo Palsang-do set, you can see that Wonhyo is not liked by the religious establishment in Silla society. He’s not picked as one of the one hundred high ranking monks to administer over a Buddhist memorial service at Hwangryongsa Temple in Gyeongju. However, and because he’s so popular with common people, Wonhyo quickly gathers a following of some one thousand people.

8. In the eighth, and final mural in the set, Wonhyo’s knowledge and power over moral doctrines can no longer be ignored. Because Wonhyo is so knowledgeable, especially about the Diamond Sutra, the Buddhist establishment is forced to contact Wonhyo, so that he can help explain and teach Buddhist writings. Afterwards, Wonhyo only continues to grow in popularity until his death.

This collection of eight beautiful murals rest under a extended golden canopy. And in the centre of the eight paintings sits a golden statue dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa. This shrine hall, and the paintings contained within it, are highly unique.

How To Get There

From the Gyeongsan Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to walk about three hundred metres, or five minutes, to get to the Gyeongsan Shijang (market) bus stop. From there, you’ll need to take Bus #990. After twenty stops, or twenty-one minutes, you’ll need to get off at the Jainmyeon Sahmuso (office). From there, you’ll need to walk four hundred and fifty metres, or seven minutes, to get to Jeseoksa Temple.

You can take a bus, or you can simply take a taxi from the Gyeongsan Intercity Bus Terminal. If you do decide to take a taxi, it’ll last about seventeen minutes and cost 11,000 won (one way).

Overall Rating: 7/10

While this temple is smaller in size, it more than makes up for it with all the artwork that it houses on its grounds. Jeseoksa Temple is home to the highly original Palsang-do set dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa. This beautiful collection can be found inside the equally original Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon Hall. Rounding out the beautiful artwork at Jeseoksa Temple is the latticework around the Daeung-jeon Hall, and the equally impressive mural dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) inside the Samseong-gak Hall.

The entry to the temple grounds.
The beautiful Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Sacheonwang and Gwimyeon latticework adorning the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The main altar inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The newly built Samseong-gak Hall to the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) mural inside the shaman shrine hall.
The unique Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon Hall at Jeseoksa Temple
The exterior wall painting adorning the Wonhyo-seongsa-jeon Hall of Wonhyo and Uisang.
The seventh painting in the Wonhyo Palsang-do set with Wonhyo and his 1,000 followers.

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