Naksansa Temple – 낙산사 (Yangyang, Gangwon-do)

Naksansa Temple in Yangyang, Gangwon-do.

Temple History

Naksansa Temple is located in Yangyang, Gangwon-do. The name of the temple, Naksansa Temple, is an abbreviation of “Botarakgasan.” The name “Naksan,” is in reference to Mt. Potalaka, which is a mythical mountain located in the seas south of India. It’s also believed to be where Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion in English, or Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit) lives. Mt. Potalaka means “Brilliance,” in English. Gwanseeum-bosal is said to live on an island surrounded by the sea alongside guardian dragons under Mt. Potalaka.

The temple was first founded in 671 A.D. by Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.) upon his return from Tang China. Uisang-daesa was an ambassador to Tang China for the Silla king, King Munmu (r.661-681). Uisang-daesa heard that Gwanseeum-bosal was staying in a cave on a mountain overlooking the East Sea, so Uisang-daesa traveled all the way from Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C – 935 A.D.), to visit the Bodhisattva of Compassion. As Uisang-daesa was waiting to meet Gwanseeum-bosal, Uisang-daesa saw a blue bird enter into a stone cave. Believing this to be auspicious, Uisang-daesa prayed for seven days and nights in front of this cave. After seven days of meditating in front of this cave, Uisang-daesa was first met by the dragon of the East Sea. This dragon gave Uisang-daesa a string of magical beads made from pure crystal and a jewel. After this encounter, and still in hope of meeting Gwanseeum-bosal, Uisang-daesa meditated for an additional seven days. Only then, after these seven days, did Gwanseeum-bosal appear to Uisang-daesa on top of a red lotus flower on the sea. Gwanseeum-bosal told Uisang-daesa, “On the peak above my cave, you will find a pair of bamboo plants growing. Build a main hall there.” Following Gwanseeum-bosal’s instruction, Uisang-daesa built a hall. Inside this hall, Uisang-daesa deposited both the crystal beads and jewel. And this is where the present Naksansa Temple is located. As for the place where Uisang-daesa met Gwanseeum-bosal, Uisang-daesa built a hermitage, which he named Hongryeonam Hermitage. And the cave where the blue bird entered, he named the cave Gwaneum.

Throughout the years, Naksansa Temple has been destroyed by fire numerous times. The temple was first destroyed by fire by the invading Mongols during the 13th century. Afterwards, it was repeatedly rebuilt and expanded by royal decree in 1467, 1469, 1631, and 1643. After all this expansion, and an extended period of relative calm, Naksansa Temple was destroyed during the Korean War in 1953. It’s from this period in history that most of the temple buildings at Naksansa Temple date back to. However, tragedy struck once more on April 4th, 2005, when a wildfire ravaged the temple grounds. The wildfire destroyed thirteen of the twenty temple buildings at Naksansa Temple. The fire destroyed a 15th century temple bell at Naksansa Temple, which was a National Treasure. Fortunately for us, the temple has been restored to its former glory over the past decade and a half since the wildfire.

Naksansa Temple participates in the popular Temple Stay program. Also, Naksansa Temple is home to three Korean Treasures, one Historic Site, and one Scenic Site.

Temple Layout

You first make your way up to Naksansa Temple from the temple parking lot. The well-manicured grounds are something to enjoy as you make your way to the temple grounds. The first thing to greet you at the temple is the fortress-like entry gate that’s known as Hongyemun Gate. It’s believed that this gate dates back to 1467, during the reign of King Sejo (r.1455-1468). It’s also said that this arched entryway is built from twenty-six stones, each of which was contributed by one of the twenty-six magistrates that governed the twenty-six towns in the area.

Walking past this arched entry gate, and finally summiting the small mountain that Naksansa Temple rests upon, you’ll notice the rebuilt Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion) to your far left. Housed inside is the rebuilt national treasure bell that was destroyed in the fire of 2005. Straight ahead is the Cheonwangmun Gate with the Four Heavenly Kings inside. They look down on you with bulging eyes. The next structure to greet you at Naksansa Temple is the strangely shaped Binil-ru Pavilion.

Having passed through the crescent-shaped gate, you’ll now enter the lower courtyard at Naksansa Temple. Other than catching your breath and enjoying the view, there are no temple structures to enjoy in this part of the temple grounds. Instead, you’ll need to keep going to see what else Naksansa Temple has to offer visitors.

Next, you’ll pass another entry gate that’s decorated with descriptive murals of guardians. Resting in the centre of the upper courtyard, and out in front of the Wontong-jeon main hall at Naksansa Temple, is a seven-story stone pagoda that was purportedly built by Uisang-daesa; but more realistically, it was built in 1467 as a three-story stone pagoda. The 6.2 metre tall pagoda, which is Tibetan-influenced in style, is Korean Treasure #499. Backing the pagoda is the Wontong-jeon Hall. Housed inside this ornately decorated main hall is a slender statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. The Bodhisattva of Compassion statue is wearing a large, ornate golden crown, and she sits all alone on the main altar. This statue on the main altar dates back to the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and its design is based on traditional Goryeo (918-1392) Buddhist artistry. This statue of Gwanseeum-bosal is Korean Treasure #1362.

A little further along, and up a trail that leads to a ridge overlooking the East Sea, is a crowning statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. This statue is known as Haesugwaneumsang, or “해수관음입상,” in Korean. The serene statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion faces towards the southeast, and the statue stands fifteen metres in height. It also rests on a 2.8 metre tall pedestal. The statue is made from white granite, and it was first built in 1977. The peaceful-looking statue took six months to complete, and it consists of seven hundred tons of granite.

After you’ve gotten your fill of the amazing Gwanseeum-bosal statue, the East Sea, and the coastline, which might take you some time knowing the view, you’ll come to a fork in the path. If you head left, you’ll come to the Uisang-dae Pavilion. This coastal pavilion is purportedly where Uisang-daesa once meditated. The present pavilion was built in 1925. And a little further along this trail, you’ll come to the scenic Hongryeonam Hermitage.

And if you take the trail to the right, you’ll make your way down towards the lower courtyard at Naksansa Temple. This part of the temple houses the large Bota-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are painted with murals dedicated to the life of Uisang-daesa. The murals include the voyage home from Tang China with Lady Seonmyo at his back, as well as a floating rock mural inspired by the construction of Buseoksa Temple. As for inside the Bota-jeon Hall, you’ll find seven, thirty-three, and one thousand five hundred incarnations of Gwanseeum-bosal. They are both beautiful and masterful in all of their designs. And out in front of the Bota-jeon Hall, you’ll find a seven-story stone pagoda.

As you make your way towards the exit of this lower courtyard at Naksansa Temple, you’ll notice a Myeongbu-jeon Hall to your left. You’ll also notice a Boje-ru Pavilion in this area, as well. And it’s just past this two-story pavilion that you’ll come to a beautiful lotus pond. Sitting in the centre of this well populated pond rests a stone statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

How To Get There

To get to Naksansa Temple, you’ll first need to get to Yangyang Intercity Bus Terminal. From here, you’ll need to take Bus #9 or #9-1 bound for Naksansa Temple. The bus ride takes about ten to fifteen minutes to get to the famous temple.

Overall Rating: 9/10

There are just so many beautiful things to see at Naksansa Temple. The first, and perhaps the most stunning, is the location of Naksansa Temple on the coastline of Yangyang, Gangwon-do. Supporting this natural beauty is the crowning eighteen metre tall Gwanseeum-bosal statue, the regal Gwanseeum-bosal statue inside the Wontong-jeon Hall, the seven-story pagoda, and that’s just in the upper courtyard. In the lower courtyard, you can enjoy the amazing views from the Uisang-dae Pavilion of the East Sea, the ornate Bota-jeon Hall (both inside and out), and the well-populated lotus pond in front of the Bota-jeon Hall. There’s a ton to enjoy and see at Naksansa Temple!

The Hongyemun Gate at the entry of Naksansa Temple
The view from the lower courtyard towards the upper courtyard.
The seven-story stone pagoda in the upper courtyard that’s Treasure #499.
Gwanseeum-bosal inside the Wontong-jeon Hall that’s Treasure #1362.
The nearly eighteen metre tall statue of Gwaneeum-bosal at Naksansa Temple.
The view of the East Sea that the massive Gwanseeum-bosal gets to enjoy.
The Bota-jeon Hall in the lower courtyard at Naksansa Temple.
The mural of Uisang-daesa and Lady Seonmyo that adorns the exterior wall of the Bota-jeon Hall.
The ornate Gwanseeum-bosal inside the Bota-jeon Hall.
And the stunning lotus pond in front of the Bota-jeon Hall.

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