Samhwasa Temple – 삼화사 (Donghae, Gangwon-do)

The view from the Jeokgwang-jeon Hall at Samhwasa Temple in Donghae, Gangwon-do.

Temple History

Samhwasa Temple is located in Donghae, Gangwon-do. More specifically, Samhwasa Temple is located up Mureung Valley north of Mt. Dutasan (1357 m). Originally, the temple was located 1.3 km to the east. In 1977, Samhwasa Temple was relocated to its current location because its former location was a mining area used for cement factories. Samhwasa Temple is now located on the former site for Jungdaesa Temple.

There is a legend related to the site of Samhwasa Temple. According to this legend, there is a place called “Hoamso.” It’s said that there was a tiger running around Mt. Dutasan and Mt. Cheongaksan. The tiger fell into the valley between these two mountains and created a pond caused by this fall. The valley is four kilometres long, and it stretches all the way up to the Yongchu-pokpo Waterfall. As you walk along this valley floor, you’ll find oddly-shaped rocks. And in the past, this route was the only way through to Seoul from Jeongseon, Gangwon-do.

There are a couple stories as to when Samhwasa Temple was first established. According to one story, Samhwasa Temple was first established in 642 A.D. by Jajang-yulsa (590-658 A.D.). Initially, the temple was known as Heungnyeondae. Another story states that Samhwasa Temple was first established in 864 A.D. by Beomil-guksa (810-889 A.D.). At this time, the temple was named/renamed Samgongam Hermitage. It’s also believed that Samhwasa Temple, at this time, changed from being a Gyo (doctrinal temple) to that of Seon (meditative temple).

It was at Samgongam Hermitage that Wang Geon, who would become the future King Taejo of Goryeo (918–943 A.D.), prayed for the unification of the Later Three Kingdoms (889-935 A.D.). When the unification of the three kingdoms (Goryeo, Later Baekje, Unified Silla) was finally achieved, King Taejo of Goryeo renamed the temple Samhwasa Temple, which means “Harmony of Three Temple” in English.

Later, and after the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, King Taejo of Joseon (r. 1392-1398) had King Gongyang of Goryeo (r.1389-1392), the last king of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), killed in 1394. Alongside his followers and his son, Crown Prince Jeongseong, who had been exiled to Wonju, and then eventually moved to Samcheok, they were drowned in the sea. To help console their spirits, Samhwasa Temple was tasked with performing and offering the Water and Land Ceremony (Suryuk-jae) after the founding of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Later, and in 1747, Samhwasa Temple was damaged by a flood and landslides. After being relocated to higher ground, the temple was destroyed; once more, this time by fire in 1820. Samhwasa Temple was reconstructed in 1824. However, it was destroyed by fire, again, in 1907, by the Japanese army under the pretext that the Righteous Army and militia were using Samhwasa Temple as a base for their operations. In total, numerous temple shrine halls were destroyed at this time including the main hall and Seon meditation halls.

Samhwasa Temple participates in the popular Temple Stay program. Additionally, Samhwasa Temple is home to two Korean Treasures that include the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Samhwasa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #1277; and the Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #1292. Also, Samhwasa Temple is home to the Samhwasa Suryukjae (Water and Land Ceremony of Samhwasa Temple), which is a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Temple Layout

You first approach Samhwasa Temple up a long valley. To your right is a beautiful stream that cascades over its rocky surface. And to your left, and off in the distance, are the peaks of Mt. Dutasan. Along the way, you’ll pass by a pavilion that you can rest in and enjoy the scenery. You’ll also probably encounter a whole host of hikers, as the location is quite popular. Just past the pavilion is the stately, yet compact, Iljumun Gate at the entry of the temple grounds. Crossing over the Banseok-gyo Bridge, and hanging a left, you’ll see the tall clay walls to the temple grounds framed by the tall mountain peaks off in the distance.

You’ll approach the temple grounds from the east, but the temple is placed in a north-to-south direction, so you’ll pass by a beautiful collection of standing Sibiji-shin (The Twelve Spirit Generals) along the way. The stone zodiac generals stand about a metre and a half in height and are adorned in armour. To the left of this collection, and finally nearing the main temple courtyard, is the Cheonwangmun Gate at Samhwasa Temple. The exterior walls to the Cheonwangmun Gate are adorned with floral murals and guardian paintings. Stepping inside the second entry gate, you’ll find four beautiful murals dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings.

Stepping into the main temple courtyard, and beautifully backed by the Jeokgwang-jeon Hall, is the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Samhwasa Temple. The pagoda stands atop a two-tiered platform, and it looks tall compared to others of its kind. The pagoda is made from limestone instead of the more traditional granite, and the pagoda stands 4.7 metres in height. The upper tier of the platform has inscriptions on it on each of the four corners and centre of each side. Each of the three stories has a body stone and roof stone. Unfortunately, the pagoda has cracks and damage on parts of its structure especially the third story of the pagoda. It’s believed that the pagoda dates back to the late 9th century based upon the composition of the platform. In 1997, the pagoda was moved to its present location. A wood reliquary was discovered inside the pagoda on the top story of the platform. Housed inside the reliquary were 25 pagodite-made miniature pagodas, 2 miniature bronze pedestals, 6 iron carvings, and 1 sheet of paper containing information about the pagoda.

Backing the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Samhwasa Temple is the temple’s main hall, the Jeokgwang-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the modern main hall are adorned with Shimu-do (The Ox-Herding Murals). And the rest of the main hall is beautifully adorned with vibrant dancheong colours. Stepping inside the large main hall, you’ll find a unique triad resting on the main altar. In the centre is the Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple, which is the previously mentioned Korean Treasure #1292.

The Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple is believed to date back to the late Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935 A.D.) based upon the slightly plump facial features of the statue. The mudra, or “suin” in Korean, has the right hand of Nosana-bul (The Perfect Body Buddha) held up with the palm facing outward and the left hand put on the lap facing upward. The statue has been repaired, and in the course of carrying out more recent restoration work, an inscription text containing 161 Chinese characters on ten lines were discovered on the back of the Buddha’s image. Originally, it was believed that the statue was dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise); however, among these 161 Chinese characters, the name of Nosana-bul (or Rocana Buddha in Sanskrit) appears twice. The Chinese characters go on to say that the image of the Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple was made based upon the Avatamsaksa Sutra for the spirits of the dead parents of the donors. And the monk Gyeoreon played a leading role in its construction. Interestingly, the text used to inscribe the 161 Chinese character text is known as Idu, which is an archaic writing system used to represent the Korean language using Chinese characters, so the 10th century text has significant meaning for Korean linguists, as well as Buddhist scholars.

Joining this historic statue on the main altar is an image of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And to the right of the main altar is an equally impressive Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).

To the right of the Jeokgwang-jeon Hall is the Yaksa-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the Yaksa-jeon Hall are simplistically adorned with dancheong. Stepping inside this temple shrine hall, you’ll find a beautiful image dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul on the main altar joined by equally graceful images dedicated to Ilgwang-bosal (The Sunlight Bodhisattva) and Wolgwang-bosal (The Moonlight Bodhisattva), as well.

To the left of the Jeokgwang-jeon Hall, on the other hand, are three additional temple shrine halls. The first is the Geukrak-jeon Hall. Again, the exterior to this temple shrine hall is simplistically adorned with dancheong colours. Stepping inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall, you’ll find a triad centred by an image of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This central image is joined by two ornately crowned images of Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). To the left of the main altar is a large Gamno-do (Sweet Dew Painting) with ferocious images of agwi (hungry ghosts) at the base of the painting. And surrounding the interior of the Geukrak-jeon Hall are small memorial tablets for the dead.

Next to the Geukrak-jeon Hall is the newly constructed Samseong-gak Hall. In fact, the Samseong-gak Hall is so newly constructed that it has yet to be adorned with the traditional dancheong colours. Stepping inside the shaman shrine hall, you’ll find three murals hanging on the main altar. The central image is dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), while the left image is dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). The third image, and to the right, is dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). All three are simplistic, yet charming, in their composition.

The final temple shrine hall, and up the hillside, is the Josa-jeon Hall. The rest of the temple grounds are filled with administrative buildings, monks’ dorms, and even a small gift shop.

How To Get There

From the Donghae Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take Bus #111 to the Mureung Valley Bus stop. The bus ride will last one hour and ten minutes, and it’ll take 51 stops. From where the bus drops you off, you’ll need to walk about 5 minutes, or 200 metres, to get to Samhwasa Temple.

Overall Rating: 8/10

There are quite a few highlights to Samhwasa Temple like the beautiful mountains and meandering stream that surround the temple grounds. Additionally, there’s the Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple and the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Samhwasa Temple that can either be enjoyed inside the main hall or just outside. There is also beautiful artwork in the other temple shrine halls like the main altar triad and Gamno-do inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall or the shaman paintings inside the Samseong-gak Hall. Samhwasa Temple has a beautiful, tranquil feel to it and is something that really should be experienced.

Mt. Dutasan off in the distance.
The natural beauty that surrounds Samhwasa Temple.
The cascading water on your way up to the temple grounds.
The Iljumun Gate at Samhwasa Temple.
The clay fence as you finally near the temple grounds.
The dragon that is part of the twelve statues at the entry that comprise the Sibiji-shin (The Twelve Spirit Generals).
The Cheonwangmun Gate.
One of the Four Heavenly King paintings inside the Cheonwangmun Gate.
The Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Samhwasa Temple with the main hall in the background.
The wood reliquary from inside the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Samhwasa Temple. (Picture courtesy of the CHA).
The main altar inside the Jeokgwang-jeon Hall.
And a closer look at the  Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple.
Inscription text on the Iron Seated Rocana Buddha of Samhwasa Temple. (Picture courtesy of CHA).
The Geukrak-jeon Hall.
And the Gamno-do (Sweet Dew Mural) inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall.
The Samseong-gak Hall.
And the image of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) inside the Samseong-gak Hall.
The main altar inside the Yaksa-jeon Hall.
And one last beautiful view at Samhwasa Temple.

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