Simwonsa Temple – 심원사 (Seongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

Simwonsa Temple in Seongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Temple History

Simwonsa Temple is located in the northeastern part of Gayasan National Park in Seongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. In fact, Simwonsa Temple isn’t all that far away from the famed Haeinsa Temple, which is also located in Gayasan National Park. It’s believed that Simwonsa Temple was first founded during Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) some time in the 8th century. Yi Sung-in, who was also known under the pen-name of Doeun, and who was born in Seongju during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), wrote about the temple in one of his poems entitled “Gimsimwonjeongro.” In this poem, he describes the temple as “The ancient temple, Simwonsa Temple, stands on Mt. Gayasan.” Additionally, and because of Simwonsa Temple’s lengthy history, it was written about in other later Goryeo Dynasty texts, as well.

During the reign of King Jungjong of Joseon (r. 1506-1544), the monk Jiwon renovated Simwonsa Temple. However, Simwonsa Temple was completely destroyed by fire during the Imjin War (1592-1598). Since its destruction at this time, there were several attempts to rebuild Simwonsa Temple. However, these attempts stopped by the end of the 18th century.

Simwonsa Temple was finally rebuilt in 2003 but only after extensive excavation work had been conducted on the former temple site. It was through this excavation that the original dimensions of the temple site were discovered. The original temple site was eighty metres from north to south and one hundred metres from east to west. The main hall once stood on a four-layered foundation. The temple was typical in its layout from the Unified Silla period. Based upon this excavation, Simwonsa Temple was restored to its original form in 2003 under the Cultural Tourism Resource Restoration Plan. So with the historic temple layout in mind, a newly built Daeung-jeon Hall, a Geukrak-jeon Hall, and a Yaksa-jeon Hall were made.

Also of note, Simwonsa Temple is home to the printing woodblock known as Gilhyung chugwol hoenggan in Korean. This is Korean Treasure #1647. This printing block was first carved in June, 1219 at Buseoksa Temple. The Gilhyung chugwol hoenggan is one of the oldest printing blocks with a clearly established date and place of creation. To give this wood printing block some context, the Tripitaka Koreana at Haeinsa Temple was first started in 1236 and completed in 1251. This printing block is carved with horizontally written text on it. The text lists auspicious and inauspicious dates for various activities based on astrology, or “unmyeonghak” in Korean; and the five elements theory, or “ohaeng” in Korean. This printing block is a compilation of selected texts on related themes. So not only is this wood printing block important because it’s one of the oldest, but it’s also important because it gives us insight into the everyday activities of ordinary people.

The Printing Woodblock of Gilhyung chugwol hoenggan (Picture courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration).

Temple Layout

You first approach Simwonsa Temple to the left of the eastern entry gates at Gayasan National Park. The entire temple grounds are beautifully framed by the surrounding mountains of Mt. Gaysan (1432.6 m). Past a collection of nine biseok (stele), and a handful of buildings like the monks’ dorms, the kitchen, and the visitors’ centre, you’ll finally arrive inside the main temple courtyard at Simwonsa Temple.

Out in front of the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find the Jeongjung Sambotap, which is a three-story pagoda that dates back to Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). To the rear of this ancient pagoda is the newly constructed Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the main hall are adorned with murals from the life of Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.). Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, and resting all alone on the main altar, is a statue dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The interior walls of the Daeung-jeon Hall are adorned with Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals). These paintings are joined to the right by an elaborate Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha) mural, as well as a Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).

To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the temple’s Geukrak-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are filled with various celestially themed murals. As for the interior, and resting on the main altar of the Geukrak-jeon Hall, is a statue dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). And to the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is a newly constructed, and rather uniquely shaped, Yaksa-jeon Hall. The low-lying exterior ceiling is adorned with beautiful white crane murals, as well as various murals dedicated to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas like Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha), Wolgwang-bosal (The Moonlight Bodhisattva), and Ilwang-bosal (The Sunlight Bodhisattva). As for the interior of this rather diminutive shrine hall, there sits a solitary image dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul, who is holding a medicine bowl.

To the rear of the Yaksa-jeon Hall, and up a flight of uneven stairs, you’ll arrive at the Sanshin-gak Hall. This shaman shrine hall has a commanding view of the rest of the temple grounds and the valley below. There are three entrances to this Sanshin-gak hall. Each is accompanied by a signboard. These signboards read: 산신각 (Sanshin-gak), 숭모전 (Sungmo-jeon), 정견각 (Jeonggyeon-gak). The signboard to the far left refers to the Sanshin-gak Hall, while the one in the middle is the Sungmo-jeon Hall, which means “Highly Admiring Worship Hall” in English. And the third signboard, which hangs above the far right door, refers to the name of the female Mountain Spirit inside, Jeonggyeon-moju. This is the name of the female Sanshin that takes up residence on Mt. Gayasan. The exterior walls to this shaman shrine hall are beautifully adorned with various murals like a pond, a persimmon tree, a tiger, and a vibrantly painted Jeonggyeon-moju. As for the interior, and sitting all alone inside, is a statue of the aforementioned female Sanshin, Jeonggyeon-moju. The Sanshin-gak Hall at Simwonsa Temple is definitely one of the more beautiful Sanshin-gak Halls you’ll find in Korea.

How To Get There

From the Seongju Intercity Bus Terminal – 성주버스정류장, you’ll need to take a bus that says “송계 – 수륜 – 백운동” on it. Take this bus for fourteen stops, which should take about forty minutes. You’ll then need to get off at the Gayasan National Park. From the Gayasan National Park stop, you’ll need to walk nearly eight hundred metres, or twelve minutes, to get to Simwonsa Temple. Just follow the signs.

Overall Rating: 7.5/10

Simwonsa Temple is beautifully situated in Gayasan National Park. But if the view doesn’t impress you with the towering mountains and sprawling valleys, the temple shrine halls will. Have a look around each of the three temple shrine halls in the lower courtyard to see some beautiful dancheong and temple artwork. But perhaps the most impressive structure at Simwonsa Temple is the Sanshin-gak Hall with a female Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) inside it.

The main temple courtyard at Simwonsa Temple.
The Daeung-jeon Hall and the three-story pagoda out in front of it.
Some of the stonework discovered during the temple excavation.
A look inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
A look from the Geukrak-jeon Hall towards the Daeung-jeon Hall.
A look inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall.
The uniquely designed Yaksa-jeon Hall.
A look inside the Yaksa-jeon Hall.
A look up towards the Sanshin-gak Hall.
A look inside the Sanshin-gak Hall at the female Sanshin (Mountain Spirit).
The ferocious tiger painting that adorns the exterior wall of the Sanshin-gak Hall.
And a painting of the female Sanshin, Jeonggyeon-moju, adorning the rear exterior wall of the Sanshin-gak Hall.

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