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Songgwangsa Temple, which means “Spreading Pine Temple,” in English, is situated on the western slopes of Mt. Jogyesan (884 m), in Jogyesan Provincial Park. Songgwangsa Temple was first built in the waning years of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.) in the 10th century by the monk Hyerin-seonsa. Hyerin-seonsa also built a neighbouring hermitage and lived there, as well. At this time, there were between thirty to forty monks that lived at the temple. However, since so little is known about the founding of Songgwangsa Temple, and Hyerin in particular, it’s believed by some scholars that Hyerin might have been invented.
Songgwangsa Temple then fell into disrepair and disuse for about fifty years until Bojo-guksa (1158-1210), also known by his ordination name of Jinul, rebuilt the temple over a nine year period ending in 1190. Originally, the Songgwangsa Temple was called Gilsangsa Temple, and it was situated on Mt. Songgwangsan (now Mt. Jogyesan to honour Jinul by the royal decree of King Huijong of Goryeo upon Jinul’s death in 1210). Jinul built Songgwangsa Temple to help further the establishment of a new Korean Seon movement that would incorporate Samadhi (meditation) with Prajna (wisdom/understanding). He called this new school of thought Jeonghyesa, or “정혜사,” in Korean. The goal of this movement, as set forth by Jinul, was to establish a community of monks that centred on discipline and pure-mindedness in the mountains. This goal was completed with the founding of Songgwangsa Temple, which taught a comprehensive approach to Buddhism through meditation (Seon), doctrines (Gyo), chanting, and lectures, and it would be the start to the Jogye-jong Order, as well.
Three times Songgwangsa Temple has been devastated by calamities. First, during the Imjin War (1592-98); the second during the great fire of 1842; and the third just after the Korean War (1950-53). In total, Songgwangsa Temple has undergone eight large scale renovations and rebuilds with the most recent being in 1988. These renovations involved fourteen buildings and even the main hall itself.
Songwangsa Temple is also also one of the Three Jewel Temples of Korea, or “Sambosachal” (삼보사찰) in Korean. Songgwangsa Temple represents Seungga (승가), or the Buddhist Community, in English. The other two temples comprising the Three Jewel Temples are Tongdosa Temple (The Buddha) and Haeinsa Temple (The Dharma). In 1969, Songwangsa Temple was reorganized as a monastic centre for all sects of Mahayana Buddhism. In the process, it was also made an international meditation centre.
In addition to producing sixteen national preceptors (Guksa), Songgwangsa Temple is also home to three National Treasures, an astonishing sixteen (what a coincidence) Korean Treasures, a Historic Site, a Scenic Site, a Natural Monument, and a pair of National Registered Cultural Heritage Sites. The National Treasures include the Portable Shrine of the Wooden Buddha Triad (N.T. #42) and the Buddhist Painting of Songgwangsa Temple, Suncheon (Illustration of the Avatamsaka Sutra) (N.T. #314).
You first approach the temple up a long winding path that travels through a beautiful forest of pine trees. This walk also skirts the Sinpyeong stream. You’ll pass over a stunning wooden bridge and an artificial pond that is typically cloaked in colourful paper lanterns during Buddha’s birthday. You’ll finally be nearing the main temple courtyard at Songgwangsa Temple when you come across a Budo-won (Stupa Garden).
Just to the left of the Jogyemun Gate, which is also more commonly known as the Iljumun Gate, or the “One Pillar Gate,” in English, is the most picturesque part of Songgwangsa Temple. Arguably, it’s the most picturesque and recognizable entrance next to Bulguksa Temple in all of Korea. Protruding out from the temple walls, and hovering over top of the Sinpyeong stream, is the highly recognizable Uhwa-gak Pavilion that spans the width of the stream and gains you admittance to the main temple courtyard. The tranquil nature of the stream, and the mirror-like surface that reflects up at the dragon-based bridge is really second to none and makes for a sensational photo-op.
Having passed over the Uhwa-gak, which acts as a bridge to the rest of the temple, you’ll make your way past the Sacheonwangmun Gate that houses the Four Heavenly Kings inside. These four kings make for quite the welcoming committee to Songgwangsa Temple. The Four Heavenly Kings were made of clay and recast in 1628 after being destroyed during the Imjin War. The collection of the Four Heavenly Kings at Songgwangsa Temple are Korean Treasure #1467. It’s only after circumnavigating the Jonggo-ru Pavilion, or the temple’s bell pavilion, in English, that you finally enter the expansive main temple courtyard at Songgwangsa Temple.
Straight ahead is the beautiful Daeungbo-jeon Hall that was reconstructed in 1988. The former Daeungbo-jeon Hall had been destroyed by fire in 1951. This massive main hall is beautifully packed with Buddhist artistry both inside and out. And the wooden latticework that adorns the front doors to the hall are masterful. As for the murals that adorn the exterior walls, they are Buddhist motif murals with one dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa’s enlightenment. As for the interior of this hall, and resting on the main altar, you’ll find Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) sitting in the centre of seven golden statues. This statue is joined on its immediate sides by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). To the right of this triad is Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And to the left sits Yeondeung-bul (The Past Buddha) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
The shrine hall buildings to the right of the main hall, and open to the public, are the Jijang-jeon Hall, the Yeongsan-jeon Hall, and the Yaksa-jeon Hall. Both the Yaksa-jeon Hall and the Yeongsan-jeon Hall are extremely small in size. The Yaksa-jeon Hall is dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise), and not only is it the smallest shrine hall in Korea, and it was also built during the mid 17th century, but it’s also Korean Treasure #302. The Yeongsan-jeon Hall, or “Vulture Peak Hall,” in English, houses the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life) murals. It was first built in 1639, and it’s Korean Treasure #303. As for the wide and cavernous Jijang-jeon Hall, it houses a green-haired incarnation of a seated Jijang-bosal, as well as the Shiwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld).
As for the buildings to the left of the main hall, there’s the beautiful Seungbo-jeon Hall (Hall of 1,250 Buddhist Priests), which is the very embodiment of the “Seungga” nature of Songgwangsa Temple. The exterior walls to this hall are beautifully adorned with masterful Shimu-do, Ox-Herding, murals. Inside the hall, you’ll find row-upon-row of smaller sized golden monk statues. As for the main altar, you’ll find Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). He’s joined by his ten great/principal disciples, or “Daejaeja,” (대제자) in Korean, and the 16 Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), as well as 1,250 golden priests.
Continuing in this part of the temple, you’ll find the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. Originally, the hall was built in 1903, and it was called a Seongsu-jeon Hall. It was used as an imperial prayer hall at this time. Emperor Gojong, also in 1903, and to commemorate his 51st birthday, gave a plaque to adorn the hall. In 1957, the former Gwaneun-jeon Hall was dismantled and the statue of Gwanseeum-bosal was moved to its current location and the name of the shrine hall changed from Seongsu-jeon Hall to the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. The statue of Gwanseeum-bosal was sculpted in 1662 by the renowned monk sculptors, Hyehui and Geummun. It’s also Korean Treasure #1660. This hall is beautifully surrounded on all sides by lush gardens. Sitting all alone inside this hall is a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. The statue is backed by the paintings of the sun and the moon, which are meant to symbolize Emperor Gwangmu (r.1897-1907, and as King Gojong, King of Joseon from 1864-1897) and Empress Myeongseong (1851-95). There are also civil vassals bowing towards the altar. Another unique feature of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall at Songgwangsa Temple is that there are landscapes and floral paintings both inside and outside of this shrine hall.
To the rear of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall, and up a set of steep stairs, you’ll find the Bojo-guksa Gamno-tap. The stupa houses the earthly remains of the founder of both Songgwangsa Temple and the Jogye-jong Order. The stupa was completed three years after Bojo-guksa’s death in 1213. It’s also in this part of the temple grounds that you find the Guksa-jeon Hall, which is National Treasure #56. This shrine hall was originally a meditation center, but it was later turned into a shrine hall to house the official sixteen portraits of the national preceptors (Guksa). The portraits themselves are Korean Treasure #1043. The shrine hall was originally built in 1369, and it’s undergone two major renovations.
Admission to the temple is 3,000 won (cash only).
HOW TO GET THERE: From the city of Suncheon, Jeollanam-do, you’ll need to find city Bus #111. You can do that or find your way to the Intercity Bus Terminal in Suncheon. From there, board a bus bound for Songgwangsa Temple. Both are roughly 4,000 won.
OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10. Songgwangsa Temple is beautifully situated in the mountain folds of Mt. Jogyesan. With its long and rich history, Songgwangsa Temple is home to a countless amount of treasures. It has one of the most iconic entryways in Korea with the tranquil Sinpyeong stream flowing underneath the Uhwa Pavilion. And when you add into the mix the Bojo-guksa Gamno-tap, the massive Daeungbo-jeon Hall, the intriguing Seungbo-jeon Hall, and the colourful and historic Gwaneun-jeon Hall, there will be a little of something for everyone during their visit to Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do.