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Located in Jirisan National Park, and north of Hadong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Ssanggyesa Temple is situated in one of the prettiest locations in all of Korea. The temple was originally built in 722 A.D. and called Okcheonsa Temple. The temple was built after the monks Daebi and Sambeop were instructed by the Jirisan Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) in the form of a tiger to find a valley where arrowroot blossomed throughout the year even during wintertime. Both monks were the disciples of the famed temple building monk, Uisang-daesa (625-702). Finding such a location, they built Okcheonsa Temple. And after returning from China, they buried the skull of the Sixth Seon Patriarch, Huineng (638-713 A.D.), under the main hall. It was later dug up and placed inside a pagoda. It wasn’t until 840 A.D. that the temple was enlarged by Jingam-seonsa (774-850), and its name changed to its current name: Ssanggyesa Temple. Ssanggyesa Temple means “Twin Stream Temple,” in English for the two streams that flow on either side of the temple grounds. Tragically, and like much of Korea, Ssanggyesa Temple was completely destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-98) by the invading Japanese. It wasn’t until 1632 that the temple was rebuilt.
As you walk towards the temple grounds, you’ll be joined by the tranquil sounds of the neighbouring streams. The first structure to greet you at Ssanggyesa Temple is the Iljumun Gate. This top-heavy gate dates back to 1641. The next gate to welcome you in succession is the Geumgangmun Gate that houses two child-like images of Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). This gate’s exterior walls are beautifully adorned with the twelve zodiac general paintings. And like the Iljumun Gate, it, too, dates back to 1641. The third, and final gate in the set, is the Cheonwangmun Gate. This gate houses intimidating statues of the Four Heavenly Kings. Unlike the two previous gates, this gate dates back to 1704.
Up a slight of stairs, you’ll next come across the Palryeong-ru Pavilion. This pavilion occupies most of the lower courtyard; however, the Beopjong-ru (Bell Pavilion) is situated just to the left. And to the right is an ornate nine-story stone pagoda that dates back to 1990. While not that old in age, the pagoda enshrines three sari (crystallized remains) of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).
There’s a steep set of stone stairs just to the left of the bell pavilion that will bring you to an elevated off-shoot of a courtyard that houses a unique collection of shrine halls that includes the Palsang-jeon Hall. Inside this hall are eight intricate murals that detail that life of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And the other shrine hall is the Geum-dang Hall, which houses an ancient pagoda inside its walls.
Finally back at the Palryeong-ru Pavilion, and looking to the northeast, you’ll come across National Treasure #47. This national treasure is a stele dedicated to the monk Jingam-seonsa. The body of the stele was written by the famed Confucian-Taoist scholar, Goun (Choi Chiwon). The stele dates back to around 886-887 A.D. The body of the stele describes the history of the temple. And on the capstone there are nine dragons dancing around, and the base as a dragon-like turtle that bears of burden of the stone’s ancient weight.
Just past the beautiful ancient biseok is the Daeung-jeon Hall. This main hall is rather large in size and houses seven statues on the main altar. In the centre of the set rests Seokgamoni-bul. To the right he’s joined by Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha), Ilgwang-bosal (The Sun Bodhisattva) and Wolgwang-bosal (The Moon Bodhisattva). And to the left is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). He’s then joined by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). Also included in the main hall are two beautiful mural. One is the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) and the other is the Gamno-do mural.
Directly to the left of the main hall are a pair of shrine halls. One is the Nahan-jeon Hall with beautiful murals dedicated to the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha) and the Myeongbu-jeon Hall with a green haired Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) inside.
To the rear of the main hall is the newly built outdoor shrine reminiscent of the one at Tongdosa Temple. Purportedly, a sari of Seokgamoni-bul is housed inside a similar style stone lotus bud as Tongdosa Temple, as well.
Rounding out the shrine halls that visitors can explore at Ssanggyesa Temple is the Hwaeom-jeon Hall which houses some holy texts, as well as a golden statue dedicated to Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) sitting in the centre of the hall. And just to the rear of the Hwaeom-jeon Hall is one of the most unique Samseong-gak shaman shrine halls in all of Korea. First, there is a 49 star Chilseong (Seven Stars) mural. It’s joined by the Seongmo Halmae Sanshin (Holy Mother Grandmother Mountain Spirit). A female Sanshin is one of the rarer paintings you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple. And rounding out the collection is a Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) mural.
Admission to the temple is 2,500 won for adults and 500 won for children.
HOW TO GET THERE: From the Hadong Intercity Bus Terminal, you can catch a bus directly to Ssanggyesa Temple. The bus ride should take between twenty to twenty-five minutes.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10. Perhaps one of the most stunningly situated temples in Korea, Ssanggyesa Temple also has a lot to see like the biseok dedicated to Jingam-seonsa (National Treasure #47). In addition to this historic biseok there are also a handful of sari (crystallized remains) of the Buddha at the temple, a beautiful main hall, and stunningly original murals dedicated to Chilseong and female Sanshin inside the Samseong-gak.