Borimsa Temple – 보림사 (Jangheung, Jeollanam-do)
Borimsa Temple, which means “Treasure Forest Temple” in English, is located in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do. Located just south of Mt. Gajisan (509.9 m), Borimsa Temple was first established in 759 A.D. by the monk Wonpyo-daedeok. At this time, the temple was nothing more than a hermitage, and it was called Gajisansa Temple. Like all great temples in Korea, Borimsa Temple has an interesting creation myth. One day, after returning to the Korean peninsula after studying in both India and China, Wonpyo-daedeok was looking for a place to construct a temple. He visited Mt. Gajisan (not to be confused with the one in Ulsan). While traveling around this location, a fairy appeared to the monk to tell him that nine dragons were creating problems around the pond where the fairy lived. As a result, Wonpyo-daedeok threw a spell into the pond, which helped expel most of the dragons from the pond. The only one that remained was a white dragon. So Wonpyo-daedeok shouted the spell even louder, and the white dragon finally left the pond. The white dragon traveled south and accidentally cut its tail off at the foot of the mountain. This part of the forested foot of the mountain came to be known as Yongmunso. Afterwards, Wonpyo-daedeok claimed this land as a place to found Borimsa Temple.
Nearly one hundred years later, in 860 A.D., the monk Chejing (804-880 A.D.), at the request of King Heonan of Silla (r. 857-861 A.D.), expanded and renamed Borimsa Temple. Borimsa Temple was one of the Gusan Seonmun, or “Nine Mountain Zen Gates” in English. The Gajisan sect was established by Chejing under the influence of Master Doui (?-825 A.D.). By 880 A.D., it’s believed that Borimsa Temple was home to some eight hundred monks.
The temple continued to flourish from the end of Later Silla (668-935 A.D.) up into the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). In fact, Borimsa Temple was home to the famed monk Ilyeon (1206-1289), who was the writer of the Samguk-yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). However, because of the Confucian-first policy of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and the subsequent persecution of Buddhism at this time, Borimsa Temple, like almost all other temples on the Korean peninsula, went into a steady decline.
In the fall of 1950, during the Korean War (1950-1953), a group of local communist guerrilla fighters from Jeollanam-do gathered around Mt. Gajisan. And during that winter, they stayed at Borimsa Temple. The next spring, the opposing forces moved into the area and set fire to Borimsa Temple to take away the hiding spot for the communist forces. Of the twenty wooden structures that stood at this time, the only wooden structures that remained unscathed by this fire were the two temple entry gates: the Iljumun Gate and the Cheonwangmun Gate. Since that devastating fire, Borimsa Temple has slowly be rebuilt from the late 1960’s.
In total, Borimsa Temple is home to two Korean National Treasures and an additional five Korean Treasures. There are also three hermitages directly associated with Borimsa Temple on its grounds. They are Bulilam Hermitage, Wondangam Hermitage, and Bohyeonam Hermitage.
Admission to the temple is free.
You first enter the temple grounds through the recently renovated Iljumun Gate that was one of only two structures to survive the Korean War fire. There are a handful of ornate dragons up in the ceiling of the distinctly designed entry gate. The next gate you’ll pass through is the Cheonwangmun Gate, which is the other wooden structure that survived the temple’s recent destructive past. Inside the Cheonwangmun Gate are four large sized statues dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings. These statues were first made in 1515. Not only are they the only statues still in existence that predate the Imjin War (1592-1598), but they are also the oldest of their kind in Korea. They are Korean Treasure #1254.
Having passed through the historic Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll now enter into the spacious main temple courtyard. By its sheer size, you can imagine just how well-populated these grounds must have once been.
Straight ahead of you is the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall. In front of this temple shrine hall, which houses Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy), stand a pair of three-story stone pagodas that date back to 870 A.D. These traditionally designed Later Silla-era pagodas are joined by a stone lantern equal in age to the twin pagodas. The collection are in good condition, especially considering their age. Also, they are Korean National Treasure #44.
As for the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall that backs these three stone monuments, the exterior walls are painted with various Buddhist motif murals. As for the interior, there’s a massive iron statue of Birojana-bul that dates back to 858 A.D. This statue is the earliest existing item of an iron cast Buddhist statue that was popular on the Korean peninsula during the Later Silla (668-935 A.D.) and early Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The Birojana-bul statue is Korean National Treasure #117. Joining this iron masterpiece inside the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall are a pair of paintings. One of these murals is the Shinjung Taenghwa (The Guardian Mural), while the other is an older painting dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
To the right of the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall is the temple’s Samseong-gak Hall. Inside this shaman shrine hall are three folkish murals dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Chilseong (The Seven Stars), and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint).
To the right of the Samseong-gak Hall, and the most imposing of the temple shrine halls at Borimsa Temple, is the two-story Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the main hall are painted with the Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals). As for the interior, and resting on the main altar, are a set of seven statues. In the centre of the seven sits a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined on either side by two standing statues dedicated to Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). To the right of these three central statues are a pair of statues. The first is a seated statue of Yeondeung-bul (The Past Buddha) and a standing statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And to the left of the three central statues is a seated statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and a standing statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). And hanging on the far left wall is another Shinjung Taenghwa (The Guardian Mural). This large mural is predominantly red in composition.
Behind the Daeung-jeon Hall stand two more smaller sized shrine halls. The first of the two, and the one to the right, is a shrine hall that houses a stone statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). It’s believed that the statue dates all the way back to Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). Standing 1.83 metres in height, and with a nimbus that’s damaged, the statue of Amita-bul is Tangible Cultural Property #191. And to the left of this hall is Borimsa Temple’s Josa-jeon Hall. Housed inside this diminutive shrine hall are three murals dedicated to monks that once resided at Borimsa Temple.
The final shrine hall visitors can explore at Borimsa Temple is the understated Myeongbu-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the Myeongbu-jeon Hall are judgment murals, as well as a masterful Dragon Ship of Wisdom mural that’s ferrying the dead to the afterlife. The Myeongbu-jeon Hall is joined by two-story Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion).
And just up a neighbouring trail stands the stele and stupa dedicated to the monk Chejing (804-880 A.D.). The stupa was erected in 880 A.D. The stupa is octagonal in shape, which is typical of the period. Around the body of the stupa you’ll find reliefs of doors and the Four Heavenly Kings. Sadly, during the Japanese Colonization (1910-1945), the sari (crystallized remains) of Chejing inside the stupa were stolen. And the stupa itself collapsed. It was later restored, but it’s still damaged in parts. The stupa is Korean Treasure #157. As for the stele, it was erected a bit later in 884 A.D. Amazingly, the stele has remained in good condition despite its age. The turtle-shaped base has a dragon-like head with a ferocious expression. It supports the body stone which is still intact and describes the life of Chejing on it. And crowning the stele is a beautiful cloud design with dragons. The stele is Korean Treasure #158.
How To Get There
It’s a bit of a chore to get to Borimsa Temple. First, you’ll need to get to the Jangheung Intercity Bus Terminal. From here, you’ll need to take a bus that says Jangheung-Yuchi (장흥 – 유치) on it. After ten stops, get off at the Jangheung Dam Rest Stop. You’ll then need to board the bus that says Yuchi-Daecheon Bus (유치 – 대천) on it. Ride this bus for just one stop and get off at the Bongdeok stop. From this stop walk about ten minutes to get to Borimsa Temple.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Borimsa Temple, while not all that well known in the expat community, perhaps because of its location, is truly something special. The historic Four Heavenly Kings statues, the pagodas that date back to 860 A.D., as well as the massive iron statue dedicated to Birojana-bul have a little something for temple historians. On the other hand, the two-story Daeung-jeon Hall, the beautiful stele and stupa dedicated to Chejing, and the folkish shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall have something for the art lover. So if you can, find a way to get to Jangheung, Jeollanam-do to see Borimsa Temple.