Buseoksa Temple, which means “Floating Rock Temple,” in English, is located in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The temple was first established by the famed monk, Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.), under the royal decree of King Munmu of Silla (r.661-681 A.D.), in 676 A.D. Upon his return from Tang China, Uisang helped spread Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula. In fact, he used Buseoksa Temple as a base to help spread the message of Hwaeom Buddhism for which he’s renowned.
In fact, there’s a famous story about Uisang-daesa’s return to Tang China that was written in the Samguk Yusa. In this story, Uisang met a Chinese woman named lady Seonmyo. Uisang met her while he was in China studying. Uisang told Seonmyo that he was going to return to the Korean peninsula. Uisang left Tang China unexpectedly because he had overheard that the Tang Chinese were going to attack the Silla Kingdom (his home). Upon his return, Uisang immediately told the king. Realizing that his boat had already left, and without saying good-bye, Seonmyo became distraught and jumped into the sea and drowned herself. After her death, Seonmyo became a dragon. As a dragon, Seonmyo followed Uisang back to the Silla Kingdom to help protect him. And when Uisang ran into difficulty building Buseoksa Temple, probably from locals that were followers of traditional Korean shamanic beliefs, lady Seonmyo, now appearing as a dragon, lifted a stone by magic to defeat the locals. This stone, purportedly, now rests to the left of the main hall, the Muryangsu-jeon Hall. And another legend states how later on lady Seonmyo transformed into a stone dragon and was buried in the courtyard of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall to guard the temple. Lastly, the temple was built to pray for the protection of the nation.
During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Buseoksa Temple was known as either Seondalsa Temple or Heunggyosa Temple. And during an excavation in 1916 at Buseoksa Temple, the history of repair work at the temple was discovered. It was during this discovery that it was learned that the Muryangsu-jeon Hall was rebuilt in 1376 after it had been destroyed by fire during the war in 1358. Also, the neighbouring Josa-dang Hall was rebuilt in 1377. In total, Buseoksa Temple is home to an amazing five National Treasures and a further seven Korean Treasures.
You first approach Buseoksa Temple up a long country road. The views of the valley below are gorgeous. As you near the temple grounds, you’ll first past by the newly built temple museum that houses invaluable artifacts from the historic temple. The design of the temple is unique with the main hall resting on top of the terraced hillside. On the first terrace, you’ll see twin pagodas that date back to Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). And to the far right you’ll notice the newly built, and very colourful, Jijang-jeon Hall. The exterior walls are beautifully adorned with scary Gwimyeon (Monster Masks), and the interior houses a statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
Up the main stairway that will eventually bring you to the main hall, you’ll pass under the weathered Beomjong-gak. This open designed bell pavilion houses the fish gong and drum. Passing under this pavilion, you’ll next come to the picturesque Anyang-ru Pavilion, which means “Entrance to Heaven Pavilion,” in English. This pavilion beautifully frames the main hall; but you’ll have to watch your head as you make your way up to the Muryangsu-jeon Hall, because the ceiling to the pavilion is quite low.
Muryangsu-jeon Hall at Buseoksa Temple is the second oldest wooden structure in all of Korea behind only Sudeoksa Temple’s Daeung-jeon Hall which dates back to 1308. The Muryangsu-jeon Hall dates back to 1358, and it’s National Treasure #18. Most wooden structures across the Korean peninsula were destroyed by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-98). Fortunately, Buseoksa Temple’s Muryangsu-jeon Hall was one of the very few to avoid the flames. The hall is smaller in size, and it’s typical of Goryeo Dynasty architecture. The name tablet that hangs over the entrance to the hall was written by King Sukjong of Joseon (r.1674-1720). Inside the hall, there’s a beautiful statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This statue is National Treasure #45. The statue dates back to the early Goryeo Dynasty, and it’s made by putting clay paste on top of a wooden frame. Out in front of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall is a stone lantern that’s National Treasure #17. This lantern dates back to the Later Silla Dynasty.
To the right of the main hall is a small shrine. Inside you’ll find a mural dedicated to lady Seonmyo. And to the right of this little shrine hall is a large pagoda that stands five metres in height. This pagoda stands like a sentinel watchful over the temple grounds. The pagoda dates back to the Later Silla Dynasty, and it’s Korean Treasure #249.
Just past the pagoda, and up the hillside a bit, you’ll find a trail that splits into two separate directions. The trail that forks to the right has a single shrine hall: the Josa-dang Hall. This is the shrine hall that dates back to 1377, and it’s also National Treasure #19. The hall is dedicated to the founding monk, Uisang-daesa. There is a statue of the monk that sits in the centre of the hall with a unique painting of the monk backing the statue. In front of the statue of Uisang to the left are right are painted murals of the Four Heavenly Kings that date back to the late Goryeo Dynasty. The murals are some of the rarest paintings in Korea because they are the oldest Buddhist paintings in Korea. They are now housed in a special protective building at the temple. The ones that now take up residence in the Josa-dang Hall are excellent copies of the originals. The originals are National Treasure #46.
The trail that forks to the left leads up to an area that houses three temple shrine halls. The small one on the far right is the Nahan-jeon Hall. The hall is dedicated to the historical disciples of the Buddha. The building to the left is the Jain-dang Hall. Inside are housed three ancient stone statues. The central statue is of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue dates back to the Later Silla Dynasty, and it’s Korean Treasure #1636. This statue is flanked by a pair Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) statues. These statues were previously located to the east of Buseoksa Temple. The twin statues of Birojana-bul also date back to the Later Silla Dynasty and are Korean Treasure #220-1 and #220-2, respectively.
Finally descending down the hillside, and past the main hall, you’ll notice a gathering of rocks. These are the rocks that the temple gets its name. Down the cobble-stone pathway, you’ll see the Samseong-gak Hall. Housed inside are three murals dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), Chilseong (The Seven Stars), and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). A little further down the hill, and you’ll come across a compact bell pavilion with a modest temple bell inside. Look at the top of the bell to see an amazing example of Poroe (The Bell Dragon).
Admission to the temple is a very reasonable 2,000 won for adults, 1,500 won for teenagers, and 1,000 won for children. Parking is 3,000 won for cars.
How To Get There
Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do is definitely one of the more difficult temples to get to because of its remote location. First, you’ll need to get to Yeongju from wherever it is that you reside in Korea. From Yeongju, you can get a bus bound for Buseoksa Temple opposite the Yeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. Catch Bus #55 bound for Buseoksa Temple. The bus ride lasts about 50 minutes.
Overall Rating: 10/10
Buseoksa Temple rates a perfect ten out of ten for the nearly limitless amount of National Treasures and Treasures. From the Muryangsu-jeon Hall that dates back to 1376, to the Josa-dang Hall that’s nearly as old in age, to the oldest Buddhist murals in Korea that were once housed inside the Josa-dang Hall, to the pavilions that guide your way up to all the historic sites at Buseoksa Temple, this temple has it all! While a bit out of the way, it’s definitely worth the time and energy it takes to get Buseoksa Temple.