Cheonjangsa Temple – 천장사 (Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do)

The View from Cheonjangsa Temple in Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do.

Temple History

Cheonjangsa Temple is located in southern Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do on Mt. Yeonamsan (440.8 m). In English, Cheonjangsa Temple means “Hidden by Heaven Temple.” The reason for this name is that Cheonjangsa Temple is hidden so deeply in the mountain that both the sky and the earth can’t find the temple. Additionally, the temple is classified as Traditional Temple #42. Purportedly, Cheonjangsa Temple was first built in 633 A.D. by the monk Damhwa during the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.). However, there are no records or relics of the monk Damhwa. What is more likely is that Cheonjangsa Temple was first established some time during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), which can be inferred by the style of the seven-story stone pagoda that stands in the main temple courtyard.

But its Cheonjangsa Temple’s modern history, and its association with the famed Buddhist monk Gyeongheo (1846-1912) that make the temple so special. Not only did Gyeongheo live a long time at Cheonjangsa Temple, but it’s also believed that he attained enlightenment here. Additionally, Gyeongheo’s disciples, Suwol-seonsa (1855-1928), Hyewol-seonsa (1861-1937), and Mangong-seonsa (1871-1946) also became monks and practiced at Cheonjangsa Temple.

As for the temple itself, it is home to provincial cultural properties like the Seven-Story Stone Pagoda, which is Cultural Material #202; as well as the Amitabha Platform Painting, which is Tangible Cultural Property #186. Additionally, there’s a Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) inside the main hall from 1896. Also, the main altar painting inside the main hall is from 1788. Originally, it was made for Gwaneumsa Temple; however, it is unknown which Gwaneumsa Temple it was made for.

Temple Layout

You first make your way up a steep side-winding mountain road on your way up to Cheonjangsa Temple. The temple grounds are quite small, and the first thing you’ll encounter along the way is the lotus bud stupa which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the death and entry into nirvana by Gyeongheo in 2016.

Next, you’ll come to the main temple hall at Cheonjangsa Temple. This main hall is a three-in-one shrine hall. The central component to the structure is the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this shrine hall are filled with beautiful paintings dedicated to Gyeongheo, Mangong-seonsa, and the Bodhidharma. Entering this low-ceilinged shrine hall, you’ll notice a solitary image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on the main altar. Also found inside the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) from 1896, an older-looking Chilseong Taenghwa (Seven Stars Mural), and two pictures. One of these pictures is of Gyeongheo, while the other is of Mangong-seonsa.

To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the temple’s kitchen. You can pass through this older kitchen on your way up to the Sanshin-gak Hall to the rear of the temple grounds. Rather uniquely, the kitchen has a beautiful mural dedicated to Jowang-shin (The Fireplace King Spirit) inside it. Also, and from the kitchen, purportedly Suwol-daesa was absorbed in prayer and radiated light from his body. But before passing through the temple’s kitchen and heading up towards the Sanshin-gak Hall, you’ll notice two monk cells. The first is the cell that Mangong-daesa formerly used, while the second was Gyeongheo’s cell.

To the left of these two cells is a rather unique painting that adorns the wall. In this painting, you’ll see a large monk figure. This is Gyeongheo being beaten by four villagers. The painting is referring to a famous story, where he used to test his practice through his actions. These actions were to see if his samadhi (state of meditative consciousness) could remain unshakable even in the most difficult of situations like being beaten by four villagers. Gyeongheo always liked to challenge his practice; and during times of intense practice, Gyeongheo would often wander into villages below Cheonjangsa Temple. There he would beg for alms and make trouble with the villagers. And because Confucianism was still the dominant religion of that time and Buddhism and Buddhist monks were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, Gyeongheo would be punished for his actions and behaviour. It didn’t help that he was typically drunk, wearing dirty clothes, and was unwashed and unshaven. As a result, Gyeongheo was usually pretty severely beaten. And that’s what this painting is meant to represent: the testing of one’s samadhi.

Now passing through the temple’s kitchen and climbing the stone stairs up to the Sanshin-gak Hall to the rear of the temple grounds, you’ll find a shaman shrine hall that has a commanding view of the valley below. The exterior walls to the Sanshin-gak Hall are adorned with simplistic shaman murals. Stepping inside the Sanshin-gak Hall, you’ll immediately find that the Sanshin-gak Hall actually functions as a Sanshin/Dokseong-gak Hall. There are two beautiful shaman murals housed inside this hall dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) and Dokseong (The Lonely Saint).

Also standing out in front of the main hall is a seven-story stone pagoda. The pagoda is rather slender and was probably made during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). To the left of the main temple courtyard are a collection of monks’ dorms. And to the right of the main temple courtyard is the modern kitchen at Cheonjangsa Temple.

It should also be noted that there is a slightly overgrown set of stone stairs that lead up and down the mountain from the temple courtyard. There is a weak flowing waterfall next to these stairs. Also, there is a cave near Cheonjangsa Temple where the monk Hyewol-seonsa attained enlightenment while making straw sandals.

How To Get There

From the Seosan Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take Bus #540 for 34 stops, or 42 minutes. The bus will drop you off at the “Jangyo 1-ri Jongjeom Hacha – 장요1리종점 하차” stop. From where the bus drops you off, you’ll need to head along the “Goyo-dong 1-gil – 고요1길” road for about 500 metres. You’ll then need to head north up “Cheonjangsa-gil – 천장사길” road for an additional 900 metres. This road is the mountainous road that winds its way up Mt. Yeonamsan. The 1.3 km walk should take about 30 to 40 minutes.

Overall Rating: 6/10

This temple is a bit of a difficult one to rate. Obviously because of its close association with famed monks like Gyeongheo and Mangong-seonsa, who helped revitalize and restore the Seon Buddhist tradition, it rates highly. However, because the temple is smaller in size, it rates lower. Besides the seven-story stone pagoda in the main temple courtyard, there isn’t anything historic to see at Cheonjangsa Temple. With that being said, the main hall is surrounded by some pretty special paintings dedicated to Gyeongheo and his disciples. Also, the temple still has both cells left unoccupied that once belonged to two central figures in modern Korean Seon Buddhism. Lastly, the artwork in the Sanshin/Dokseong-gak Hall, as well as the Daeung-jeon Hall are beautiful.

The stupa commemorating the 100th year anniversary of Gyeongheo’s death.
The former cells of Mangong-seonsa (foreground) and Gyeongheo (background).
The violent mural of Gyeongheo next to his former cell.
The painting dedicated to Jowang-shin (The Fireplace King Spirit) inside the kitchen.
The Sanshin/Dokseong-gak Hall at Cheonjangsa Temple.
One of the paintings adorning the outside of the Sanshin/Dokseong-gak Hall.
The painting dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) inside the shaman shrine hall.
And the painting dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) inside the shaman shrine hall.
The main altar inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
And the historic Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Bodhidharma mural that adorns the main hall.
And the Gyeongheo and Mangong-seonsa mural that adorns the main hall.

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