Chukseosa Temple – 축서사 (Bonghwa, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

The Five-Story Pagoda and Daeung-jeon Hall at Chukseosa Temple in Bonghwa, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Temple History

Chukseosa Temple is located in Bonghwa, Gyeongsangbuk-do to the west of Mt. Munsusan (1,207.3). Chukseosa Temple was first founded in 673 A.D. by the famed monk Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.). The name of the temple, “Chukseo” is in reference to Mt. Yeongchuksan. And Mt. Yeongchuksan means “Vulture Peak,” or “Holy Eagle Peak” in English. This was the site where the Buddha gave certain sermons in India. Among these sermons are the Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. More specifically, the “Chukseo” in the temple name is in reference to eagles and how eagles mean wisdom in Buddhism. And this wisdom is in reference to the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Munsu-bosal, which is also the mountain, Mt. Munsusan, where Chukseosa Temple is located. So Chukseosa Temple might mean “Eagles Live Temple” or “Bodhisattva Stays Temple” in English.

According to legend, the head monk at the nearby Jirimsa Temple saw an auspicious light emanating from the side of the mountain. The head monk then told Uisang-daesa, who was visiting Jirimsa Temple at the time. When Uisang-daesa climbed the mountain, he found an image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy), who was shining. Afterwards, Uisang-daesa built a temple where he found the statue of Birojana-bul, and he enshrined the statue of Birojana-bul at the temple.

Three years later, in 676 A.D., Uisang-daesa would build the neighbouring Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. In 867 A.D., ten sari (crystallized remains) of the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul, were obtained and placed inside a three-story pagoda at Chukseosa Temple.

Later, in 1705, and according to the Sangryangmun Gate at Chukseosa Temple, there were five shrine halls and ten pavilions on the temple grounds. There were also two hermitages, Dosolam Hermitage and Cheonsuam Hermitage, that were directly associated with the temple on the temple grounds. More recently, Chukseosa Temple has grown in both reputation and size as a site for meditation. It runs a popular Temple Stay program.

Chukseosa Temple is home to two Korean Treasures. The first is the Stone Seated Vairocana Buddha and Wooden Mandorla of Chukseosa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #995. And Chukseosa Temple is also home to the Hanging Painting of Chukseosa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #1379.

Temple Layout

Having passed by the Iljumun Gate and made your way up the side-winding mountain road, you’ll finally be standing squarely in front of the Botapseong-jeon Hall in the temple parking lot. In front of the elevated Botapseong-jeon Hall are a pair of modern seokdeung (stone lanterns) with the Four Heavenly Kings in relief around the light chamber. Passing under the beautiful Botapseong-jeon Hall, you’ll enter into the lower temple courtyard at Chukseosa Temple.

Now standing in the lower temple courtyard, your eyes will instantly be drawn to the ornate five-story stone pagoda. Cordon off by a stone railing, each of the four corners of this stone barrier are joined by four beautiful stone lanterns. As for the five-story pagoda, each of the five-story roof stones are designed like a real roof. And atop these stone tiles are decorative dragons. Each of the five body stones are adorned with reliefs of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And atop the elaborate pagoda is a golden finial.

To the right and left of the five-story pagoda are the monks’ dorms, the Temple Stay dorms, and a meditation centre. It’s also to the front left of the central stone pagoda that you find the Beomjong-gak (Bell Pavilion). Housed inside the Beomjong-gak Pavilion is a large Brahma Bell.

Now continuing up the stairs, and entering the upper courtyard, you’ll find the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are adorned with the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). And the front doors, at the base, are adorned with fierce Gwimyeon (Monster Mask) paintings. Stepping inside the large Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a triad of statues resting upon the main altar. The central image is that of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), who is joined on either side by Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). On the far right wall is a large Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). The rest of the interior of the Daeung-jeon Hall is filled with beautiful decorative paintings of tigers, dragons, and guardians.

To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the beautiful Amita-Samjonbul. This is an outdoor shrine dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). The stairs out in front of this outdoor shrine are adorned with a central stone island with a relief of a twisting stone dragon. As for the triad itself, it’s masterful in design and execution. The Amita-bul triad is located inside half of a stone lotus bud. In the centre of the triad is the image of Amita-bul, who is joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power and Wisdom for Amita-bul). Book-ending these three standing images, two on each side, are the Four Heavenly Kings. While smaller in size, they are no less intense in their expressions. The central triad are backed by beautiful stone reliefs of Bodhisattvas. This outdoor shrine is absolutely stunning. And fronting the Amita-Samjonbul are a pair of stone lanterns. Beautifully, the stone light chambers are supported by three Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities) each.

To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall, on the other hand, is the Bogwang-jeon Hall. The Bogwang-jeon Hall is the oldest shrine hall at Chukseosa Temple. The exterior walls of the shrine hall are adorned with the traditional dancheong colours. Stepping inside the Bogwang-jeon Hall, you’ll find the Stone Seated Vairocana Buddha and Wooden Mandorla of Chukseosa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #995. It’s unclear where the statue was originally made, but it’s now housed at Chukseosa Temple. The statue is an image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy), and it’s 108 cm in height. It has narrow eyes and a flat, wide body. The overall expression of this statue creates a feeling of calm. The robe is draped over both shoulders. It’s believed that the statue dates back to the 9th century at the end of Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). The fiery wooden mandorla that surrounds the entire body of the statue is made to express the light that emits from the entire body of Birojana-bul. And above the head of the statue, protruding outwards from the canopy, is a protective dragon.

And out in front of the Bogwang-jeon Hall is the Stone Lantern of Chukseosa Temple. It’s believed that this traditional stone lantern dates back to late Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) or early Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). While largely damaged, especially the roof stone, the base of the stone lantern has reliefs of lotus flowers. It’s also from here that you get an amazing view of the valley below.

How To Get There

From the Bonghwa train station, you’ll need to take Bus #24 to get to Chukseosa Temple. After 15 stops, or 27 minutes, you’ll need to get off at the “Jajakdunchi – 자작둔치” stop. From where the bus lets you off, you’ll need to walk 25 minutes, or 1.7 km uphill, to get to Chukseosa Temple. However, it should be mentioned, this bus doesn’t come all that often.

And if public transportation isn’t your thing, you can take a taxi from the Bonghwa train station. The taxi ride will take about 40 minutes, over 16.2 km, and it should cost about 14,000 won (one way).

Overall Rating: 8/10

Chukseosa Temple has a lot of modern structures, but it still retains the air of something much older. The eye-catching features of Chukseosa Temple are the five-story stone pagoda in the lower courtyard and the outdoor Amita-Samjonbul shrine in the upper courtyard. Also equally impressive are the murals adorning the interior and exterior walls of the Daeung-jeon Hall. But perhaps the main highlight to Chukseoksa Temple is the Stone Seated Vairocana Buddha and Wooden Mandorla of Chukseosa Temple with its beautiful wooden mandorla that surrounds the serene statue of the Buddha of Cosmic Energy.

The Botapseong-jeon Hall at the entry to the temple grounds.
Passing under the Botapseong-jeon Hall.
The ornate five-story pagoda in the centre of the lower courtyard at Chukseosa Temple.
The Daeung-jeon Hall.
One of the Palsang-do (Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals) that adorns the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The main altar inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The stairs leading up to the Amita-Samjonbul outdoor shrine.
A closer look at the amazing Amita-Samjonbul.
The base to one of the stone lanterns in front of the Amita-Samjonbul.
And the view from the outdoor shrine.
The Bogwang-jeon Hall.
With the beautiful Stone Seated Vairocana Buddha and Wooden Mandorla of Chukseosa Temple inside.
And the view from the Bogwang-jeon Hall towards the Stone Lantern of Chukseosa Temple and the valley.

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