Dongguksa Temple is located in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do. What sets this Buddhist temple apart from all other Buddhist temples in Korea is that it’s the only temple still in existence, and operating, that was built by the Japanese during Japanese Colonial rule (1910-1945).
With the opening of the port in Busan in 1877, after the signing of the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876, not only did it open Korea up for trade and exploitation, but it also allowed Japanese Buddhism to enter Korea, as well. This was done at the request of the Japanese government. And in 1904, a form of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism began missionary work in Gunsan. The reason for these efforts to introduce Japanese Buddhism into Korea through missionary work was to help culturally assimilate, on a much broader scale, Koreans into Japanese culture, language, and history.
Later, on June 3rd, 1911, General Count Terauchi Masatake (1910-1916), who was the Governor-General of Chosen, issued a declaration for the furtherment of Japanese Buddhism on the Korean peninsula. This then led to the establishment of Buddhist temples throughout the Korean peninsula. This would result in the missionary establishment of Dongguksa Temple in 1909 in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do. When Dongguksa Temple was first built, it was known as Geumgangsa Temple, or “Diamond Temple” in English, and it was based upon Shingon Buddhism. Dongguksa Temple, formerly Geumgangsa Temple, added to the establishment of other Japanese Buddhist temples in Gunsan including Bonwonsa Temple and Anguksa Temple.
Finally, in July, 1913, the monk Uchida received land from twenty-nine local Gunsan Japanese Buddhist believers to build the temple, Dongguksa Temple (formerly Geumgangsa Temple); who, in turn, had received this land where Dongguksa Temple is currently located from two large Japanese land owners named Kumamoto and Miyazaki.
After the liberation of the Korean peninsula from the yoke of Japanese oppression on August 15th, 1945, by the U.S. military, the temple would resume functioning as a temple in 1947. The Korean Buddhist monk Kim Nam-gok (1913-1983) would change the name of the temple from Geumgangsa Temple to Dongguksa Temple. And Dongguksa Temple was registered as a subsidiary temple to the neighbouring Jogye-jong Order temple, Seonunsa Temple, in 1970.
In total, Dongguksa Temple is home to two Korean government recognized historical artifacts. First, is the Clay Sakyamuni Buddha Triad and Excavated Relics of Dongguksa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #1718. And the other is the Daeung-jeon Hall of Dongguksa Temple, which is National Registered Cultural Heritage #64.
You first make your way towards the rather unassuming temple grounds of Dongguksa Temple up side streets. The temple is situated next to an elementary school. Furthermore, it’s located on a compact piece of land and backed by the beautiful bamboo forest of Mt. Wolmyeongsan (101.3 m). Up a slight incline to your left, you’ll suddenly arrive at the gates of the temple. The original name of the temple, Geumgangsa Temple, can still faintly be seen on the entry gate posts to the temple; however, they have been vandalized.
Past the entry gate, and now squarely standing in the centre of the compact temple grounds, you’ll instantly realize that this temple is unlike any other in Korea. The style of the Daeung-jeon Hall, which stands in the middle of the temple grounds, is built architecturally in the style of the Edo period (1603-1868). The Daeung-jeon Hall consists of a single eaves without the traditional Korean dancheong colours. In fact, the entire Daeung-jeon Hall is void of the traditional dancheong colours common to all Korean Buddhist temples. Instead, the Daeung-jeon Hall is stripped of these colours and left remaining in a far more traditional simplistic Japanese Buddhist temple colour motif. Also, its roof is long and slopping with a high pitched design. The outer walls of the building have several windows, which is also uncommon to Korean Buddhist architecture. Also what differentiates this Japanese designed Daeung-jeon Hall is the connecting hallway from the main hall to the monks’ living quarters known as “Yosachae” in Korean.
When you first approach the front entry to the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll notice that there are a pair of sliding wooden doors that need to be pushed open to gain entry to the main hall. These steep, horizontal sliding doors are another feature of the Japanese architecture of the Daeung-jeon Hall at Dongguksa Temple. Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, another feature that you’ll find dissimilar from Korean temples are the four pillars surrounding the main altar. As for the triad of statues on the main altar, they date back to 1650, and they’re Korean Treasure #1718. The triad is a rare combination inside a Daeung-jeon Hall with Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in the centre joined by two of the Buddha’s principal disciples of Ananda and Mahakasyapa.
To the immediate left of the main altar triad is a painting dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) which is joined to the left by a shrine dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). And to the immediate right of the main altar triad is a painting dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) which is joined to the right by the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). It’s also to the right of these paintings that you find the entry to the corridor that leads towards the Yosachae. While the Yosachae was once the residence to the Japanese monks that once called the temple home, it’s now an administrative office at Dongguksa Temple.
The other temple structures that visitors can explore at Dongguksa Temple are situated to the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall. And like the Daeung-jeon Hall, they are built in the style of Japanese architecture. The first is the diminutive Cheonbul-jeon Hall. Stepping inside the Cheonbul-jeon Hall, you’ll find a contemplative statue of Mireuk-bosal (The Future Buddha) surrounded by a thousand tiny golden statues of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And the exterior, like the Daeung-jeon Hall, is void of the traditional dancheong colours.
To the left of the Cheonbul-jeon Hall, you’ll find the Japanese style bell pavilion with a small bronze bell inside it. Surrounding the Jong-ru are a couple dozen divinity stones. There’s also a small lotus pond to the left of the Japanese style Jong-ru, as well. And more recently, “The Statue of a Girl of Peace in Gunsan,” meant to symbolize the suffering of Korean Comfort Women, was added to the temple grounds in August, 2015 to commemorate the suffering of Koreans during Japanese Colonial Rule. Just beyond this statue is the side entry to the temple grounds at Dongguksa Temple.
How To Get There
From the Gunsan Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take Bus #33, #53, #54, #71, or #82, and get off at the “Myeongsan Sageo-ri – 명산 시거리” bus stop. The bus ride should take anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes. From where the bus drops you off, you’ll need to walk an additional one hundred metres, or two minutes, first to the west and then to the south, until you finally arrive at Dongguksa Temple.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
So much of Dongguksa Temple’s overall rating and impressions are interconnected with its troubled past. You won’t find anything resembling Dongguksa Temple throughout the rest of South Korea. Its Japanese-style architecture stands out for its uniqueness against the backdrop of Korean architecture and colours. Dongguksa Temple stands as a monument to all that the Korean people have suffered and overcome. And while it may be difficult to visit with its tragic history in mind, it’s worth it all the same.