Donghaksa Temple – 동학사 (Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do)

The View from the Samseong-gak Hall at Donghaksa Temple.

Temple History

Donghaksa Temple, which means “Eastern Crane Temple,” in English, is located in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do. Originally, the temple was first constructed in 724 A.D. by the little known monk Sangwon-josa. One source claims Sangwon-josa was a monk from Tang China. The temple was called Cheongryangsa Temple, or “Clear Cold Temple,” in English. It was called this in honour of the cool mountain stream that flowed, and still flows, in front of the temple. According to one legend, Sangwon-josa saved the life of a tiger. In order to repay the monk, the tiger brought a young woman to the temple. Sangwon-josa decided to adopt the young woman, and he treated her like a sister. Together, Sangwon-josa taught the woman, and they studied the dharma side-by-side.

Later, the temple was re-established by Hoeui-hwasang, when Hoeui-hwasang built two pagodas to preserve the remains of his master, Sangwon-josa, and to honour both his master and his adopted sister.

Later, the temple was reconstructed in 920 A.D. under the order of the Goryeo Dynasty founding king, King Taejo Wang Geon (r. 918-943 A.D.). The reason that the temple was rebuilt was to protect the kingdom from its enemies. The temple was rebuilt under the guidance of the geomantic principles found in the Pungsu-jiri philosophy of Doseon-guksa (826-898 A.D.). Prior to it being rebuilt, Doseon-guksa had declared this site to be an important place for the defense of the nation and its prosperity.

In 936 A.D., Cheongryangsa Temple was expanded by Yuchadal. The temple was enlarged by Yuchadal, who was a surviving vassal of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). In order to establish his loyalty to the newly formed Goryeo Kingdom, Yuchadal expanded the temple. In addition to helping establish his loyalty, Yuchadal also provided a remote training centre for monks in the highly sacred mountain range of Mt. Gyeryongsan (845 m). Furthermore, the temple was expanded to help balance Gapsa Temple and Sinwonsa Temple that are located to the west.

It was also at this time that Cheongryangsa Temple was renamed by Yuchadal. The temple name was changed to its current name: Donghaksa Temple. The reason it was renamed Donghaksa Temple, or “Eastern Crane Temple,” in English, is because there was a rock that looked like a crane standing on the east side of the temple grounds. Additionally, the name of the temple, Donghaksa Temple, can also mean “Crane on the East.” This idea is related to the notion that a white crane is a sacred bird in Buddhism. It symbolically means the virtue of scholarship and communication with heaven. This rock, sadly, was destroyed during the Musin Revolt.

Throughout the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Donghaksa Temple remained a influential and important temple. Tragically, Donghaksa Temple was destroyed by fire in 1754. Donghaksa Temple was later rebuilt in 1814 by the monk Geumbongworin-hwasang. In 1864, the temple was renovated by the monk Boseon-seonsa.

During the latter part of the 19th century, Donghaksa Temple became newly famous as the teaching temple of Master Gyeongheo (1849-1912). Gyeongheo was the most important Seon master at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Gyeongheo was the 75th Patriarch of Korean Seon. He also helped revive Seon Buddhism in Korea. Perhaps most importantly of all is that his disciples were extremely important in the transmission of the dharma in Korea.

Donghaksa Temple was completely destroyed by fire, once again, during the Korean War (1951-1953). However, from 1960 to 1975, Donghaksa Temple was rebuilt. Currently, it’s used as a nuns’ training centre. It was the first such temple in Korea; and in total, it currently houses one hundred and fifty nuns who study and reside at Donghaksa Temple.

In total, Donghaksa Temple is home to two Korean Treasures. Additionally, the Samseong-gak Hall at Donghaksa Temple is Chungcheongnam-do Cultural Heritage #57.

Temple Layout

Donghaksa Temple is located up a long valley to the east of Mt. Gyeryongsan. The trail up to the temple skirts a meandering stream from the temple’s origin story. Along the way, you’ll come across a handful of hermitages that are directly associated with Donghaksa Temple like Munsuam Hermitage, Gwaneumam Hermitage, Gilsangam Hermitage, and Mitaam Hermitage.

Just before you arrive at the temple, you’ll find a memorial compound with locked doors. In total, there are three shrines: Sukmo-jeon, Donggyesa, and Sameun-gak. The first of the three, and the most important, is the Sukmo-jeon Shrine. The memorial tablet for King Danjong of Joseon (r.1452-1455), who was overthrown and killed under the orders of King Sejo (r.1455-1468), is housed at this shrine. Additionally, six court officials that attempted to restore King Danjong to the throne the following year, and were subsequently killed in the process, also have their memorial tablets housed inside the Sukmo-jeon Shrine, as well. This shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt several times just like Donghaksa Temple.

Another of these shrines is the Donggyesa Shrine. Housed inside this shrine is the memorial tablet for Park Jesang, who was a loyal royal servant to King Nulji of Silla (r.417-458 A.D.). According to history, Park Jesang sacrificed his life to save the life of the king’s brother from Japanese captivity. In 936 A.D., during the early part of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Yuchadal memorialized Park Jesang’s sacrifice through a memorial tablet and shrine. Later, in 1956, Yuchadal was also enshrined at Donggyesa Shrine.

The final shrine of the three is dedicated to three late Goryeo Dynasty loyalists. Jeong Mongju, Lee Saek, and Gil Jae all have their memorial tablets housed inside this shrine.

Continuing up the trail, you’ll finally come to the Donghaksa Temple courtyard. The temple grounds are beautifully maintained. In front of the Daeung-jeon Hall stands a three-story stone pagoda that’s believed to date back to 723 A.D. While the base is new in construction, the body is original. Past the three-story stone pagoda that stands squarely in the temple courtyard, you’ll see the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are adorned with Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). These paintings are beautifully rendered, and they even have English explanations attached to them. One of the main highlights to Donghaksa Temple is the gorgeous latticework that adorns the front doors to the main hall. Resting on the main altar are a triad of wooden statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). These statues are Korean Treasure #1719. The statues were first created in 1606, and there were prayer scrolls found inside one of them which is Korean Treasure #1720. These scrolls predate the Imjin War (1592-1598); and therefore, the statues that they were found in.

Another impressive highlight to Donghaksa Temple is the Samseong-gak Hall to the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall. Uniquely, there are in fact four paintings housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall at Donghaksa Temple. In addition to having paintings of Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), there’s also a painting of a seated image of Yongwang (The Dragon King). There are also older Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deity) paintings that adorn the ceiling of this shaman shrine hall, so take your time and enjoy all that this amazing Samseong-gak Hall has to offer a visitor.

To the left of the Samseong-gak Hall and the Daeung-jeon hall is a newly built building meant for the housing and training of Korean Buddhist nuns.

How To Get There

The easiest way to get to Donghaksa Temple is from the city of Daejeon. You can take Bus #107 from the Yuseong Intercity Bus Terminal. The bus goes directly to Donghaksa Temple, and the bus ride takes forty minutes.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

So much of Donghaksa Temple’s appeal is the natural beauty that surrounds it at Mt. Gyeryongsan National Park. Added to all of this natural beauty are the beautiful shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall, the triad that rests on the Daeung-jeon Hall main altar, the ornate latticework adorning the front doors of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and the history found inside the loyalist shrines just outside the Donghaksa Temple grounds.

The beautiful stream that joins you on your way up to Donghaksa Temple.
More from the beautiful valley leading up to Donghaksa Temple.
The entry to the Sukmo-jeon, Donggyesa, and Sameun-gak shrines
The three-story stone pagoda at Donghaksa Temple.
The Daeung-jeon Hall.
The eighth painting in the Palsang-do set.
A look inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Yongwang (Dragon King) painting inside the Samseong-gak Hall.
And the Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) painting at Donghaksa Temple.

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