Guryongsa Temple is located in Chiaksan National Park in Wonju, Gangwon-do. Guryongsa Temple is specifically located to the north of the highest peak in the park, Biro-bong (1288m), in a long valley. Guryongsa Temple was first founded by the famed monk, and temple builder, Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.) in 668 A.D.
The name of the temple, Guryongsa Temple, originally meant “Nine Dragons Temple,” in English. And this name comes from the creation myth that surrounds the temple. Uisang-daesa, after walking several kilometres, found a location for a new temple in the folds of Mt. Chiaksan. However, this location was already occupied by a pond, which potentially prevented Uisang-daesa from fulfilling his wish to build a new Buddhist temple. Additionally, there were nine dragons living in this pond. These dragons heard about Uisang-daesa’s plan to build a temple on their pond. To thwart this, the cunning dragons offered Uisang-daesa a bet. The bet was that if Uisang-daesa won, they would leave their pond; however, if the dragons won, Uisang-daesa would have to abandon his hopes of building a Buddhist temple on their pond. With both parties agreeing upon these terms, the dragons then attempted to drown Uisang-daesa. Torrential rain fell from the skies and flooded the mountain and the valley. Confident that they had killed Uisang-daesa, they went in search of his body. Instead of finding the deceased monk, the dragons were surprised to find Uisang-daesa peacefully sleeping in a boat. Awoken by these dragons, Uisang-daesa said to them, “Is that all the tricks you have? Now watch my trick with your eyes wide open.” Drawing a talisman, Uisang-daesa threw it into the pond, where the pond proceeded to bubble and boil. The dragons fled towards the East Sea. During their escape, one dragon was blinded by the boiling pond water. The other eight dragons, on the other hand, left so quickly and violently that they formed eight new valleys behind them in their wake.
In addition to a fantastical creation story, Guryongsa Temple has also been home to such venerated monks as Doseon-guksa (826-898 A.D.), Muhak-daesa (1327-1405), and Seosan-daesa (1520-1604). Also, the meaning behind the temple name, Guryongsa Temple, has changed from its original meaning. Even though the temple is still called Guryongsa Temple, the meaning is no longer “Nine Dragons Temple;” instead, Guryongsa Temple now means “Turtle Dragon Temple,” in English. The reason that it’s now known as this is due to a different myth related to the turtle-shaped rock at the temple entrance.
Guryongsa Temple is located up a beautiful winding road that’s lined with mature pine trees and a meandering stream. The hike up to the temple grounds is about 900 metres. Along the way, you’ll encounter the Iljumun Gate, which is supported by two twisting stone dragon pillars. A little further up the road, and you’ll come to a Budo-won, which is home to a handful of ancient budo, or “stupa,” in English.
Just a little further up the road, and you’ll finally come to the elevated temple grounds. The impressive two-story Cheonwangmun Gate is the first structure to greet you at Guryongsa Temple. To the right of the Cheonwangmun Gate is a three-story stone pagoda. And to the left stands a statue of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) with his hands displaying the mudra (ritualized hand gesture) of the Gesture of Fearlessness.
Passing through the Cheonwangmun Gate, and past the Four Heavenly Kings inside this entry gate, you’ll next have to mount a steep set of stairs. To gain entry to the main temple courtyard at Guryongsa Temple, you’ll first have to pass under the low-lying Bogwang-ru Pavilion. The Bogwang-ru Pavilion is meant to symbolize the absolute truth that transcends relative and partial truth. The first floor of this pavilion is used as an entry gate, while the second floor is used as a lecture hall for larger gatherings.
Once you’ve entered the main temple courtyard at Guryongsa Temple, and with the Bogwang-ru Pavilion at your back, you’ll notice the Daeung-jeon Hall straight ahead of you. Surrounding the exterior walls to the main hall are the Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals). As for the interior, and seated on the main altar, is a triad centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined on either side by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) and Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise). This triad is meant to represent the Buddhist idea of Samsara. Hanging on the right wall is the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). And hanging on the left wall is the Gamno-do (Sweet Dew Mural), which is used in ceremonies for the dead.
To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the newly built octagonal Mireuk-jeon Hall, which houses Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). This shrine hall is joined by the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the Myeongbu-jeon Hall are adorned with murals of the Underworld, as well as a Dragon Ship of Wisdom mural. As for the interior, and resting on the main altar, is a golden-capped, green-haired, statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Behind the Myeongbu-jeon Hall is the Samseong-gak Hall. This shaman shrine hall houses murals dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Rather uniquely, there are two images of Sanshin, a male and female Mountain Spirit), in the mural.
To the right front of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and standing in the main temple courtyard, is another three-story stone pagoda. And standing to the right of the Bogwang-ru Pavilion is the temple’s bell pavilion, the Jong-ru Pavilion.
To the right rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and up the embankment, are the two remaining shrine halls at Guryongsa Temple. The first is the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. This shrine hall houses a golden statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) inside it. This statue is backed by a beautiful mural of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is joined in the mural by Yongwang (The Dragon King). And just to the rear of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall is the Eungjin-jeon Hall. This Eungjin-jeon Hall has a seated statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on the main altar. This statue is joined by individual cubby-holes filled with Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). In total, there are five hundred statuettes dedicated to the Nahan inside the Eungjin-jeon Hall. Additionally, there are sixteen larger-sized statues dedicated to the original sixteen Nahan on the main altar.
Admission to Guryongsa Temple is 2,500 won.
How To Get There
From the Wonju Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take either Bus #3 or Bus #3-1 to Wonju Station. The ride should take about fifteen minutes, or six stops. From the Wonju Station, you’ll then need to board Bus #41 to Guryongsa Temple. In total, the bus ride should last about one hour and ten minutes.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Guryongsa Temple is located in one of the most beautiful parks in Korea: Chiaksan National Park. In addition, the two entry gates, the Cheonwangmun Gate and the Bogwang-ru Pavilion, are nice introductions to the temple. On top of that, you can also enjoy the male and female Sanshin mural inside the Samseong-gak Hall, and the uniquely designed Eungjin-jeon Hall.