Gwaneumsa Temple in Gokseong, Jeollanam-do, not to be confused with the Gwaneumsa Temple on Jeju-do, is one of the more obscure major temples that you’ll find in Korea. Gwaneumsa Temple is named after the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Gwanseeum-bosal, and it’s located on the western foot of Mt. Seongdeoksan (646.6 m), which is named after a girl related to the origins of the temple (more on that soon). Gwaneumsa Temple is a sub-temple of the famed Hwaeomsa Temple of Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
Purportedly, Gwaneumsa Temple was founded in 300 A.D. This would make it one of the oldest temples on the Korean peninsula. Interestingly, and if true, the existence of Gwaneumsa Temple predates the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion in the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) by some eighty-four years, as the Baekje Kingdom wasn’t to accept Buddhism as a state religion until 384 A.D. The temple is known to have been founded by a laywoman of Baekje named Seongdeok, which means “virtuous saint” in Korean. This was done to enshrine a gilt-bronze statue of Gwanseeum-bosal that she found in the port of Nagan-po in present day Boseong, Jeollanam-do.
After it was established, there are no records about Gwaneumsa Temple during the Three Kingdoms of Korea (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.), Later Silla (668 – 935 A.D.), and the early part of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). However, by 1374, the Wontong-jeon Hall was restored. This was done through the support and finances of King Gongmin of Goryeo (r.1351-1374), who also ordered major renovations and expansion to the historic temple. In total, Gwaneumsa Temple has undergone five major renovations including this one during the late 14th century.
The entire temple was destroyed by fire, except the Wontong-jeon Hall, in 1597 during the second invasion of the Imjin War (1592-1598). The temple underwent further reconstruction and rebuilding after this destruction in 1604. More recently, Master Yeongdam renovated and repaired Gwaneumsa Temple after it had been partially destroyed by fire in 1912. The temple suffered heavy damage during the Korean War (1950-53), losing almost all temple shrine halls including the famed Wontong-jeon Hall, which was Korean Treasure #273 and the gilt-bronze Gwanseeum-bosal statue that was Korean Treasure #214.
The current Wontong-jeon Hall was moved to its present location at Gwanseeum-bosal from Daeeunam Hermitage which survived the Korean War. And in the 1970s, thirteen buildings were added to the temple grounds through reconstruction. The excavation of the old Wontong-jeon Hall site was conducted in 2013. This resulted in the discovery of a bronze bell and a candlestick dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).
As one of the religious centres focusing on the worship of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) in Korea, Gwaneumsa Temple is connected to the popular “Tale of Sim Cheong.” The direct link to the “Tale of Sim Cheong” passes through “The History of Gwaneumsa Temple of Seongdeoksan Mountain in Okgwa-byeon.” It was written by Baek Mae-ja in 1729, and it contains a tale related to the origins of the temple. According to this tale, a girl named Won Hongjang, who was the daughter of a blind man, was offered to a Buddhist monk named Seonggong to ensure the success of a large religious project at Hongbeopsa Temple. She followed the monk to China, where she won the favor of the emperor of the Jin Dynasty (266-420). Eventually, she would marry the emperor of the Jin Dynasty. As empress, she continued to send Buddhist pagodas and images to her hometown in an effort to cure her homesickness. One such image, a gilt-bronze image of Gwanseeum-bosal arrived in her hometown. This statue was then discovered by a local girl of Okgwa named Seongdeok. She enshrined this image of Gwanseeum-bosal at the temple she later founded, which would be named Gwaneumsa Temple. The plot to this tale is very similar to the “Tale of Sim Cheong,” which is one of the most beloved traditional tales from Korea. In this story of Sim Cheong, she fulfills her filial duty to her blind father by sacrificing herself by diving into the water of Imdang-su to help her father regain his sight. Her filial piety allows her to be revived. Later, she would marry a king and eventually be reunited with her father. It would seem that the story of Seongdeok acted as the foundation for the “Tale of Sim Cheong.” So it would also seem that the “Tale of Sim Cheong” is a result of several different folk narratives being put together including the “Gwaneumsa yeongi seolhwa,” or “The Story about the Origin of Gwaneumsa Temple” in English.
You first approach Gwaneumsa Temple up a long, twisting, isolated country road past the Seongdeok Dam. You’ll first approach the temple from the west past a collection of administrative buildings. It’s finally around the corner of the Jongmuso (office) that you’ll find the Geukrak-jeon Hall at Gwaneumsa Temple. The exterior walls to the Geukrak-jeon Hall are adorned with a fading collection of Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals). Stepping inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall, you’ll find a solitary statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) taking up residence on the main altar. This image of Amita-bul is surrounded by a beautiful fiery nimbus. Surrounding this central image, and on dozens of shelving units, you’ll find tiny white figurines dedicated to the Buddha of the Western Paradise. To the right of the main altar, and on the far right wall, is a contemporary Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).
To the right of the Geukrak-jeon Hall, and past the shrubbery and stone statues dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife), is the foundation for the former Wontong-jeon Hall. All that remains of the Goryeo-era Wontong-jeon Hall is the faint outline of stones to the former foundation, as well as a set of stone stairs leading up to the once standing temple shrine hall. To the rear of the Wontong-jeon Hall is another set of stone stairs that now lead up to a newly grown forest. The location must have once housed temple shrine halls, but has now been reclaimed by Mother Nature.
And to the right of the former Wontong-jeon Hall is the transplanted Wontong-jeon Hall from Daeeunam Hermitage. The exterior walls to the new Wontong-jeon Hall has various Buddhist motif murals including an all-white image dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal. The interior of this Wontong-jeon Hall is adorned with wall-to-wall murals that reach all the way up to the ceiling. They include such beautiful murals as white cranes, lotus flowers, and fowl. As for the main altar, it’s occupied by Gwanseeum-bosal, who wears an extremely ornate crown. On the far right wall hangs a congested Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). This mural is joined to the left by a simplistic mural dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), who, in turn, is joined by a zombie-eyed tiger. To the immediate right and left of the main altar are two murals. One is dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), while the other is dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Interestingly, there’s the charred remains of a Buddha head that takes up residence on the main altar to the left of Gwanseeum-bosal. This, perhaps, is what remains of the former Wontong-jeon Hall.
And out in front of these temple shrine halls at Gwaneumsa Temple are a collection of structures. The first, and probably the spookiest of its kind that I’ve seen in Korea, is the Geumgangmun Gate. The exterior walls to this gate are stripped of colour, and when you step inside this entry gate you’ll be met by two ghost white statues of Geumgang-yeoksa (Vajra Warriors) with fierce expressions on their faces. To the left of the Geumgangmun Gate is the Jong-gak (Bell Pavilion). The wooden structure surrounds a mid-sized Brahma Bell. And the final temple structure visitors can explore at Gwaneumsa Temple is the Geumrang-gak Pavilion, which spans a slow moving stream.
How To Get There
From the Gokseong Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take the bus that says “Gokseong – Okgwa (곡성 – 옥과)” on it. After twenty-two stops, you’ll need to get off at the Okgwa Terminal (옥과 터미널). The bus ride will take about one hour. From the Okgwa Terminal, you’ll need to take another bus. This bus will say “Okgwa – Gwaneumsa (옥과 – 관음사)” on it. After fourteen stops, or forty-five minutes, you’ll need to get off at the Gwaneumsa stop. From where the bus lets you off, you’ll need to walk seven minutes, about five hundred metres, to get to Gwaneumsa Temple.
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
So much about this temple’s lustre, tragically, is located in Gwaneumsa Temple’s past. All that made it so beautiful was destroyed in numerous wars and accidents including the gilt-bronze statue of Gwanseeum-bosal and the Wontong-jeon Hall. There are, however, still a few things to enjoy at the temple. For one, you can still see, and imagine, just how amazing Gwaneumsa Temple must have once been with the Wontong-jeon Hall site and the stone stairs that lead up to a well populated forest of trees. In addition to these sites, you can also enjoy the beautiful artwork that occupies both the Geukrak-jeon Hall and the current Wontong-jeon Hall, as well as the frightening Geumgangmun Gate and the stately Geumrang-gak Pavilion.