Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, which means “Korean Dragon Palace Temple” in English is a reference to Yongwang (The Dragon King) and the Yonggung (Dragon Palace) that he lives in under the sea. Located in coastal Gijang, Busan, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple has perhaps the most beautiful location for any temple in all of Korea.
The temple was first constructed in 1376 by the monk Naong Hyegeun (1320-1376). The temple was built after Naong Hyegeun had a dream. The dream was about the Divine Sea god of the East Sea. During this dream, the Divine Sea god told Naong Hyegeun to build a temple on top of Mt. Bongnae. If Naong Hyegeun did this, the nation would become larger and more stable. So after looking around the peninsula for a place to build a temple, Naong Hyegeun found the perfect place to build this temple. Initially, the temple was called Bomunsa Temple. However, in 1592, during the Imjin War (1592-98) with the invading Japanese, the temple was destroyed. It wasn’t until the 1930s, over three hundred years after its destruction, that the temple was rebuilt, once more. It was rebuilt by the monk Ungang, from Tongdosa Temple, and renamed Haedong Yonggungsa around this time. Large parts of the present temple were constructed over the past twenty years, including the main hall, which was built in 2005.
You first approach the temple grounds along the coastal waters of the East Sea. The road that leads up to the temple is long and winding, until you come to a narrow corridor filled with vendors selling anything and everything. At the entry to this vendor bonanza is a large, slender statue dedicated to the Bodhidharma. Having finally passed through the cacophony of vendors, you’ll come out on the other side to be greeted by the twelve Sibiji-shin (The Twelve Zodiac Generals) that stand three metres in height. To the right of these twelve statues is a beautiful relief dedicated to an eleven-headed Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
Next to all of this Buddhist stone artistry, and before making your way down the 108 stairs that lead to the main temple courtyard at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, you’ll pass by a seven-story pagoda with a black ceramic tire at its base. This tire shrine reads: “”Traffic Safety Prayer Pagoda.” So this tire shrine is to pray for people to help prevent car accidents. Yes, seriously: car accidents!
Through the beautiful Iljumun Gate that’s adorned with two golden dragons on both pillars, and down some stairs, you’ll next come to a statue dedicated to Podae-hwasang (The Hempen Bag). Podae-hwasang is believed to be an incarnation of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). This statue of Podae-hwasang at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is meant to grant future sons to women that rub either the belly or nose of the stone statue. And judging from just how worn both the nose and belly are, it would appear that some people in Busan want sons.
After passing through an artificial passageway, you’ll appear on the other side with a beautiful view of the East Sea off in the distance. The view is joined by twisted red pines and a collection of seokdeung (stone lanterns) that line the 108 stairs. These 108 stairs are meant to symbolize the 108 delusions of the mind in Buddhism. But before heading down towards the main temple courtyard, hang a left. It’s along this trail that you’ll come across an outdoor shrine dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of Medicine, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise). This statue now rests under a wooden pavilion. Continuing along this trail, and a descending down some more stairs, you’ll come across a golden Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). This golden statue sits all alone along the shoreline on a rocky outcropping. You’ll also get a great view of the entire temple grounds from this vantage point, as well.
Back at the stairs, and descending downwards, you’ll cross over a bridge that allows entry to the main temple courtyard. Along the way, you can toss a coin for good luck. Just past the entry gate, and just to your left, you’ll see a three-story stone pagoda that stands like a sentinel against the sea with four lions at its base. These four lions are meant to symbolize the four basic human emotions: love, sorrow, anger, and joy.
Now with the main hall to your right, this beautifully built Daeung-jeon Hall is both large and ornate. Adorning its exterior walls are the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals). There is also a painting dedicated to Naong Hyegeun and the Divine Sea god of the East Sea, hearkening back to the origin myth of the temple. As for the interior of the main hall, you’ll find a triad of statues under a large red canopy (datjib). In the centre sits Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined on either side by Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha) and Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). To the right of this main altar is a mural dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars) and a Yeongsan Hoesang-do (The Sermon on Vulture Peak Painting).
To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the newly built Nahan-jeon Hall. The interior of this modern-looking shrine hall is populated by a Reclining Buddha on the main altar. This statue is joined on either side by descriptive statues dedicated to the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). And hanging on the far left wall is a Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).
To the immediate left of the main hall, on the other hand, there is a large, jovial, bronze-coloured statue dedicated to Podae-hwasang. Next to this large statue is the temple’s Yongwang-dang Hall, which is dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King). The Dragon King looks out towards the sea, perhaps longingly looking towards his Dragon Palace (Yonggung). Also in the main courtyard are a set of subterranean stairs that leads into a cavernous shrine hall with a statue of Yaksayeorae-bul inside.
The final thing a visitor can explore, besides the golden twin pigs next to the opening to the subterranean cave, is the elevated statue dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). The serenely smiling Bodhisattva is situated up a set of uneven stairs. This towering statue is known as the Haesu Gwaneeum Daebo, which means “Sea Water Bodhisattva of Compassion Statue” in English. On all sides, the Bodhisattva is surrounded by shrubbery and slender monk statues. It’s also from these heights that you get a breath-taking view of both the temple and the sea.
How To Get There
There are two ways that you can get to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. One is to simply get off at Jangsan subway station, stop #201, on the second line. From there, you can catch a taxi that will take about 25 minutes and set you back around 10,000 won.
You can take a taxi, which is quicker, or you can take the bus. From the Haeundae subway stop, stop #203 on the second line, you’ll need to exit out exit #7. From there, catch Bus #181 to get to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. The ride takes about 45 minutes, and you’ll need to walk the five minutes up hill from where the bus lets you off.
Overall Rating: 9/10
While not as historically significant as Beomeosa Temple, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple more than makes up for it with its natural beauty. Of particular interest are the row of the twelve zodiac generals at the entry, the accident-free seven-story pagoda, the wonderfully ornate Daeung-jeon Hall, and the hillside statue of Gwanseeum-bosal that commands a view of both the entire temple grounds and the East Sea. And while Haedong Yonggungsa Temple can get quite busy, especially on weekends or holidays, it’s well worth the effort to see one of Korea’s most unique temples.