Heungguksa Temple – 흥국사 (Yeosu, Jeollanam-do)
Heungguksa Temple, which is located on the northern side of the southern coastal city of Yeosu, Jeollanam-do. The Heungguksa Temple of Yeosu shouldn’t be confused with two other temples of the exact same name found in Goyang, Gyeonggi-do and Namyangju, Gyeonggi-do. The name of Heungguksa Temple in Yeosu, Jeollanam-do means “Flourishing Kingdom Temple” in English. More specifically, it’s located on the eastern slopes of Mt. Yeongchwisan (439 m), or “Vulture Peak Mountain” in English. The temple was first founded in 1196 by the famed monk Jinul (1158-1210), who was also the founding monk of the Jogye-jong Order, which is the largest Buddhist sect in Korea. The temple was first built to fulfill the prophecy of a devout monk. The prophecy stated that if a temple was built at Heungguksa Temple that the nation would flourish. So Heungguksa Temple was built.
Heungguksa Temple was later completely destroyed during the Mongol Invasions of Korea (1231-1259). The temple was later rebuilt in 1530 by the monk Beopsu-daesa. The monks of Heungguksa Temple would distinguish themselves by helping Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598) repulse the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598). The monk Giam-daesa helped lead three hundred monks from Heungguksa Temple in support of Admiral Yi’s defence of the Korean peninsula. However, Heungguksa Temple was partially destroyed in 1592 and then in 1597.
So Heungguksa Temple was rebuilt for a second time in 1642 by the monk Gyeteuk-daesa. It was further expanded in 1690 with the addition of the Palsang-jeon Hall. In total, there are an amazing ten Korean Treasures housed at Heungguksa Temple including the Daeung-jeon Hall and the Rainbow Bridge.
Admission to the temple is 2,000 won.
You first approach the main temple grounds at Heungguksa Temple past the Iljumun Gate. Just beyond the Iljumun Gate is a cluster of twelve stupas inside a Budowon. One of these stupas contains the earthly remains of Jinul, who is also known as Bojo-guksa, the founding monk of Heungguksa Temple. Also found in this field of stupas is the stupa of Beopsu-daesa, who rebuilt the temple after it had been destroyed by the invading Mongols. A little further along the beautiful path that leads up to the main temple courtyard, and you’ll notice a turtle-based stele that dates back to 1703. The history of the temple’s reconstruction is written on the body of this stele.
Next up is the Cheonwangmun Gate that houses four distinctly designed images of the Four Heavenly Kings. To the left of this entry gate is the temple’s museum which is home to numerous temple artifacts including an 18th century Gwaebul painting dedicated to Rocana-bul (The Perfect Body Buddha). This masterpiece is Korean Treasure #1331. The temple museum is joined in this part of the temple grounds by the weathered Beomjong-gak (Bell Pavilion). The aged Beomjong-gak is home to four equally old-looking Buddhist percussion instruments. Beyond the Cheonwangmun Gate is the Beopwangmun Gate. This rather spacious entry gate was first constructed in 1624, and it’s subsequently been repaired in 1815 and 1962.
Having passed through the Beopwangmun Gate, you’ll now be squarely standing in the main temple courtyard. Straight ahead of you is the Daeung-jeon Hall, which was first constructed in 1624. It’s also Korean Treasure #396. The exterior walls to the main hall, rather uniquely, are adorned with tiger and dragon murals and are void of more traditional murals like the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals) and the Shimu-do (The Ox-Herding Murals). Housed inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a triad of statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined on either side by Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) and Yeondeung-bul (The Past Buddha). This triad dates back to the 17th century, and it’s Korean Treasure #1550. And carved on the back of Mireuk-bul and Yeondeung-bul is the inscription “Maitreya, Chongzhen Era of Great Ming” and “Dipamkara, Chongzhen Era of Great Ming,” respectively. So the triad dates back to the reign of Chongzhen Emperor (r. 1628-1644) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). And backing this triad inside the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Hanging Scroll Behind the Buddha in Daeungjeon Hall of Heungguksa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #578. This large altar mural dates back to 1693, and it depicts the The Sermon on Vulture Peak Painting. And rounding out the historic artwork inside the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Mural Painting of (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva) in the Daeung-jeon Hall of Heungguksa Temple. This painting is located in the back left corner of the main hall. Interestingly, it’s the only historic painting known to have been painted separately on a piece of paper and then applied to the wall behind a main altar. It was first created during the reign of King Sukjong of Joseon (r. 1674-1720), and it’s Korean Treasure #1862.
To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Musa-jeon Hall. Inside this shrine hall, and resting on the main altar, is a green haired statue dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). This statue is then joined on both sides by Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld). The statues of Jijang-bosal and the Siwang were first created in 1648 by twelve monk sculptors under the watchful eye of master sculptor Ingyun. Together, they are Korean Treasure #1566.
To the immediate rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and still in the lower temple courtyard, is the Buljo-jeon Hall. This shrine hall houses some ancient artifacts from the temple. Unfortunately, this temple shrine hall is locked at all times to visitors.
To the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall and the Buljo-jeon Hall, and up a set of stairs through an entry gate, you’ll make your way up to the upper courtyard. The first temple shrine hall to greet you is the Palsang-jeon Hall. This hall houses eight replica paintings from the Buddha’s life known as Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals).
To the left of the Palsang-jeon Hall is the Eungjin-dang Hall. Seated on the main altar is a statue dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This statue is joined by sixteen statues of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). Backing these statues are six replica paintings of the historic Nahan murals. Of the sixteen original murals, only six now remain. The originals are now housed inside the temple museum. They were first painted during the reign of King Gyeongjong of Joseon (r. 1720-1724). Formerly, there had been a Vulture Peak mural backing a Seokgamoni-bul statue inside the Eungjin-dang Hall at Heungguksa Temple, but this mural is now missing. The six original murals are Korean Treasure #1333.
The two final temple shrine halls that visitors can explore at Heungguksa Temple lie to the left rear of the temple grounds past the Eungjin-dang Hall. The first is the Wontong-jeon Hall, which houses a multi-armed and headed statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). Purportedly, the Wontong-jeon Hall dates back to 1633, but it’s obviously had a lot of modern renovations. Just to the left of the Wontong-jeon Hall is an artificial cave that acts as the temple’s Yongwang-dang Hall. Housed inside this artificial cave is a main altar stone relief dedicated to Yongwang (The Dragon King). There is also another stone relief dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal. Rather interestingly, the temple is void of a Samseong-gak Hall.
How To Get There
From the Yeosu Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to board Bus #52 to get to Heungguksa Temple. The bus leaves every forty minutes from the terminal, and the bus ride should take about an hour to get to Heungguksa Temple.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Heungguksa Temple is beautifully situated on Mt. Yeongchwisan in the picturesque city of Yeosu, Jeollnam-do. Heungguksa Temple is absolutely filled with Korean Treasures. Nowhere is this more apparent than inside the Daeung-jeon Hall. The entry gates to the temple are stunning, as is the artwork that fill the half a dozen temple shrine halls. So take your time, and soak in all that Heungguksa Temple has to offer.