Hwaeomsa Temple, which is located in Gurye, Jeollanam-do, is on the very south-western edge of the famed Jirisan National Park. Hwaeomsa Temple means “Flower Garland Temple,” in English. Because of this name, it is directly linked to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). In Korean, the Flower Garland Sutra is known as “Hwaeom Gyeong – 화엄경.” And in Sanskrit, the sutra is known as the “Avataṃsaka Sūtra.”
The temple was first founded in 544 A.D. by the monk Yeongi-josa, who might have come from India. The temple was then later expanded by Jajang-yulsa (590-648 A.D.) in 643 A.D. And during the reign of King Munmu of Silla (r.661-681 A.D.), the famous monk, Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.) inscribed eighty replicas of the Flower Garland Sutra on stone tablets at Hwaeomsa Temple. Later, in 875 A.D., another famous monk, Doseon-guksa (827-898 A.D.) expanded the temple, once more.
Throughout the years, Hwaeomsa Temple has undergone numerous renovations. And in 1593, most of the temple shrine halls at Hwaeomsa Temple were completely destroyed by fire by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-98). Remarkably, the temple was able to preserve pieces of Uisang-daesa’s stone tablets inscribed with the Flower Garland Sutra on them. They’re known as Seokgyeong, or “Stone Sutra,” in English. Even though they were shattered by the Japanese, some 9,000 fragments still remain. These fragmentary artifacts, that were originally written on light blue stone, changed into a gray-brown colour caused by the fires that engulfed the temple. Presently, these fragments are Korean Treasure #1040.
After the war, and between 1630-1636, Hwaeomsa Temple, and some of the buildings that now take up residence on the temple grounds, were rebuilt. And in 1701, during the long reign of King Sukjong of Joseon (r.1674-1720), the reconstruction of Hwaeomsa Temple was completed. The temple shrine hall buildings that were completed at this time were the Daeung-jeon Hall, the famed Gakhwang-jeon Hall, the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, the Wontong-jeon Hall, and the Yeongsan-jeon Hall. Also, three gates, the Geumgangmun Gate, the Cheonwangmun Gate, and the Boje-ru Pavilion were built at this time, as well.
Hwaeomsa Temple is home to an astonishing four National Treasures, eight Korean Treasures, one Historic Site, one Scenic Site, and two Natural Monuments. Hwaeomsa Temple is also a host to the very popular Temple Stay program.
You first approach Hwaeomsa Temple up a long valley, which neighbours the stunning Masan River. When you finally do arrive at the temple grounds, you’ll first be welcomed by the two-pillared Iljumun Gate. Stepping through this stately One Pillar Gate, you’ll next be greeted by the Geumgangmun Gate (The Diamond Gate) and the Sacheonwangmun Gate (The Four Heavenly Kings Gate). Both are wonderful examples of the splendour of these Korean entry gates.
After skirting the Boje-ru Pavilion to your right, you’ll finally enter the main temple courtyard. To the far left stands the temple’s bell pavilion, the “Jong-gak,” in Korean. The bell pavilion is protected by four fierce lions that stand on each of the four corners of the pavilion. To the left, the Jong-gak is joined by the Yeongsan-jeon Hall that houses eight stunning murals, the Palsang-do, which are dedicated to the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul’s, life. In this courtyard, but before mounting the stairs that lead up to the historic Daeung-jeon Hall, are a pair of ancient pagodas: Seo-ocheung Pagoda (West Five-Story Stone Pagoda) and the Dong-ocheung (East Five-Story Stone Pagoda). Both are believed to date back to the 9th century. The East Five-Story Stone Pagoda is Korean Treasure #132, while the West Five-Story Stone Pagoda is Korean Treasure #133. Both are wonderful examples of Silla-designed pagodas with beautiful lines and decorative guardians.
Finally climbing the stairs to the upper temple courtyard, you’ll come face-to-face with the Daeung-jeon Hall. The main hall is Korean Treasure #299. The weathered Daeung-jeon Hall is believed to date back to 1630 when it was built by the monk Byeogam. The Daeung-jeon Hall houses a large triad of statues on the main altar centred by Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This statue is joined on either side by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) and Rocana-bul (The Perfect Body Buddha). According to temple records from 1697, the wooden statues were jointly carved in 1636 by several famous sculptor monks that were active in the region during the early to mid part of the 17th century. They are Korean Treasure #1548. These three statues are meant to form the different incarnations of the Buddha. And they are backed by a beautiful mural of the triad that’s Korean Treasure #1363. The interior of the hall, including the canopy that hangs above the triad of statues on the main altar, is highly elaborate and colourful in design and artistry.
To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, which houses a green-haired statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). Jijang-bosal is joined by ten seated statues of the Shiwang, or the “Ten Kings of the Underworld,” in English. To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and between the massive Gakhwang-jeon Hall, are the Wontong-jeon Hall and the Nahan-jeon Hall. The Wontong-jeon Hall houses a statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, while the Nahan-jeon Hall houses both paintings and statues dedicated to the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha).
But it’s out in front of the Wontong-jeon Hall, and the Lion Pagoda at the Wontong-jeon Hall, that’s the most intriguing. The Lion Pagoda is Korean Treasure #300, and it’s believed to have been built sometime during the 9th century. This pagoda is typically called a “Noju,” in Korean, or a “Stone Pillar,” in English. The exact meaning and purpose aren’t precisely known, but it’s presumed to have been used either as a reliquary for sari (crystallized remains) or for holding memorial services around it. As for its design, it has four lions at each direction similar to the one up the hill at Hwaeomsa Temple, as well as the brick pagoda at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. On the heads of the four lions rests a square stone chamber where it’s presumed that the sari were housed. And each of the lions sits upon a lotus pedestal. It’s a rather remarkable example of Buddhist artistic achievement using stone.
To the left of this collection of shrine halls and the Lion Pagoda is the Gakhwang-jeon Hall. This hall is National Treasure #67. This massive hall was rebuilt to replace the hall that was destroyed by the Japanese during the Imjin War. It was completely rebuilt in 1702, and the name of the shrine hall, Gakhwang-jeon Hall, means “Enlightened Emperor Hall,” in English. The stone base that supports the two-story structure is presumed to date back to Later Silla (676-935 A.D.). Inside this hall are three massive Buddha statues and four accompanying Bodhisattvas.
Out in front of the Gakhwang-jeon Hall is the equally massive 6.4 metre tall stone lantern, or “seokdeung,” in Korean. The stone lantern is believed to date back to Later Silla (676-935 A.D.) to between 860-873 A.D. The lantern is National Treasure #12. Up until 1960, it was the largest of its kind. The Seokdeung isn’t meant to be lit. Instead, the lantern is meant to symbolize the spiritual light of the Buddha.
The other major highlight to Hwaeomsa Temple, among a whole host of them, and to the left of the Gakhwang-jeon Hall, is up a uneven set of 108 stairs on the hillside. The Sa-saja Samcheung, or “The Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda,” in English, is one of the most original pagodas in Korea alongside Dabo-tap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple. The pagoda is National Treasure #35, and it’s packed with symbolic meaning. From 2016 to 2021, the pagoda was off-limits to visitors as it was being repaired for structural instability. The three-story pagoda rests on top of the first story of the main body. Featured on this first story are doors in the four directions with the Four Heavenly Kings protecting two of these doors in pairs. At the base of the pagoda are four lions which are meant to represent the four human emotions of anger, joy, sorrow, and love. At the centre of the five metre tall pagoda is a stone monk. And out in front of the pagoda, kneeling out of respect, sits another stone figure underneath an equally unique lantern on pillars. It’s believed that the monk that stands with hands clasped together inside the base of the Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda is the mother of the founding monk, Yeongi, while the statue of the monk underneath the stone lantern in front of the pagoda is meant to represent Yeongi himself. Take your time at this pagoda because there are only a handful of pagodas like this that hold such artistic mastery and originality.
And now to the left of the “Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda” is the newly constructed Gyeonseong-jeon Hall. This newly built shrine hall is reminiscent of the Daeung-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple with a window looking out onto the iconic pagoda. Both the interior and exterior walls are adorned with Buddhist motif murals that include some of the Palsang-do (Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life). Also, and over top of the entryway on either side of the shrine hall signboard, there are two vibrantly painted dragons.
As for why there is a window looking out onto the “Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda” like at Tongdosa Temple, the reason for this is at the bottom of the 108 stairs leading up to the iconic pagoda. On a large black sign, written in gold, it’s written “Jeokmyeol-bogung – 적멸보궁.” This is in reference to the temples that enshrine the Buddha’s sari (crystallized remains) that Jajang-yulsa (590-658 A.D.) brought back with him to the Korean Peninsula from Tang China (618-907 A.D.). Historically, there are six temples which include Bongjeongam Hermitage on Mt. Seoraksan in Gangwon-do; Sajaam Hermitage on the Woljeongsa Temple grounds in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do; Beopheungsa Temple in Yeongwol, Gangwon-do; Jeongamsa Temple in Gohan, Gangwon-do; and the aforementioned Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. There was also Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site in Gyeongju, but it was destroyed during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Purportedly the sari from the Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site is now housed at Tongdosa Temple.
However, what makes this Jeokmyeol-bogung at Hwaeomsa Temple a little different is that it’s one of three temples that purportedly have the sari of the Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), but that they weren’t placed at the temple personally by Jajang-yulsa. In total, there are three of these temples. They include Hwaeomsa Temple, Yongyeonsa Temple in Daegu, and Dasolsa Temple in Sacheon, Gyeongsangnam-do. So while they aren’t included in one of the six original Jeokmyeol-bogung, all three temples make claims that they have sari (crystallized remains) of the Buddha. And for Hwaeomsa Temple, the sari of the Buddha is located inside the “Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda;” and hence, the reason for the window looking out towards the historic pagoda like at Tongdosa Temple.
And to the rear of the Gyeonseong-jeon Hall, up an uneven set of stone stairs, is the newly built Samseong-gak Hall. Housed inside the shaman shrine hall are three beautiful examples of murals dedicated to the three most popular shaman deities in Korean Buddhism: Chilseong (The Seven Stars), Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Of note is the masterful mural dedicated to Sanshin, who has recently had the tiger’s eye repaired after what looks to be some fire damage.
Hwaeomsa Temple Hermitages
In total, Hwaeomsa Temple is home to some 8 hermitages spread throughout its temple grounds. Some are closer to the temple while others are further up the mountain. Here is a list of those 8 hermitages:
2. Naewonam Hermitage – 내원암 (off-limits)
3. Mitaam Hermitage – 미타암
4. Namaksa Temple – 남악사
How To Get There
From the Gurye Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take a bus bound for Hwaeomsa Temple. This bus leaves every ten to twenty minutes, and the first bus departs at 8 a.m. The final bus leaves Hwaeomsa Temple at 8:10 p.m. From where the bus lets you off, it’s an additional fifteen to twenty minute walk to get to Hwaeomsa Temple.
Overall Rating: 10/10
With a combined sixteen National Treasures, Treasures, Scenic Site, Historic Site, and Natural Monuments, it’s no wonder that Hwaeomsa Temple rates a perfect ten out of ten. There’s just so much to love and explore about Hwaeomsa Temple like the massive Gakhwang-jeon Hall, the equally massive stone lantern that’s situated just outside the Gakhwang-jeon Hall, the Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda, and the countless amount of Buddhist artistry. I highly, highly recommend a trip to Hwaeomsa Temple both for its cultural importance, as well as its artistic beauty. It’s an absolute must!