Jeongamsa Temple is one of the temples that’s considered a Jeokmyeol-bogung, which is a temple established by Jajang-yulsa (590-658 A.D.) to house the sari (crystallized remains) of the Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Jeokmyeol-bogung means “Silent Nirvana Treasure Palace,” in English. In total, there are four other temples that still exist to this day that are also considered Jeokmyeol-bogung. They are Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do; Beopheungsa Temple in Yeongwol, Gangwon-do; Sajaam Hermitage in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do; and Bongjeongam Hermitage in Inje, Gangwon-do. There is an additional Jeokmyeol-bogung that once existed at Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple in Gyeongju, but it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1238. Of the six Jeokmyeol-bogung, Jeongamsa Temple is perhaps the least well known.
Jeongamsa Temple was first built by Jajang-yulsa in 645 A.D. Jeongamsa Temple is located on Mt. Hambaeksan (1572.1 m), which is apart of the Mt. Taebaeksan mountain range. According to temple records, Jeongamsa Temple was reconstructed in 1713. And more recently, it has been rebuilt and reconstructed an additional three times.
Jeongamsa Temple has a couple of very interesting creation myths surrounding it, so I’m going to tell them at some length (hope you don’t mind). As for the origin of the temple, Jajang-yulsa realized that his life would soon come to an end, so he built Sudasa Temple in Gangneung, Gangwon-do. He stayed there wishing to meet Munsu-bosal, once again, like he had met Munsu-bosal in China when he first received the sari (crystallized remains) of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). One night, he had a dream of a monk from China, who was leading people to enlightenment. Jajang-yulsa said to the Chinese monk in his dream,”Monk, what brought you here at night. It’s dark out. Come in.” The Chinese monk answered, “Let’s meet at Daesong-jeong [the pavilion now called Hansong-jeong in Gangneung].” Jajang-yulsa was so surprised by this dream that he suddenly woke up. And as soon as the sun was up, Jajang-yulsa headed off towards Daesong-jeong Pavilion, where he wished to meet Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom).
When Jajang-yulsa arrived in Gangeung, a person said, “Jajang, you came.”
Jajang-yulsa answered, “I came here to tell you Munsu-bosal’s word.”
“What is that?”
“He said to meet in Galbanji on Mt. Taebaeksan.”
“When could that be?”
“Please start to do Seonjeong then you will know.” [Seonjeong is one of the ways to practice the Buddha’s teachings through the Heart Sutra. It literally means ‘resting your thoughts;’ or, to not focus on useless thoughts].
The next day, after speaking to a local villager, Jajang-yulsa then gathered more villagers around him and said, “The Buddhist precepts are like a lamp’s light, so continue to study the Buddha’s teachings.”
After saying these words, Jajang-yulsa headed off to Mt. Taebaeksan. When he arrived, he asked the locals where he could find Galbanji, but no one knew where to find Galbanji. So he continued to wander and wonder what the word might mean. Galbanji, in Korean, is a compound word. “Gal” means arrowroot, while “ban” means a small dining table.
Jajang-yulsa then asked his students to help him find the spot where the arrowroot vines grow. Together, they looked for the spot for four days, when they finally found it. However, there were ten large snakes that lived in that spot. His students were so shocked that they simply walked away. Jajang-yulsa then said to his students,” Oh! This is Galbanji. Our job is redeeming them. Let’s start to recite the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hwaeom-gyeong, in Korean).
The sounds of the Buddhist prayers started to echo off the mountain, so the large snakes started to uncoil their bodies. That night, those ten large snakes appeared to Jajang-yulsa in his dreams crying. The snakes said, “Monk, we were monks studying the Buddha’s teachings in our past lives. But we were too lazy to study, wasting the temple’s alms, and we weren’t thankful enough for them. So we’ve received our punishments and became snakes. We’ve been repentant and hoping to meet the great monk that will redeem us. Please read aloud the Buddha’s teachings to us. Now we will fast. There is treasure under this ground, so use it to build a temple.”
Seven days after Jajang-yulsa read the Buddha’s teachings, the ten large snakes reached nirvana and died. Afterwards, Jajang-yulsa built a temple that he named Seoknamwon in 645 A.D. This temple would become Jeongamsa Temple.
When Jajang-yulsa finally did build the temple, he attempted to build a pagoda on the mountaintop. But for whatever reason, it continuously collapsed. Because of this, he started to pray for one hundred days. On the last night of the one hundred days of prayer, Jajang-yulsa saw three arrowroot. These three spots would become the place where the Jeokmyeol-bogung, main hall, and Sumano-tap Pagoda were built.
The first thing to greet you, as you approach the temple grounds, are the monks’ dorms and a jovial statue of Podae-hwasang (The Hempen Bag). Off in the distance, and up one of the cauldron-like mountains that surround Jeongamsa Temple, is the seven-story brick pagoda that stands over top of the entire temple grounds like a sentry (but more on this amazing pagoda later).
As you draw closer to the main temple courtyard at Jeongamsa Temple, you’ll next notice the Jong-ru Pavilion, or temple bell pavilion, in English. This bell pavilion is uniquely perched alongside the neighbouring stream to the west of the temple grounds. Across the temple bridge, and to the right, you’ll see the Jeokmyeol-bogung main shrine hall at Jeongamsa Temple. This rather understated shrine hall is weather-worn with brown exterior walls. As for the interior, it has no altar statues, which is reminiscent of the Jeokmyeol-bogung at Beopheungsa Temple and the Daeung-jeon Hall at Tongdosa Temple. Instead of altar statues, there’s simply a window that looks out onto a neighbouring embankment that houses the sari (crystallized remains) of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) in its earthy soil. While plain in appearance, this holy site is one of the most venerated and sacred of sites in Korea. Interestingly, and out in front of the Jeokmyeol-bogung, is a tree that was purportedly grown from the walking stick of Jajang-yulsa. If true, this would make the tree almost 1,400 years old.
Back at the entrance of the temple grounds, and across the bridge to the left, you’ll find a handful of temple shrine halls. The first of these shrine halls, which almost looks like another monks’ dorms, is in fact the temple’s Gwaneum-jeon Hall. Inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall sits a solitary statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) on the main altar.
Up a set of stairs, and past the temple’s kitchen, are two additional shrine halls. The first of the two, and smaller in size, is the Josa-jeon Hall, which enshrines a mural dedicated to the founding monk of Jeongamsa Temple: Jajang-yulsa. The second hall is the Samseong-gak Hall. This shaman shrine hall houses a triad of murals. First, there’s the rather emaciated mural dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). Another mural, and the one that hangs in the centre, is a plain mural dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars). The last mural in the Samseong-gak Hall is dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Rather interestingly, Sanshin is wearing a turban-like headdress.
The final structure that visitors can explore at Jeongamsa Temple, and was mentioned previously, is the seven-story brick pagoda on the side of Mt. Hambaeksan. This uniquely designed brick pagoda is one of only a handful in Korea alongside the brick pagodas at Silleuksa Temple in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do; the brick pagoda at Songnimsa Temple in Chilgok, Gyeongsangbuk-do; and Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. This pagoda, which is known as Sumano-tap Pagoda, was first built during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The pagoda is situated ten minutes up the mountain to the rear of the Jeokmyeol-bogung. The bricks that make up the pagoda were made from grey-green limestone that were then cut into bricks. And the pagoda is crowned with a finial made from bronze. There is also a stone placed in front of the pagoda that has stone lotus relief designs on it, as well as a pair of elephant relief eyes on it. In 1972, Sumano-tap Pagoda was dismantled. Five plates containing a record of the construction of the pagoda were found, as was a sari reliquary that was made from gold, silver, and bronze. It was revealed at this time that the pagoda underwent several repairs during the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Sumano-tap Pagoda at Jeongamsa Temple is Korean Treasure #440. Rather surprisingly, it’s not a National Treasure. As for the name of the pagoda, Sumano-tap Pagoda, it’s a compound word. “Su,” in the name means water because the western Yongwang (Dragon King) moved the pagoda over the ocean to its present location. And it’s called “mano” because of the agate that it’s made from.
Out in front of the pagoda is a place where devotees can pray. It’s also from this side of the pagoda that you get an amazing view of the neighbouring countryside down below, as well as a beautiful view of the entire temple complex. And on a windy day, you can enjoy the sounds from the wind chimes that adorn the seven-story stone pagoda. The view and the pagoda are really something special.
How To Get There
From the Gohan Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take the bus that says “Manhang” on it. This bus leaves four times a day at 6:40 a.m., 9:50 a.m., 2:10 p.m., and 7 p.m. The bus ride to Jeongamsa Temple from the Gohan Intercity Bus Terminal takes ten minutes, and you’ll need to get off at the Jeongamsa stop.
Overall Rating: 8/10
While smaller in size than the other Jeokmyeol-bogung temples, Jeongamsa Temple is just as special and just as charming. Because it’s a historic site for the home of the Seokgamoni-bul’s remains, it rates as highly as it does. Adding to the temple’s overall beauty is the amazing seven-story brick pagoda on the mountainside, as well as the interesting shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall. While rather remote, Jeongamsa Temple makes for a nice little visit, if you’re up for the adventure.