Temple Site History
Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site is located in and among the rice fields of Gyeongju just south of Mt. Nangsan (99.5 m) and Sacheonwangsa-ji Temple Site. Mangdeoksa Temple means “Aspiring Virtue Temple” in English. There is some debate as to when the temple was completed, but the Flagpole Supports at Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site were erected in 685 A.D. And even if this date isn’t believed, it’s assumed by most historians that the temple was built either during the reign of King Sinmun of Silla (r. 681-692 A.D.) or King Munmu of Silla (r. 661-681 A.D.).
The Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site has an interesting connection to the neighbouring the Sacheonwangsa-ji Temple Site, which was completed in 679 A.D. According to the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), for which Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site appears numerous times, the neighbouring Sacheonwangsa Temple was built to protect the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.) from the mighty Tang Dynasty (618–690, 705–907 A.D.) armies of China. After defeating both the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) and the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.) together, the Tang Dynasty turned its gaze towards the Silla Kingdom after the Korean peninsula had been unified. With the building of Sacheonwangsa Temple as a nation defending temple, as other early Buddhist temples in Gyeongju were built for like Gameunsa Temple, Silla miraculously defeated the Tang Dynasty forces, both 500,000 and 50,000 troops successively, after their fleets were drowned in storms. After hearing contradictory news, the Tang Emperor sent an envoy to confirm whether Sacheonwangsa Temple was built either to defend Silla or praise the Tang Emperor like Silla claimed. Before the Tang envoy could arrive in Silla, King Sinmun of Silla ordered the construction of Mangdeoksa Temple.
Mangdeoksa Temple was home to a very unique pair of twin wooden pagodas that were thirteen stories in height. The pagodas at Mangdeoksa Temple were thought to have mysterious powers attached to them that would allow them to prophesize the political turmoil found between Silla and Tang at this time as made evident by the myths found in the Samguk Yusa.
Additionally, and the reason for the original construction of Mangdeoksa Temple, Sacheonwangsa Temple was believed to be a consecrated site that helped protect Silla from Tang. That’s why Silla didn’t want to reveal this Buddhist temple to Tang. Perhaps Silla thought it would weaken the temple’s ability to defend the nation, and that’s why the king decided to have Mangdeoksa Temple built. Mangdeoksa Temple was built to hide the original temple; and thus, Mangdeoksa Temple acted as its double.
But why twin pagodas in the first place? Well, there are a couple theories as to why there are twin pagodas at Korean Buddhist temples. Originally, Korean Buddhist temples only had one pagoda like at Hwangnyongsa Temple. This changed with the creation of the twin wooden pagodas at Sacheonwangsa Temple that were followed by the stone pagodas at Gameunsa Temple and the wooden pair at Mangdeoksa Temple. The first reason given is the motif of representing the Twin Buddhas of Dabo-bul (Many Treasures Buddha) and Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Textually, this appears in the Lotus Sutra in the “Chapter of Seeing the Treasury Pagoda,” where Dabo-bul appears at Seokgamoni-bul’s sermon. Dabo-bul invites Seokgamoni-bul inside the pagoda. And another theory is that twin pagodas would no longer block the view towards a temple’s main hall; but instead, it would frame the main hall. In this case, one theory is just as plausible as the other. And the most successful incarnation of the twin pagodas that still exists with us to the present day can be found at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.
As for Mangdeoksa Temple, the twin wooden pagodas at Mangdeoksa Temple were believed to have a certain exotic quality to them. Perhaps this was to appease the Tang envoy that would visit the temple. With that being said, it probably wouldn’t have been all that hard for the Tang envoy to realize that the multi-leveled Chinese miyan-style pagoda at Mangdeoksa Temple weren’t Silla in design both in their construction and in the odd height of its thirteen stories. It’s no wonder that the Tang envoy was easily able to realize that Mangdeoksa Temple wasn’t in fact the Sacheonwangsa Temple he had been instructed to visit. But with a bribe of some one thousand strings of gold, at least according to the Samguk Yusa, the Tang envoy was willing to lie to the Tang emperor upon his return to China.
Alongside Hwangnyongsa Temple and Sacheonwangsa Temple, Mangdeoksa Temple was one of the three most important temples in Gyeongju. And it’s believed that Mangdeoksa Temple survived until the early Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).
There has been numerous archaeological work conducted on the temple site including from 1969 to 1971 by the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration. Another dig took place in 2013, and it was at this time that the lecture hall site was discovered.
Temple Site Myths
Rather interestingly, the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site is one of the most frequently written about temples in the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). One of these stories is related to the very idea of why Mangdeoksa Temple was built in 679 A.D. in the first place. Here’s that story:
“When Baekje and Goguryeo had been disposed of, the victorious Tang armies turned against Silla. King Munmu therefore ordered his troops out to fight them. The Tang Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683 A.D.) complained to the Silla envoy Kim In-mun [King Munmu’s brother], saying ‘You employed our Celestial Army as your ally in conquering Baekje and Goguryeo and now you fight it as an enemy!’ He threw Kim In-mun into prison and commanded Hsueh Pang to train 500,000 men to attack Silla.
“Uisang, a famous Silla monk who was studying in China at the time, learned of the Emperor’s intentions from Kim In-mun and reported them to King Munmu on his return from Changan. The King summoned Myeongnang-beopsa, a mysterious monk who studied miraculous methods of warfare in the Dragon Palace, and asked him what should be done. The monk advised the King to erect Sacheonwangsa in the Forest of the Gods south of Wolf Mountain, and to set up a military training ground within its precincts.
“But just at this time news arrived from the western coast near Cheongju that a great host of Tang vessels with troops on board was approaching. The King again consulted Myeongnang-beopsa and told him about the imminent danger of enemy attack. Myeongnang advised him to decorate the temple with silk brocade. The King did so, and in addition had an image of the five-faced god made of grass and ordered twelve monks, headed by Myeongnang, to call upon the spirits of heaven and of the sea. Soon a mighty typhoon arose, and the angry waves swallowed the Chinese vessels before the troops on board could get ashore.
“The following year the exasperated Tang Emperor sent out fifty thousand men under the command of Chao Hsien on a second expedition against Silla, but the fleet that was transporting them went to the bottom just as the previous one had because of the magic art of the Silla monk.
“The Emperor was astonished. He summoned Pak Mun-jun, a Silla nobleman who had been interned in the same prison as Kim In-mun, and asked ‘What magic art do you have in Silla? Why did two great expeditions perish before they reached its shore?’
“Pak replied, ‘The Prince and I have been away from Silla these ten years and we know little of what is happening at home, but we have heard that the King of Silla has erected a temple of the Heavenly Kings [Sacheonwangsa Temple] on Mt. Nangsan to pray for the long life of the Tang Emperor in gratitude for his having sent great hosts to fight for Silla in the war to unify the Three Kingdoms.’
“The Emperor was greatly pleased and sent Lo Peng-kuei, a high official in the Ministry of Education and External Affairs, to Silla to inspect this mysterious temple. Hearing of his approach, the King of Silla thought it not prudent to reveal the actual temple and so had another constructed to the south of it, and waited.
“When the Tang envoy arrived and wanted to burn incense at Sacheonwangsa Temple, he was conducted to the false temple. But he stopped at the gate and turned back, saying, ‘This is not Sacheongwangsa Temple but a temple of Mangdeokyosan.’ (The temple was called Mangdeoksa Temple ever afterwards).
“The Silla courtiers gave the envoy a luxurious banquet served by a galaxy of beautiful women and presented him with a thousand ‘yang’ of gold (a very large sum). When he returned to Changan, he reported to the Emperor that the people of Silla prayed for his long life in a new temple just as they worshipped in Sacheonwangsa Temple.”
Another story from the Samguk Yusa relates to King Hyoso of Silla (r. 692-702 A.D.), when the king was conducting a ceremony for the opening of Mangdeoksa Temple. Here is that story:
“A festival was held at Mangdeoksa Temple on its completion, and the King attended the ceremony in person. There he saw an unmarried monk, dressed in rags and bent with age, standing in the courtyard. ‘Your Majesty,’ the monk said, ‘allow this poor monk to participate in the ceremony.’
“‘With great pleasure,’ the King replied. ‘Please take a seat and worship the great Buddha on this happy day.’
“When the ceremony was over the King said jokingly, ‘My good monk, where do you live?’
“‘I live under Bipaam Rock (Harper’s Rock),’ he replied.
“‘When you go home,’ the King said, ‘do not tell anybody that you offered sacrifices to the great Buddha in the company of the King.’
“‘My good King,’ laughed the monk, ‘please tell nobody that you offered sacrifices to the incarnation of Buddha.’ And he rose into the air and flew away toward the south.
“In great surprise and shame the King bowed in that direction and sent courtiers to find the flying monk. After a time they returned and reported that they had found the monk’s bronze staff and wooden bowl on a rock in Samseong-go, (Three Star Valley) near Mt. Namsan, but the monk was nowhere to be found.
“The King had a Buddhist temple called Seokkasa Temple (Shakyamuni Temple) built beneath Bipaam Rock, and another called Bulmusa Temple (No Buddha Temple) on the spot where the monk disappeared, with his staff and bowl preserved in it.”
In yet another story from the Samguk Yusa, the twin wooden pagodas at Mangdeoksa Temple shook in 755 A.D. to warn Silla of the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763 A.D.). Here is that story from the Samguk Yusa:
“In the fourteenth year of King Gyeongdeok of Silla [755 A.D.] the pagoda in the courtyard of Mangdeoksa Temple was shaken from top to bottom. This was the same year that An Lu-shan made an alliance of love with Yang Kuei-fei and led a rebellion, with an attempt upon the life and throne of Tang Ming-wang (Hsuan-tsung). The people of Silla denounced the adulation of the Tang rulers by the royal family, asserting that it was natural that the pagoda was shaken to its foundation, since the temple had been built in flattery of the decadent Tang royalty.”
And yet another story from the Samguk Yusa relates to the area surrounding the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site and its connection to loyalty and a wife’s love for her husband. The area around the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site is known as Beoljiji, which is more commonly known as Yangjibeodeul, and the sandy field nearby is Jangsa. Both areas have a sad story related to them.
Silla was facing a crisis from the time of King Naemul of Silla (r. 356-402 A.D.) to King Nulji of Silla (r. 417-458 A.D.). The Goguryeo kings, King Gwanggaeto the Great (r. 391-413 A.D.) and King Jangsu of Goguryeo (r. 413-491 A.D.), were expanding their territories and enforcing southern expansion. But Silla, at least at this time, was less powerful than its northern neighbour. Also, Japan was constantly attacking Silla. As a bit of a reprieve, Silla sent political prisoners to both Goguryeo and Japan to suspend hostilities. These prisoners were the two princes of King Naemul of Silla (r. 356-402 A.D.): Prince Bohae and Prince Mihae.
Time passed and King Nulji of Silla (r. 417-458 A.D.) ascended the throne. The king really wanted to reunite with his younger brothers. So Bak Je-sang went out to Goguryeo and rescued Prince Bohae. He then needed to travel to Japan to rescue Prince Mihae. Before returning to Silla, Bak Je-sang directly went from Goguryeo to Japan. When his wife heard about this, she chased after him in order to be able to see her husband after such a long period of time. However, she was unable to see him. The wife fell into a deep depression and laid down on the sand to the south of the gates of Mangdeoksa Temple weeping. This is how the sandy field near Mandeoksa Temple came to be known as Jangsa.
Two of the wife’s relatives tried to help her up, but she was in such despair, and with her legs outstretched and unable to move, they couldn’t get her up. And that’s how the area also came to be known as Beoljiji. In Chinese characters, the word “stretch” is “beoljiji.”
And finally, and from the Samguk Yusa, once more, is a story about a monk named Seonyul who died from all his hard work while copying out the Heart Sutra, or Banya Shimgyeong – 반야심경 in Korean. Here is that story:
“Seonyul, a good monk of Mangdeoksa Temple, used the donation he received from local people to pay for the copying of the six hundred volumes of the Buddhsit scripture called Banya-gyeong. But before he could finish the work the messenger of death came and took him to the Yellow Spring (the world of the dead).
“The sorrowful monk stood before the King of Hell in the Hall of Judgment. Before him were a mirror and scale, which reflected and weighed the sins of the dead. On the basis of their evidence, the court decided whether to send the soul to hell, purgatory, or heaven.
“The King looked into the mirror and then at the monk’s face and asked, ‘What was your occupation during life in human society?’
“‘I was a monk,’ Seonyul answered. ‘I began copying the six hundred volumes of Buddhist scripture, but before I could complete it I was brought to Your Majesty’s dark palace.’
“‘Hum!’ said the King. ‘You are a good monk and have sinned against nobody. According to my records your life is now over and your soul must say farewell to your flesh. But since your long-cherished noble work has not been finished, I shall give you a special pardon, and allow you to return to life until all of the sacred volumes are compiled and copied. You may go.’
“During his journey back to the land of the living, Seonyul encountered the soul of a woman, who, bowing to him and weeping, said, ‘I was a native of Silla in Namyeomju. Because my parents stole part of a rice field belonging to Geumgangsa Temple, I entered this dark world and have been subjected to unspeakable torment. When you return to life, please tell my father and mother to return the land immediately. During my lifetime I hid a bottle of sesame oil under my toilet box and a roll of hand-spun silk between the folds of my quilt. If you burn the oil in the temple lantern and sell the silk to pay for your copying expenses, I will be freed from the torments of the Yellow Spring by your grace.’
“‘Where was your home on earth?’ Seonyul asked.
“‘You will find it southwest of Guwonsa Temple in Saryang-bu,’ she replied.
“Seonyul came to life again after he had been buried at the foot of Mt. Namsan for ten days. He called loudly from his grave for three days, and at last a cowherd heard him and ran to the temple to tell the strange news. Soon a group of sturdy monks arrived, dug into the grave, and released the resurrected monk from the grassy mound. Breathing a sigh, Seonyul related to them his adventures in the world of the dead.
“He visited the home of the woman whom he had met on the banks of the Yellow Spring, as she had requested. She had been dead for fifteen years, but the sesame oil and the silk were still there, and as fresh as new. Seonyul prayed to Buddha for her soul, and one night she came to him in a dream and said, ‘Thanks to your grace, my soul is now at peace.’
“All the people admired the great virtue of the resurrected monk and assisted him in copying the treasured volumes, until the find series was completed. They are now kept in the archives of the monks of Gyeongju, and twice a year, in the spring and autumn, the ancient pages are spread in the sun to banish devils and catastrophes.”
Temple Site Layout
Sadly, there is very little left at the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site. You’ll first approach the temple site through fields of rice. The temple site is like an elevated island among a sea of rice fields. Having approached from the south, you’ll notice a wooden plank that spans the length of a narrow stream. Past some bramble bushes and up a steep incline, you’ll finally spot the Flagpole Supports at Mangdeoksa Temple Site. These flagpole supports stand a few metres in height and 65 cm apart. The flagpole supports are unadorned, but they do have rounded edges in the upper portion of the supports. There are rectangular holes in the supports to affix a flag to them during special Buddhist ceremonies. And according to the Samguk Yusa, they were erected in 685 A.D. to commemoration the completion of Mangdeoksa Temple.
Passing by this flag support, and making your way through a cluster of trees, you’ll first come across the elevated foundation for the western pagoda. Someone has left behind a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) leaning up against a tree that now grows through the centre of the elevated foundation for the western pagoda.
Passing by this, you’ll come to a clearing; and if you look directly across this field, you’ll notice another squarish piece of land that’s elevated, as well. This is the elevated foundation for the eastern pagoda. To the left of these elevated foundations, you’ll notice a collection of square stones in two lines. These are the foundations stones for the main hall, the Geumdang Hall, that once stood at Mangdeoksa Temple. And just to the rear of this, and recently discovered, is the now overgrown lecture hall site.
To the right of this collection of historical stones, and past the elevated foundations for the twin pagodas, you’ll find the remains of a stairway to the south of the Jungmun (Middle Gate). These are the faint remains of the elevated portions of earth that once supported enclosed galleries that surrounded Mangdeoksa Temple. While now largely overgrown, if you close your eyes and imagine, you can still see the faint glimpse of what the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site must have once been during the height of the Silla Dynasty.
How To Get There
From the Gyeongju Train Station, you’ll be able to get to the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site. There’s a bus station called the “Gyeongju St., Post Office Stop – 경주역, 우체국 정류장” from out in front of the train station. You can take any number of buses to get to the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site like Bus #11, #153, #601, #602, #603, #604, #605, #607, and #609. After seven stops, you’ll need to get off at the “Namsan Ipgu Stop.” From this stop, you’ll need to walk three minutes, or two hundred metres, towards the Sacheonwangsa-ji Temple Site. But instead of heading towards the Sacheonwangsa-ji Temple Site, you’ll need to hang a right at the intersection and head down “Tongil-ro – 통일로.” Follow this road about 300 metres. But before crossing Hwarang-gyo Bridge, you’ll see a road to your left. Follow this road for about 150 metres. You’ll have to walk at the side of the fields, but you’ll finally be able to see the support poles at the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site as a guide.
Overall Rating: 2/10
Unfortunately, there’s very little left at the Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site outside of myths and a few pieces of elevated earth and foundation stones. While almost always overlooked, if you’re into temple sites, then the neighbouring Sacheonwangsa-ji Temple and Mangdeoksa-ji Temple Site can make for a nice little adventure in southern Gyeongju. And with a little imagination, perhaps you can see the faint outlines of a once majestic temple.