Gyeongju

Mujangsa-ji Temple Site – 무장사지 (Gyeongju)

The Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site.

Temple Site History

Mujangsa-ji Temple Site is located in a long valley in Amgok-dong, Gyeongju. According to the Samguk Yusa, Mujangsa Temple was built by Kim Hyo-yang, who was the father of King Wonseong (r. 785-798 A.D.), in memory of his uncle. As for the name of the temple, Mujangsa Temple, it comes from a story related to King Muyeol of Silla (r. 654-661 A.D.). King Muyeol of Silla is credited with first attempting to unify the entire Korean peninsula by first defeating the Baekje Kingdom in 660 A.D. But before he could completely unify the Korean peninsula, King Muyeol died in 661 A.D. Instead, the defeat of the Goguryeo Kingdom would fall to King Munmu of Silla (r. 661-681 A.D.). After the unification of the Korean peninsula, King Muyeol of Silla intended to start a peaceful era in which weapons would no longer be needed. As a result, he buried his armor and helmet where Mujangsa Temple would be built a century and a half later. Specifically, “Mujang” means “Buried Weapons Temple” in English.

And to commemorate the hope for peace upon the Korean peninsula, a three-story stone pagoda was constructed to memorialize this event. This pagoda is known as the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site, which still stands to this day, and it’s known as Korean Treasure #126. In addition to this ancient three-story pagoda, the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site is also home to another Korean Treasure, Korean Treasure #125, which is the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site.

Mujangsa Temple would remain open until the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). In fact, it’s believed that the temple finally closed some time between 1817 to 1914. All that remains of the site are the two aforementioned Korean Treasures.

Temple Site Legend

According to the Samguk Yusa, “Above the temple [Mujangsa Temple] there was once a shrine hall for Amita-bul [The Buddha of the Western Paradise] which was connected with a sad event. When King Soseong died [800 A.D.] his Queen Gyehwa grieved exceedingly, weeping over the body of her royal husband until blood flowed from her swollen eyes and beating her rosy breast with her white hands. And indeed the days of their love had been all too brief, for the King had hardly ascended the throne when he was struck down.

“Reflecting on the bright virtues of her husband, the Queen thought of a way in which her prayers for the repose of his soul might be perpetuated. She had heard that Amita-bul would clasp to himself the soul of anyone who prayed to him from a sincere heart. Drying her tears, she donated six of her royal gowns and treasures from the privy purse for the carving of an image of Amita-bul and of several statues of the lesser divinities associated with him, to be enshrined in a shrine hall. She summoned the most skillful sculptors in the land to do this work.”

The Samguk Yusa goes on to state, “At the aforementioned Mujangsa Temple there lived an old monk. Some time before these events he had a dream in which he saw a living Buddha sitting on a hill to the southeast of the temple’s stone pagoda and delivering a sermon to a multitude which was gathered in the west. The monk therefore believed that this would be an auspicious place for the habitation of a Buddha, but kept the idea to himself until the construction of the Amita-bul shrine hall was built.”

Evidently this very same monk pointed out the place of his dream so that the Mita-jeon Hall could be constructed because, and once more according to the Samguk Yusa, “Seeing the tall, rugged cliff and the mountain streams roaring down the ravines, the carpenters and sculptors complained that it would be very difficult even to carry their building materials to the site [because of the two kilometre long valley where Mujangsa Temple would be situated]. But the monks persisted, telling them that this was the ideal place. And when they investigated further, and dug behind some of the rocks, there indeed was a large piece of level ground, and there they built the shrine hall of Amita-bul. All the people who came to visit it admired its holy location.”

Overhead pictures of the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site.

Temple Site Layout

You first make your way towards the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site up a long valley. The two kilometre hike is a relative easy hike, and it’s picturesquely meanders it way alongside the Deokdong-cheon Stream for most of the way with Mujang-bong Peak off in the distance to the east.

You’ll have to look closely, when you do finally arrive at the temple site, and through the brush to your right, to see the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site through the trees. To gain access to the temple site, you’ll have to walk a few more metres to the northeast to find the wooden stairs that span the depths of the gorge below.

The first of the two Korean Treasures to greet you, and slightly up the hillside, is the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site. The body of the stele, which was newly erected in 2011, contains an inscription on it about the construction process related to the aforementioned Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) from the Samguk Yusa. Some of the original body fragments from the stele were discovered in 1914 in the area. These fragmented pieces are kept at the National Museum of Korea. The body of the stele are a pair of turtles whose heads have gone missing. At the top of the base, where the body meets the base, are carvings which are meant to resemble pillars. Between these artistic pillars are carved the twelve zodiac animals. The rarity of having the twelve zodiac animals adorning the base of a Buddhist stele should be noted. The capstone of this stele is adorned with a dragon holding a wisdom pearl (cintamani) with its forefeet in the clouds. It’s rare to find a capstone in relatively one piece made from the early Unified Silla period with the exception of the Stele of King Muyeol (N.T. #25).

Rather interestingly, the exact whereabouts of this stele was unknown until they it was re-discovered by Hong Yang-ho (1724-1802), who was a scholar during the reign of King Jeongjo of Joseon’s (1776-1800). At this time, and during its discovery, Hong Yang-ho worked as an official in Gyeongju. The stele was re-discovered in a rather peculiar way, too. The village people were grinding beans with a millstone when Hong Yang-ho looked closer at the millstone to discover that it wasn’t in fact any old stone; but instead, it was a small piece of the historic stele’s body stone. This stone was heavily worn and hard to read, but Hong Yang-ho was able to do this and preserve what remained of the body stone of the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site.

To the rear of the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site, and down a couple embankments, you’ll find the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site. If you look close enough, you can almost imagine what Mujangsa Temple must have once looked like. The Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site appears on the very western tip of the temple grounds, which is also its lowest. The pagoda stands 4.9 metres in height. This three-story stone pagoda consists of a double-tier base. This style of pagoda is built in the traditional Silla-style. The lower parts of the base are carved with pole patterns on its centre and middle, and the upper part with two a panel-like design. It’s believed that this pagoda was first built in the early 9th century. When the pagoda was re-discovered, it had collapsed. It was rebuilt to its current configuration in 1963. And rather remarkably, a sari reliquary measuring 27.5 centimetres by 23 centimetres was discovered inside the first story of the body stone at the time of its reconstruction.

How To Get There

The only way to get to Mujangsa-ji Temple Site is by taxi. You can catch a taxi from the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. You’ll need to tell the taxi driver to bring you to the “Gyeongju Gukribgongwon Amgok Tambang Jiwonsenteo – 경주국립공원 암곡탐방지원센터.” The taxi ride will take about thirty minutes and cost 23,000 won (one way). From where the taxi drops you off, you’ll then need to walk some 2.1 kilometres to the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site.

Overall Rating: 4/10

While very little of Mujangsa Temple still stands to this day, it isn’t too hard to imagine what it once must have looked like after walking through the temple site. The hike up to the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site is beautiful, and the two Korean Treasure awaiting you there make the hike well worth it. Both the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site and the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site are wonderful examples of Buddhist artistry from the Unified Silla period. And adding to temple site’s overall appeal, which helps give contemporary visitors greater insight, is the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site’s long, recorded history.

The beautiful trail leading up to the Mujangsa-ji Temple Site.
Getting closer.
Can you see the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site through the brush?
The stairs leading up to the temple site.
The Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site off in the distance.
Some stonework that once was Mujangsa Temple.
A complete look at the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site.
The base of the stele.
One of the ornamental stone reliefs of the zodiac dragon.
The slightly damaged capstone to the Stele for the Construction of Amitabha Buddha at Mujangsa Temple Site.
A look up the trail that leads towards the Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site.
A closer look at the historic Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Mujangsa Temple Site.
A look up at the three-story structure.
And one last look before heading home.

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