North Korea

Pohyonsa Temple – 보현사 (Hyangsan, Pyonganbuk-to, North Korea)

Pohyonsa Temple in Hyangsan, Pyonganbuk-to Province, North Korea. This picture was published in the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.

Temple History

Pohyonsa Temple [Bohyeonsa Temple] is located in Hyangsan, Pyonganbuk-to [Pyonganbuk-do], North Korea. And for the rest of this article, it should be noted, that the spelling of North Korean places will use the North Korean style of spelling. The temple is named after Bohyeon-bosal, or Pohyon-posal in North Korea, who is the Bodhisattva of Power. Pohyonsa Temple was first founded in 968 A.D. during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) as a smaller sized temple. The temple is located near Mt. Myohyangsan (1,909 m).

During the Imjin War (1592-1598), Pohyonsa Temple became a base for part of the Righteous Army led by the monk Seosan-daesa (1520-1604), which would assist in the recapturing of Pyongyang from the Japanese. In fact, Pohyonsa Temple would be the place where the famed monk died in 1604. During the Imjin War, Pohyonsa Temple was put in charge of one of four copies of the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, which are the annual records of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). These records were kept from 1392 to 1865 and are thought to cover one of the longest continual periods of a single international dynasty. This copy, which was secured at the neighbouring Puryongam Hermitage, was the only one of the four records to survive the war.

Also during the Imjin War, the sari (crystallized remains) of the Buddha that were once enshrined at Tongdosa Temple, and are enshrined there once more, were threatened by Japanese invading forces in 1592. The warrior monk Samyeong-daesa (1544-1610) moved the sari to Mt. Geumgangsan (1,638 m) in present-day North Korea for their safekeeping. And when the sari were eventually returned to Tongdosa Temple after the struggles had subsided, one sari was enshrined at Mt. Myohyangsan.

Throughout the years, Pohyonsa Temple has been destroyed by five historical fires. The first was in 1096. This was followed in 1361, when it was later rebuilt by the monk Naong (1320-1376). This rebuild would be destroyed by fire, once more, in 1449. Nearly two hundred years later, Pohyonsa Temple was destroyed by fire in 1634. And the fifth fire took place at Pohyunsa Temple in 1761. Later, it would be rebuilt over a four year period by the monks Nampa and Hyangak.

During Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945), Pohyonsa Temple was named as one of 31 head temples of the Korean Peninsula. This would put the temple in charge of some 112 neighbouring temples.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), and in 1951, the Pohyonsa Temple grounds were bombed by U.S. forces. Unfortunately, half of the historic buildings at the temple, which amounted to around 12 in total, including the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon], were destroyed. Since then, several of these structures have been rebuilt.

Currently, Pohyonsa Temple is home to 7 North Korean National Treasures. These include the temple itself as National Treasure #40. This also includes the Tabo Pagoda (N.T. #7), Kwanum Hall (N.T. #57), the Ryongsan Hall (N.T. #141), the Suchung Shrine (N.T. #143), Sokka Pagoda (N.T. #144), and the Monument of Pohyonsa Temple (N.T. #149).

The Modern History of Pohyonsa Temple

A Japanese Rinzai (one of three sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism) missionary by the name of Furukawa Taiko (1871-1988) visited Pohyonsa Temple in Hyangsan, Pyonganbuk-to during the Korean Empire (1897-1910), which was a protectorate of Japan. Monks at Pohyonsa Temple, who had their land taken from them by local farmers for rice cultivation, had petitioned the local authorities to return the land that once belonged to the temple, according to the Hwangseong Sinmun (newspaper). In fact, and in his petition, Bak Bobong, the abbot of Pohyonsa Temple, stressed the significance of the temple as a royal memorial temple rebuilt by the famed Seosan-daesa (1520-1604) in the 16th century. But instead of getting the desired response, the local officials responded by taxing both the farmers and the temple. Bak Bobong, frustrated, turned to the Japanese police; but again, the temple received no response.

It was only then that the abbot, Bak Bobong, who had heard that Japanese Otani-ha monks were politically influential, turned to these Japanese Buddhists for assistance. The Japanese monk, Inami Sensho promised to resolve the problem if Pohyonsa Temple became a branch of the Otani-ha. With this agreement and contract in place to help resolve the land dispute, Pohyonsa Temple; and Bak Bobong in particular, still heard nothing to help resolve the situation.

When Korean local officials and the central authorities learned about what Bak Bobong had done to help secure the temple’s interests through Japanese influence, the Korean government had Bak Bobong arrested and the deal declared illegal. It was only later, and with the political influence of Furukawa, that Bobong was released from prison and the land dispute was resolved favorably for the temple. Afterwards, Furukawa took charge of the temple and became its director. This would make Pohyonsa Temple the first Rinzai-shu branch temple in Korea.

What this incident proves is that Japanese Buddhist missionaries could and would exploit opportunities, whether they be land disputes or stolen temple property, to take over temples and ally themselves with other sects. As for the Bak Bobong, and other Korean Buddhist temples in general, their priority was to protect the temple’s land and property; so they turned to the Japanese Buddhists in Korea who actually had political influence unlike Korean Buddhist monks who had been suppressed by their own government for over 500 years.

Temple Layout

The Pohyonsa Temple grounds are quite extensive. While the most important temple buildings are located along a central axis that aligns with the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall], a lot of the central grounds are occupied by just a large lawn. This large lawn is then surrounded by various temple shrine halls.

Like most traditional temples, Pohyonsa Temple has three entry gates. The first is the Jogyemun Gate. This gate was first built in 1644. Between this gate and the next, the Haetalmun Gate, is a long pathway lined with trees that ends at a stele that commemorates the temple’s history. Some of these monuments still bear the scars from the Korean War. The third entry gate is the Chonwangmun Gate [Cheonwangmun Gate] at Pohyonsa Temple. Housed inside this structure are four newly made images of the Four Heavenly Kings that gives the gate its name.

Directly beyond the Chonwangmun Gate [Cheongwangmun Gate], and before the Manse-ru Pavillion, is the historic Tabo Pagoda [Dabo Pagoda]. This pagoda was first erected in 1044, and it’s National Treasure #7. The pagoda consists of a base with eight existing body stones. And between the base and the body stones exists a chamber where a statue of the Buddha must have once resided. As for the Manse-ru Pavilion that backs the Tabo Pagoda [Dabo Pagoda], it was former a meditation pavilion. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the bombing in 1951. The current Manse-ru Pavilion was rebuilt in 1979; but sadly, concrete was used in its reconstruction instead of the original wood.

Past the Manse-ru Pavilion is the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall]. The original Taeung-jeon Hall was destroyed during the Korean War, and it was reconstructed in 1976. Purportedly, it’s a near replica of the 1765 original. The exterior dancheong colours seem more muted than its South Korean counterparts. Stepping inside the Taeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a long main altar occupied by five images. In the centre rests Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This statue is joined by two standing images of Bodhisattvas; who, in turn, are joined by two more seated images of Buddhas. The Buddha to the far right is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And the Buddha to the far left is Nosana-bul (The Perfect Body Buddha).

Out in front of the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall] is the Sokka Pagoda [Seokga Pagoda]. This thirteen-story octagonal pagoda was first constructed in 1042, and it’s reminiscent of the pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple in Pyeongchang, Gangwon-do. The pagoda is National Treasure #144, and it stands just over ten metres in height. The pagoda is wonderfully ornate with the body stones slightly turned upwards. In total, there are 104 bells that hang from each corner of the thirteen-stories of the structure. And a bronze finial adorns the top of the pagoda. Both the bells and the bronze finial were damaged during U.S. bombing during the Korean War, but they have subsequently been repaired and restored to their original condition.

To the right of the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall], and past a small garden, you’ll find the Kwanum Hall [Gwaneum-jeon Hall], which is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). This temple shrine hall is National Treasure #57, and it was first built in 1449, making it the oldest structure at Pohyonsa Temple. And to the east of the Kwanum Hall is the Ryongsan Hall, which is National Treasure #141.

In the northeast corner of the temple grounds is a walled-off Suchung Shrine, or “Shrine of Rewarding Loyalty” in English. The Suchung Shrine is National Treasure #143, and it was constructed in 1794. This shrine was constructed to honor those monks that took up arms against the Japanese during the Imjin War. At one time, memorial services were regularly held for Seosan-daesa. Besides the shrine hall with the portraits of Seosan-daesa and Samyeong-daesa, there’s a stele that was erected in 1796 that records the actions of Seosan-daesa.

And the final area that visitors can explore at Pohyonsa Temple is south of the Suchung Shrine on the east side of the lawn. Here you’ll find the temple archives, which are known as the Changgyong-ru Pavilion. This is a modern structure because the original library was destroyed in 1951 during U.S. bombing. This pavilion houses a copy of the Tripitaka Koreana that are housed at Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do.

How To Get There

For now, in today’s political climate, you don’t. But hopefully one day soon we can. Below is a map of where to find Pohyonsa Temple in Hyangsan, Pyonganbuk-to, North Korea.

Overall Rating: 10/10

Okay, besides it being in North Korea and being absolutely amazing to see this off-limits temple, Pohyonsa Temple is home to 7 North Korean National Treasures. And the collection of 7 North Korean National Treasures like the Tabo Pagoda [Dabo Pagoda], the Sokko Pagoda [Seokga Pagoda], and the Kwanum-jeon Hall [Gwaneum-jeon Hall] are absolutely stunning. Hopefully one day soon we will all be able to visit this beautiful temple. For now pictures, both new and old, will have to do.

Historical Pictures of Pohyonsa Temple

The Chonwangmun Gate [Cheonwangmun Gate] from the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.
The Manse-ru Pavilion and Tabo Pagoda [Dabo Pagoda] from the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.
A closer look at the Tabo Pagoda [Dabo Pagoda] from 1927 from the Buddhist Art of North Korea: Documentation in Gelatin Dry Plates.
Some of the artwork that adorns the Manse-ru Pavilion from the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.
The Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall] and Sokko Pagoda [Seokga Pagoda] from the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.
The floral latticework adorning the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall] from the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.
And a look inside the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall] from the Joseon Gojeok Dobo in 1932.

Pohyonsa Temple Now (August, 2011)

The Brahma Bell at Pohyonsa Temple. (Picture courtesy of Flickr).
A look inside the Haetalmun Gate at a statue of Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). (Picture courtesy of Flickr).
A look inside the Chonwangmun Gate [Cheonwangmun Gate] at one of the Four Heavenly Kings. (Picture courtesy of Flickr).
A picture of Tabo Pagoda [Dabo Pagoda]. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).
A look towards the Manse-ru Pavilion. (Picture courtesy of Flickr).
The Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall] and Sokko Pagoda [Seokga Pagoda]. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia).
A look inside the Taeung-jeon Hall [Daeung-jeon Hall] at the main altar. (Picture courtesy of Flickr).

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