Sambulsa Temple – 삼불사 (Gyeongju)

The Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong at Sambulsa Temple.

Temple History

Sambulsa Temple, which means “Three Buddhas Temple” in English, is located on the northwest side of Mt. Namsan (494 m) in Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. It’s believed that the stone triad dates back to the early 7th century. They are believed to be the oldest full-sized stone Buddhist statues in Gyeongju. In fact, they are believed to be some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art in all of Korea.

Sambulsa Temple was constructed in 1923 to house the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong. The historic triad is Korean Treasure #63. Originally, the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong was located further up the mountain at the Seonbangsa-ji Temple Site. According to Sunkyung Kim’s paper, “Research on a Buddha Mountain in Colonial-Period Korea: A Preliminary Discussion,” Kim discusses how a Japanese man by the name of Osaka Kintaro first discovered the triad during Japanese Colonization (1910-1945). Osaka Kintaro was the principal of the Gyeongju public primary school, and upon his arrival in Gyeongju in 1915, Osaka Kintaro had heard rumours about a stone Buddha triad almost completely buried near Poseokjeong on the northwest part Mt. Namsan. However, it wasn’t until 1917 that Osaka Kintaro actually found it after using a local kid’s directions. Then in 1922, anticipating Prince Kotohito’s visit to Gyeongju (1865-1945), who was the Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff from 1931 to 1940, the “Society for the Preservation of Historical Remains of Kyongju [Gyeongju]” wanted to move the triad to their exhibition room. The Society were a group of professionally trained archaeologists, ethnologists, anthropologists, and administrators from Japan, as well as local Koreans. Originally they were known as the “Silla Society.” However, because of the technological challenges of moving such large statues, they ended up leaving the triad where it was on Mt. Namsan.

When Osaka Kintaro later re-visited the triad, he described it in his book “Pastimes of Kyongju [Gyeongju].” Here he described how the locals of Mt. Namsan had started to stack small stones in front of the statue while making a wish. He would go on to describe how he believed that not only was the triad an active place of worship for the locals, but that the entire mountain of Mt. Namsan continued to be a place of worship for Koreans.

Frontispiece illustration. Drawing by Kosugi Misei. Pastimes of Kyŏngju, 1931. (Picture courtesy of here).

In addition to the the history of the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong , there is some dispute as to who the triad is meant to represent. Because of the “gesture of fearlessness” mudra (ritualized hand gesture) that the central image is striking, the image is thought to be Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). However, because of its placement between the statues of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul), it’s believed by some that the central statue is in fact Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). And because of this discrepancy, it’s believed by some scholars that these three statues weren’t in fact the original set of statues in the triad; instead, they are an assortment of varying statues from different temple sites put together to form the current triad that we now see at Sambulsa Temple. But whatever the answer, which we might never know, the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong is a remarkable piece of Buddhist artistry from the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.).

Temple Layout

You’ll first approach Sambulsa Temple from the temple parking lot and up a trail that leads you towards the peak of Mt. Namsan. Arriving at the temple courtyard after mounting an uneven set of stone stairs, you’ll find a three-story stone pagoda. According David Mason, there are two theories as to how the pagoda came to be at Sambulsa Temple. In one theory, this pagoda is a reconstruction from the Seonbangsa-ji Temple Site, where the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong came from, as well. In yet another theory, the stone fragments that comprise this pagoda were excavated from the nearby mountainside. And according to an inscription on one of the pagoda’s stones, it was built in 880 A.D., as a monument for a once standing temple that’s now inhabited by Sambulsa Temple.

Straight ahead of you is the diminutive Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the main hall are adorned with beautiful painted flowers, as well as paintings dedicated to Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a solitary image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on the main altar. To the right of the main altar is the temple’s Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural). This Shinjung Taenghwa is rather unique in its design. In the upper portion of the mural, and in the middle, you’ll find an image of the Hindu god Brahma. Also according to David Mason, “The Korean/Chinese Buddhist term for Brahmā is 大梵天王 Daebeom-cheonwang = Great Brahman Heavenly King, or just 梵天 Beomcheon – this powerful deity was adopted from Hinduism into Buddhism as a protector of the Dharma Teachings, and he is never depicted in Buddhist texts or artworks as a creator-god.”

To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall are the monks’ quarters at Sambulsa Temple. And to the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Sanshin-gak Hall. There are three distinct paintings that surround the shaman shrine hall. One is a Taoist painting of Bukseong (The North Star) riding a deer, while a dongja (attendant) holds a Immortality Peach. Another painting is a Sanshin-like (Mountain Spirit) mural. And the final is of the Smoking-tiger motif. Stepping inside the Sanshin-gak Hall, you’ll find a greenish clothed image of Sanshin holding a fan in one hand and a staff in the other.

But the main highlight to Sambulsa Temple, and probably the real reason you’ve decided to visit this Gyeongju temple, are the aforementioned Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong. The triad now rests under a large wooden pavilion. And as was mentioned before, the central image is thought to be either Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) or Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Joining this central image to the right is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And to the left is perhaps the finest historic depiction of Daesaeji-bosal in Korea. The central image stands 2.6 metres in height, while the accompanying Bodhisattva images stand 2.3 metres in height, respectively. The central image was already discussed above, so I won’t discuss this image any further; however, the image of Gwanseeum-bosal to the right is adorned with a crown and a slight smile on its face. The right hand is placed on its chest, and its left hand hangs down freely at its side while holding a bottle. In her crown, you can see the image of Amita-bul, which gives away the identity of this statue as Gwanseeum-bosal. And to the left, you’ll find the image of Daesaeji-bosal, who also has a slight smile of serenity on its face. This image is beautifully clad in thick necklaces and beads. In this statue’s nimbus, you’ll find five Buddha images. Of the three statues that comprise the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong, the statue of Daesaeji-bosal is the statue that stands out the most for its beauty.

How To Get There

To get to Sambulsa Temple, you’ll first need to get to the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal (which you might be at if you’ve arrived from outside of town). From this bus terminal, you can catch Bus #502 or Bus #504 from across the terminal. When you board the bus, and just to be sure, you can ask the bus driver, “Namsan Sambulsa”? You can take a bus or simply take a taxi. The trip, one way, should cost about 10,000 won. And from where either the bus or the taxi drops you off, which should be near the temple parking lot, a broad trail heading up to Mt. Namsan should be right in front of you. Two hundred metres up the trail, and you’ll find Sambulsa Temple.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Arguably, the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong at Sambulsa Temple is a top ten historic triad of statues in Korea. So not only is it a highlight to Sambulsa Temple, but it’s a major and masterful representation of Silla Buddhist art from the early 7th century. Of the three, it’s the image of Daesaeji-bosal that stands out for its ornate beauty and serenity. In addition to this historic triad, have a look for the Shinjung Taenghwa inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, the three folk art images surrounding the Sanshin-gak Hall, and the image of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) inside the shaman shrine hall. While lesser known, especially in Gyeongju, it’s definitely worth a visit or two.

The three-story stone pagoda in the temple courtyard at Sambulsa Temple.
The Daeung-jeon Hall.
Some of the beautiful floral murals that adorn the main hall.
The main altar inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The unique Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
Some purple hydrangea at Sambulsa Temple.
The Sanshin-gak Hall.
The Bukjeong (North Star) mural that adorns one of the exterior walls of the Sanshin-gak Hall.
And a Smoking-tiger motif mural that also adorns one of the exterior walls of the Sanshin-gak Hall.
The Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) mural inside the shaman shrine hall.
The pathway leading up to the pavilion that houses the Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong.
The beautiful Stone Standing Buddha Triad in Bae-dong.
A look at the central Seokgamoni-bul (Historical Buddha) or Amita-bul (Buddha of the Western Paradise) statue.
To the right is this image of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion).
And to the left is arguably the finest historic example of Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul) in all of Korea.

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