Seoknamsa Temple – 석남사 (Ulju-gun, Ulsan)
Seoknamsa Temple, which is pronounced Seongnamsa, means “South Rock Temple” in English. The name of the temple is in reference to its southern location on Mt. Gajisan (1,240 m). Seoknamsa Temple was first established in 824 A.D. by the highly influential monk Doui-guksa (?-825 A.D.). It was built to pray for the nation. The temple continued to be enlarged until it was eventually destroyed in 1592 during the Imjin War (1592-1598). During the Imjin War, the temple was used as a centre for the training of the Righteous Army to help defend the area from the invading Japanese.
Eventually, and in 1674, Seoknamsa Temple was rebuilt. And through the years it was enlarged both in 1803 and 1912. The temple would be completely destroyed during the Korean War (1950-1953). In 1959, the temple was rebuilt by Abbot Inhong-sunim, a Bhikkuni (Buddhist nun). It’s from this time that the temple would exclusively become a temple for Bhikkhuni and their training.
Seoknamsa Temple is home to a Korean Treasure. This is the Stupa of Seongnamsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #369. Additionally, the three-story stone pagoda at Seoknamsa Temple is Ulsan Tangible Cultural Heritage #22.
Admission to the temple for adults is 1,700 won. And it’s 1,300 won for teenagers, and 1,000 won for elementary age children. However, the temple is free for non-student aged children.
Seoknamsa Temple is situated under the towering Mt. Gajisan and alongside a cascading river valley. After passing under the colourful Iljumun Gate, you’ll make your way up to the temple courtyard, which is seven hundred metres away. This stretch is one of the most beautiful you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple. At the end of the trail, you’ll come to a clearing, where you’ll find a beautiful new bridge. Underneath this bridge flows crystal clear cascading water. There are rock stairs that lead down to the base of the valley where the cascading water flows. Finally crossing over the newly built bridge, and up around a bend in the road, you’ll find the elevated outskirts of the main courtyard at Seoknamsa Temple. Hanging a left past the twisted red pine, you’ll pass through another entry gate. This time, this entry gate is adorned with four Sanskrit letters and a central Manja (swastika) image. Each of the four Sanskrit letters are meant to rid yourself of bad karma, while the central image of the Manja is meant to be a sign for good luck and auspiciousness.
Up the stairs, you’ll first be greeted by the Silla-era three-story pagoda that’s also Ulsan Tangible Cultural Heritage #22. It’s believed that the pagoda was built by Doui-guksa, and it dates back to the founding of the temple in 824 A.D. The pagoda, like the temple, was built in hopes of protecting the nation from foreign invasion. Unfortunately, the intention of the pagoda didn’t quite come to fruition, as the pagoda and the temple were destroyed in 1592. In 1973, the pagoda was restored, like so much else at the temple, by the Abbot Inhong-sunim
Behind this ancient pagoda stands the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this main hall are adorned with a beautiful collection of Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes of the Historical Buddha’s Life). While these paintings are now cracking, they are still beautiful in their composition. There are also images of the Buddha up near the eaves of the Daeung-jeon with smoky emissions rising forth from their heads. Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find three statues resting on the main altar. They are centred by an image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). This central statue is joined on either side by Yeondeung-bul (The Past Buddha) and Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).
To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall is an area that’s off-limits to the general public. It’s the living quarters for the nuns at Seoknamsa Temple. And to the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Geukrak-jeon Hall. Inside this temple shrine hall, and resting on the main altar, is a diminutive triad centred by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This statue is joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). The exterior to this wall includes various Buddhist motif murals including a mural of monkeys playing. Also housed inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall are two beautiful shaman murals. One is dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), while the other is dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). And on the far right wall is the Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).
Directly behind the Geukrak-jeon Hall is the Josa-jeon Hall. At the centre of the collection of portraits of monks and nuns that once called Seoknamsa Temple home is a painting dedicated to the famed Doui-guksa.
To the right, and behind the Daeung-jeon Hall, are a couple flights of stairs and a well-manicured clearing that houses the Stupa of Seoknamsa Temple. This stupa was once called the Stupa of Doui; however, in 1962, when the stupa was taken apart, it was discovered that the sari reliquary was empty. The sari (crystallized remains) had either been stolen or gone missing. As for the design of the stupa, it’s a standard octagonal stone stupa. At the base of the stupa, you’ll find a lion and clouds prominently engraved on it. Also around the base of the stupa, on panels, you’ll find the symbolic images of elephant’s eyes. Within the panel design, you’ll find flower shapes in the centre with a belt connecting to them. As for the body that’s shaped like a pillar, there is a front and rear side that have doors on each side. However, there is only a lock on the front side of these two door designs. And there are guardians placed on either side of the door designs. As for the roof of the stupa, it’s rather short and narrow.
It’s from this historic stupa that you get a great view of the entire temple grounds. There are some beautiful views of the valley, the temple, and the mountains from this beautiful vantage point.
How To Get There
First, you’ll either have to get to Miryang, Ulsan or Eonyang to get a connecting bus to Seoknamsa Temple. From Miryang, you can take one of the numerous buses that travels throughout the day from the Miryang Bus Terminal. The cost of the bus ride is about 5,000 won. You can take Bus #807 or #1713 from near the Ulsan Intercity Bus Terminal. Also, you can take an Eonyang city bus that travels out to the temple eleven times during the day.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
One of the main highlights to Seoknamsa Temple is its scenic location with the towering mountains overhead and the cascading waters down the rocky valley. Adding to the temple’s aesthetic beauty are its two historic stone artifacts. Both the Stupa of Seoknamsa Temple and the Silla-era three-story pagoda are something to enjoy while at this Buddhist temple. Also of interest are the beautiful paintings surrounding the shrine halls at Seoknamsa Temple.