Temple Site History
The Seongjusa-ji Temple Site is located at the foot of Mt. Seongjusan (510.5 m) in eastern Boryeong, Chungcheongnam-do. Seongjusa Temple was first built in and around 616 A.D. by order of King Mu of Baekje (r. 600-641 A.D.). When the temple was first established, it was named Ohapsa Temple. This was done to commemorate the Baekje Kingdom’s recent victory over Silla and to pray for the souls of fallen Baekje soldiers. The Samguk Sagi, or “History of the Three Kingdoms” in English, records that in 659 A.D., and during the reign of King Uija of Baekje (r. 641-660 A.D.), a hong dokkebi, or “red goblin” in English, was seen circling the temple 6 times. Afterward, the hong dokkebi predicted the future collapse of the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.), which it did just a year later under the joint attack of Tang China (618–690, 705–907 A.D.) and Silla military forces.
So much about the temple’s history is linked to the monk Muyeom. Muyeom (801-888 A.D.) was said to be the eighth-generation descendant of King Muyeol of Silla (r. 654-661 A.D.). Born in 801 A.D., Muyeom entered to become a monk at the age of 13. In 821 A.D., Muyeom traveled to Tang China, where he received his certificate of enlightenment in the Seon (Chan/Zen) Sect from Magu Baozhe (b. 720?), who was a disciple of Mazu Daoyi (709-788 A.D.). In 845 A.D., Muyeom returned to the Korean Peninsula. At this time, the local aristocratic Kim Yang, who is posthumously known as “Prince Hun,” requested of King Munseong of Silla (r. 839-857 A.D.) to appoint master monk Muyeom to become the head monk of this important temple. With the appointment of Muyeom as the abbot, and with new funds to refurbish and expand the temple, the temple changed its name from Ohapsa Temple to that of Seongjusa Temple, which means “Saint Abides Temple” in English. Seongjusa Temple would become one of the Seonjong Gusan – Nine Mountain Seon Sects, and it would also be the largest temple at this time. As the abbot of Seongjusa Temple, Muyeom was heavily involved in the political affairs of the state. In total, Muyeom would leave several enlightened disciples during his 40 years at Seongjusa Temple. Posthumously, Muyeom was honoured by a royal decree with the title of “Nanghye-hwasang Baegwol” by Queen Jinseong of Silla (r. 887-897 A.D.).
Later, the temple would flourish through the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and through part of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when it was partially destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-98) in 1592. The temple was then completely demolished in the 17th century leaving only artifacts strewn throughout the temple grounds.
In total, the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site is home to one National Treasure, the Stele of Buddhist Monk Nanghye at Seongjusa Temple Site, which is National Treasure #8. In addition to this National Treasure, the temple site is home to an additional four Korean Treasures. These Korean Treasures include Five-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site (T #19), the Central Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site (T #20) the West Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site (T #47) and the East Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Seongjusa Temple Site (T #2021). In addition to all these treasures, the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site is also Historic Site #307.
Special thanks to Prof. David Mason for some of this wonderful information.
Temple Site Layout
When you first approach the temple site, and climb the stone stairs at the entry, you’ll first be welcomed by the Jungmun-ji Gate Site. Just beyond the slightly elevated foundation for the Jungmun-ji Gate Site is the Stone Lantern of Seongjusa-ji. This stone lantern, which is known as a “seokdeung” in Korean, was first constructed during late Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). The stone lantern stands an impressive 220 cm in height, while the finial to the octagonal stone lantern is partially damaged. Backing the Stone Lantern of Seongjusa-ji Temple Site is the Five-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site (T #19). The pagoda stands in front of what’s believed to be the Geumdang-ji Main Hall Site. The Five-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site is composed of a two-story platform on which a five-story body stands. The relief of a column is carved onto each side and corner of the platform. A flat stone is placed on the platform to support the body stone. As for the body stone, both the main part of the body stone and its roof stones are made from a single block of stone. The edge to each flat roof stone turns slightly upwards at the end. The overall design of the pagoda is typical of Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.).
To the left and right of the Stone Lantern of Seongjusa-ji Temple Site and the Five-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site are the foundations for the Dongnamhwarang-ji Site and the Seonamhwarang-ji Site. Behind both the stone lantern and five-story pagoda, on the other hand, is the Geumdang-ji Main Hall Site. The elevated main hall site is fronted by stone steps. These are replicas of the original stairs that were first constructed during Unified Silla. Each side of the stone stairs are accompanied by statues of lions. Unfortunately, the originals were stolen in 1986. And in the centre of the main hall site is the base to a stone pedestal that held an image of a Buddha.
To the right of the Geumdang-ji Main Hall Site, and next to the elevated foundation for the Dongnamhwarang-ji Site, is the Samcheonbul-jeon-ji Hall Site. But it’s to the rear of the Geumdang-ji Main Hall Site that you’ll find one of the highlights to the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site. In a line, you’ll find a row of three historic pagodas. The first to the right is the East Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Seongjusa Temple Site, which is Korean Treasure #2021 as of March, 2019. Based upon its design, it’s believed that this pagoda, and the neighbouring two pagodas, were built at the same time by the same person during late Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). This pagoda, the East Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Seongjusa Temple Site, stands 4.1 metres in height. The three-story pagoda rests upon a two-tier platform. The support stone is cut from a separate stone at the top of the platform. Additionally, there is a relief of a door with a lock and handles on the front and back of the first story of the pagoda. These are characteristic features of stone pagodas from late Unified Silla. Of the three pagodas, this was the last to be designated a Korean Treasure.
Next to the East Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Seongjusa Temple Site stands the Central Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site, which is Korean Treasure #20. As the name of the pagoda alludes to, this is the central pagoda in the line of three historic pagodas to the rear of the Geumdang-ji Main Hall Site. Like the East Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Seongjusa Temple Site, the central pagoda stands atop a two-story platform, and it also possesses a three-story body stone. Additionally, pole relief patterns are engraved on all four sides and on the corners of each story of the platform. A flat stone is placed between the platform and the first story of the body. Both the body and roof stones for the body are made from one piece of stone. And the first story of the body is much larger than the second and third stories of the body. The pagoda is largely unadorned, which is typical of Silla-era designs, all but for the south facing side of the pagoda. The south face of the pagoda is adorned with a relief of a door. The middle of this door is carved with an image of a lock, while below the lock are a pair of ring-shaped door fasteners that look like an animal. Overall, this style of pagoda dates back to late Unified Silla. Unfortunately of the four pagodas at the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site, the Central Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site is the most damaged.
The last of the three pagodas that are aligned is the West Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site, which is Korean Treasure #47. This western pagoda appears to be stylistically similar to the two other pagodas in the same area of the temple site grounds. It also appears to date back to late Unified Silla, and it is three stories in design. Again, the foundation to this pagoda consists of two stories. And again, the first story, which is larger than the other two stories, has a door relief with lock-shaped hooks that look like animals on the south side of the pagoda. Also, while the finial is largely missing to the West Three-Story Stone Pagoda at Seongjusa Temple Site, it does still have a squarish finial base. One other difference to this pagoda, at least compared to the other two neighbouring pagodas, is that this pagoda is wider. Finally, during the 1971 renovation work on this pagoda, a sari hole containing nothing was discovered. Obviously, it had been looted long ago by robbers.
And to the left rear of these three Korean Treasures is the Stele of Buddhist Monk Nanghye at Seongjusa Temple Site, which is housed underneath its own diminutive wooden pavilion. This historic stele is National Treasure #8. This stele is dedicated to the monk Muyeom (801-888 A.D.). The stele stands on the northwest corner of the temple site, and it has a tortoise-shaped pedestal and a body stone topped with a decorative capstone. Previously, the pedestal was damaged and largely lay buried underneath the ground for years until it was rediscovered and repaired in 1974. The tortoise-shaped base’s face is partially broken. The face of the tortoise-shaped base has a round horn on its head, while its eyebrows are nearly formed as one with the eyes. And the mouth appears to be spitting fire. As for the shell of the tortoise-shaped base, it has double hexagonal design with a thick cloud design at its centre. And at the centre of the tortoise shell is the holder for the body stone. As for the body stone, the inscription on it was written by Choe Chiwon (857–10th century). And the calligraphy on the body stone was written by his cousin, Choe Ingon. The writing on the body stone contains the life and achievements of Muyeom, and it also states how Muyeom belonged to the “jingol,” or “true bone” in English, which was a class of the royal family. The body stone goes on to explain how the family to which Muyeom belonged, while once belonging to the “true bone,” had declined in status to the point of now being a part of the “head rank six” class during Muyeom’s father’s generation. With all this in mind, the inscription on the body stone of the Stele of Buddhist Monk Nanghye at Seongjusa Temple Site is important because it provides insight into the class system during the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). As for the capstone, it’s decorated with lotus flower carvings, while a dragon relief is adorning the upper part of the capstone in the centre of clouds. Additionally, while the date of the stele’s construction isn’t recorded in the inscription, it can be inferred based upon the construction of Muyeom’s stupa, which was built in 890 A.D. some two years after the monk’s death.
And the final thing that visitors can explore to the right of the three aligned Korean Treasure pagodas and the Gangdang-ji Assembly Hall Site is the Standing Buddha Statue at Seongjusa Temple Site. While previously repaired with a goofy-looking clown face, the slightly broken former state of the statue has been returned. Oval in appearance, the features of the face are indistinguishable. As for its hands, they appear to be placed around its chest, and its robe is placed over both of its shoulders. It’s believed that this statue dates back to the transitional time found between the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). It’s believed to have been first erected by locals to help make their wishes come true. The Standing Buddha Statue at Seongjusa Temple Site is Chungcheongnam-do Cultural Material #373.
How To Get There
There are two ways to get to the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site. From the Boryeong Bus Terminal, you can simply take a taxi. If you decide to take this option, it’ll take about 15 minutes over 8.8 km, and it’ll cost you about 11,600 won (one way).
However, if you’d rather take public transportation from the Boryeong Bus Terminal, you can catch Bus #900, Bus #100, Bus #101, or Bus #102. After 4 stops, or 8 minutes, you’ll need to get off at the “Medical Center Stop.” From this stop, you’ll need to catch another bus. You can take either Bus #806-1 or Bus 807-1. After 12 stops, you’ll need to get off at the “Seongjusa-ji Stop.” From this stop, you’ll need to walk about 2 minutes to get to the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site.
Overall Rating: 7/10
The Seongjusa-ji Temple Site is one of the most beautiful and most intact temple sites in all of Korea with numerous Korean Treasures and even a National Treasure. The four Korean Treasure pagodas are stunning, while the National Treasure stele dedicated to Muyeom, especially its gargoyle-like face of the tortoise-shaped base, is extraordinary, as well. And while the Seongjusa-ji Temple Site appears to be situated in the middle of nowhere, it’s well worth your effort and time to visit one of Korea’s finest temple sites.