Silsangsa Temple – 실상사 (Namwon, Jeollabuk-do)
Silsangsa Temple, which means “True Nature Temple,” in English, is surprisingly located near farmer’s fields alongside the meandering Mansucheon River in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do. Silsangsa Temple is situated in the centre of a cauldron of mountains that make up the northern part of the famed Mt. Jirisan (1915.4 m).
Silsangsa Temple was established by the monk Hongcheok (also known as Jeunggak) in 828 A.D. Hongcheok traveled to Tang Dynasty China with the monk Doui-guksa in the early 800’s. Both Hongcheok and Doui-guksa returned to the Korean peninsula after being certified as enlightened in Seon lineage Buddhism. After his return, Hongcheok was named “Guksa,” or “National Preceptor,” in English, by King Heungdeok of Silla (r.826-836 A.D.) in 828 A.D. Also in 828 A.D., Hongcheok-guksa established the “Silsang-Sanmun,” or “True Nature Mountain Gate,” in English. This would become one of the nine “Gusan Seonmun,” or “Nine Mountains Meditation Gates,” in English. These nine temples would help spread the teachings of Seon Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula. In fact, and Hongcheok-guksa’s old friend, Doui-guksa, would build one of the Gusan Seonmun, as well, when he built Borimsa Temple in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do.
Hongcheok-guksa spread Seon Buddhism from Silsangsa Temple. And the reason he decided to build Silsangsa Temple where it’s located is that, according to geomantic principles, or Pungsu-jiri in Korean, Hongcheok-guksa believed that if he didn’t build a temple on the Silsangsa Temple site, all of the spiritual/earth energy from Korea would flow eastwards towards Japan. So to help prevent this from taking place, he built Silsangsa Temple.
Silsangsa Temple was renovated and expanded under royal decree in the early 900’s; and, once again, under geomantic principles. This time, however, they followed the advice of the geomantic master Doseon-guksa (826-898 A.D.). According to a temple legend, Doseon-guksa added the East and West Three-Story Pagodas, which are Korean Treasure #37, at Silsangsa Temple just like he had done at Hwaeomsa Temple. Doseon-guksa stated that by building these pagodas at Silsangsa Temple, they would serve as an archer’s hand drawing back the string of a great bow. The “bow” being the semi-circular northwestern faces of the eastern portion of the Mt. Jirisan cluster of mountains that are spread south and east of Silsangsa Temple. The “arrow,” on the other hand, was the straight line of energy heading slightly upwards from the east south-east of Silsangsa Temple, straight through the main Mt. Jirisan mountains, and exiting out of the three-story stone pagoda atop a boulder at Beopgyesa Temple. Thus, the “tip of the arrow” was Beopgyesa Temple. This “arrow,” of course, is pointed straight at the southern port city of Fukuoka. This all served to defend Korea from Japan, and it was supposedly effective until the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). However, this power that the pagodas and mountains generated started to falter because of the suppression of Buddhism by the Confucian dominated early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). This power ultimately failed, culminating in the Imjin War (1592-1598). Supposedly, the invading Japanese heard this legend, that’s why two battalions, instead of heading directly towards Korea’s richer cities, went out of their way to climb up to Beopgyesa Temple and the remote Silsangsa Temple to raze both temples.
So tragically, and like so many other temples in Korea, Silsangsa Temple was destroyed and looted in 1597 during the Imjin War (1592-1598). After this, the temple was slowly rebuilt into a thirty-six building site, including the Geukrak-jeon Hall in 1684. Once more, Silsangsa Temple was destroyed, this time, in 1882, as a result of a fire. It was also partially destroyed, after being rebuilt, during the Korean War (1950-1953). In the 1970’s, Silsangsa Temple was reconstructed once more; but this time, it was restored much smaller in scope.
In total, Silsangsa Temple is home to seven Korean Treasures, one Historic Site, one National Folklore Cultural Heritage, one Tangible Cultural Heritage, and one Cultural Properties Materials.
Some of this information can be found at David Mason’s wonderful website. Check it out!
Rather remarkably, Silsangsa Temple is surrounded on most sides by rice fields and the towering Mt. Jirisan. As you cross the Haetalgyo Bridge that spans the Mansucheon River, you’ll notice three Stone Guardian Posts. These three Stone Guardian Posts were made between 1725 to 1731. They were placed in this location either to mark the boundaries of the temple or to ward off evil spirits from entering the temple grounds. The Stone Guardian Post on the village side of the river says “Ongho Geumsa Chukgwi Janggun” on it, which means “General Ongho Geumsa Chukgwi,” in English. This is inscribed on its body. The other Stone Guardian Post that used to accompany this one was washed away by the river. Then crossing the bridge, you’ll see two more of these guardian posts. They face in towards each other. The one on the right is the “Sangwonju Janggun,” or “General Sangwonju,” in English. And the one closer to the huge tree is “Dae Janggung,” or “Great General,” in English. These two have long goatees, but the goatees face in opposite directions. All three posts are male, and they look almost identical. They all wear hats, and they have big rounded eyes and stout bulbous noses. These three Stone Guardian Posts are National Folklore Cultural Heritage #15. Historic Stone Guardian Posts are extremely hard to find at Korean Buddhist temples, so enjoy these amazing artifacts at Silsangsa Temple.
You first enter the main temple grounds through the Cheonwangmun Gate. Inside this entry gate are some of the happiest, non-threatening, Four Heavenly Kings that you’ll find in this type of entry gate. Having passed through the Cheonwangmun Gate, and entering the main temple grounds, you’ll see a three-story pagoda made of roof tiles. Just behind it is the compact Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion) at Silsangsa Temple. To the right of these two structures is an elevated portion of land. Formally, this was the base for the nine-story wooden pagoda that once took up residence at Silsangsa Temple. Once standing over twenty metres in height, it must have been something special to see.
In the back right corner of the temple grounds, you’ll find a newer-looking shrine hall. This is the Yaksa-jeon Hall. Inside this minimalistically adorned shrine hall is an amazing iron statue dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul (The Medicine Buddha, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise). This statue of Yaksayeorae-bul has always taken up residence at Silsangsa Temple. The iron statue is believed to date from Later Silla (668-935) around the 8th to 9th century. In fact, several Seon temples from this era created iron statues that are similar in style to the Yaksayeorae-bul statue at Silsangsa Temple. The statue is Korean Treasure #41, and it stands 2.69 metres in height.
Slightly to the left of the Yaksa-jeon Hall, and back towards the foundation of the former wooden pagoda at Silsangsa Temple, is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. Like the Yaksa-jeon Hall, the exterior walls to the Myeongbu-jeon Hall have very little colour. As for the interior, and resting on the main altar, is an older-looking statue dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). This statue is joined on either side by seated Shiwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld).
In the open courtyard stand a pair of pagodas and a uniquely designed stone lantern. The East and West Three-Story Stone Pagodas of Silsangsa Temple are both three-story structures, and they date back to Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). They stand 5.4 metres in height, and they’re Korean Treasure #37. Between these twin pagodas, and slightly to the rear, is a round based stone lantern. With lotus designs and a set of stairs, the light from the lantern can appear from eight of the long openings around its body. This stone lantern is believed to date to the mid to late 9th century, and it’s Korean Treasure #35.
Behind this collection of stone monuments is the understated Bogwang-jeon Hall. Housed inside the temple’s main hall is a triad centred by Yaksayeorae-bul. This statue is then joined on either side by standing statues of Ilgwang-bosal (The Sun Bodhisattva) and Wolgwang-bosal (The Moon Bodhisattva). To the right rear is a mural dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). And it’s joined by a Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).
To the left of the Bogwang-jeon Hall is a compact Chilseong-gak Hall, which is dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars). The Chilseong-gak Hall dates back to the early 20th century.
The final shrine hall that visitors can explore at Silsangsa Temple is the Geukrak-jeon Hall, which is situated to the far left of the Bogwang-jeon Hall and beyond the monks’ dorms. You’ll need to cross a bridge to get to this shrine hall. Inside the vibrantly painted Geukrak-jeon Hall sits a solitary statue dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Hanging on the far right wall is an older Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) with an interesting depiction of Yongwang (The Dragon King) in the mural. The current Geukrak-jeon Hall dates to the 19th century, when its predecessor was destroyed by fire by Korean Confucian scholars that were attempting to take the temple grounds by force.
It’s also in this part of the temple grounds, and out in front of the Geukrak-jeon Hall, that you’ll find the majority of Korean Treasures at Silsangsa Temple like the Stele for Buddhist Monk Jeunggak, which is Korean Treasure #39. Uniquely, the base of the stele has the head of a turtle, instead of a dragon. Also, the body of the stele is missing. This stele, which is dedicated to the founding monk of Silsangsa Temple, is believed to date back to Later Silla (668-935 A.D.). This area is also home to the stupa dedicated to Jeunggak, which is Korean Treasure #38. Like the stele, it’s believed to date back to the late ninth century. There is another stele and stupa pairing near the Geukrak-jeon Hall. This time, they’re dedicated to the monk Sucheol. The Stupa of Buddhist Monk Sucheol is Korean Treasure #33, and it dates back to 893 A.D., which was the time of Sucheol-hwasang’s death. After Hongcheok’s death, Sucheol became the abbot of the temple. In addition to the stupa, there’s also a stele dedicated to Sucheol. The stele is believed to have been erected between 897-912 A.D., and it’s Korean Treasure #34.
Admission to the temple for adults is 1,500 won.
How To Get There
From the Namwon Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take a bus bound for Inwol Bus Terminal (인월버스터미널). From the Inwol Bus Terminal, take a local bus bound for Sannae (산내). Get off at the Silsangsa Temple Temple stop.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Silsangsa Temple has a long and rich history, and this is made plain by the numerous Korean Treasures and protected properties that are housed in and around the temple grounds. Of note is the amazing 8th to 9th century iron statue dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul and the three Stone Guardian Posts at the entry of Silsangsa Temple. Also have a long look for the steles and stupas dedicated to Jeunggak and Sucheol. There’s a lot to see and explore around the strangely located Silsangsa Temple.