North Korea

Singyesa Temple – 신계사 (Onjong-ri, Kosŏng-gun, Kangwon-do, North Korea)

The Taeung-jeon Hall and Silla-era Three-Story Pagoda at Singyesa Temple in North Korea.

Temple History

Singyesa Temple, which is located in Onjong-ri, Kosong-gun, Kangwon-do, North Korea, was first founded in 519 A.D. The temple was founded during the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.), and it was once one of the largest Buddhist temples in and around Mt. Kumgangsan (1638 m). The location of Singyesa Temple was initially chosen as a site in the Mt. Kumgangsan area because of the mountain’s natural beauty. Through the centuries, Singyesa Temple continued to grow until it became one of the four major temples of Mt. Kumgangsan alongside Pyohunsa Temple, Jangansa Temple, and Yujomsa Temple.

Singyesa Temple lasted until Japanese Colonization (1910-1945), when the temple became a well-known destination for Japanese tourists. During Japanese Colonization, Japanese tourists would refer to the temple as Shinkei-ji (Japanese pronunciation). Sadly, the entire temple complex, including all the historic temple shrine halls, were destroyed by U.S. fighters planes in 1951, at the start of the Korean War (1950-1953). The justification for the firebombing of Singyesa Temple by the U.S. Air Force is that it was believed that the temple was housing soldiers from the North Korean Army (The Korean People’s Army).

Today, North Korea claims that it has about ten thousand Buddhists that still practice. And hundreds of Buddhist temples, as well. Buddhism seemed to have fared better after the Communists took power in North Korea after World War Two, and Japanese Colonization came to an end, than its Christian counterpart. In fact, some 1,500 churches were destroyed in North Korea at this time. Currently, there are only three churches in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, that largely serve non-North Koreans. It would seem that there are three reasons for this. One is that Buddhism in Korea, both North and South, is so ingrained in their history and culture. The second reason is that Buddhism in North Korea doesn’t have a strong history of social activism. And the third reason is that some North Koreans view organized religion as a foreign intrusion. “There used to be foreign missionaries in this area, and they robbed people and stole cultural relics,” said Kim Song Gun, 37, a guard at Mt. Kumgang.

The temple lay in waste, from its destruction in 1951, until the reconstruction of Singyesa Temple began in 2004. Financed by the Jogye-jong Order, which is the largest Buddhist Order in South Korea, and the Korean Buddhist Association in North Korea. The temple was completed as an inter-Korean cultural project. Construction of the Singyesa Temple complex was completed in 2006. Its reopening was attended by leading members of both Buddhist groups.

Singyesa Temple is home to North Korean National Treasure #95, which is the temple itself. In 2019, a Singyesa Temple Stay program, similar to the one in South Korea, was proposed by the Jogye-jong Order. It seems as though talks are advanced, so hopefully there will be a chance for people to enjoy this popular program north of the DMZ.

I was fortunate enough to visit Singyesa Temple in 2007, before trips to Mt. Kumgangsan were closed down to foreign visitors. At that time, most of the buildings at the temple complex were rebuilt and being supervised by the head-monk, a South Korean monk from the Jogye-jong Order named Jejeong. At this time, the North Korean’s viewed Singyesa Temple as a cultural site and less as a religious site, and perhaps this is still the case.

Temple Layout

In total, there are five temple buildings at Singyesa Temple. The first, as you enter the temple grounds, is the Manse-ru Pavilion. This two-story structure acts as an entrance on the first floor, and as a lecture hall on the second floor. Once you pass through this plainly painted pavilion with the traditional dancheong colours on it, you’ll enter the main temple courtyard at Singyesa Temple. Straight ahead is the only historic artifact to have survived the 1951 bombing by U.S. forces: the Silla-era three-story stone pagoda. The base of this pagoda is adorned with the eight dharma guardians.

Behind the ancient stone pagoda is the temple’s Taeung-jeon Hall (Daeung-jeon Hall). The original Taeung-jeon Hall was built during the 18th century; but like the rest of the temple, it was destroyed in 1951. Its current incarnation was the first of the temple structures to be rebuilt. The exterior walls to the Taeung-jeon Hall are elaborately adorned with Palsang-do, or the “Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals,” in English; the Sacheonwang, “The Four Heavenly Kings,” in English; and both Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). And resting inside the Taeung-jeon Hall, on the main altar, is a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).

To the right of the Taeung-jeon Hall is the Jong-ru Pavilion, which is the temple’s bell pavilion. This diminutive bell pavilion houses a replica of the 16th-century bell that once took up residence at Singyesa Temple until 1951. The other buildings housed at Singyesa Temple are the monk’s living quarters and kitchen.

Interestingly, Kim Il Sung (The Supreme Leader of North Korea) visited Singyesa in 1947 and 1948, before the original temple was destroyed by bombs. There is a stone marker that commemorates these visits at the entrance of the temple grounds. It reads: “Our Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and our Dear Leader Kim Jung Il and a communist revolutionary fighter/leader Kim Jung Suk visited in Juche 36 (1947), on Sept 28th, and the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung visited here again in Juche 37 (1948), in October, where he taught us these meaningful words: ‘That this temple was made with flying gable roofs and nice buildings and the three-storied pagoda is worth being a national heritage treasure. Singyesa Temple was a big temple which is amazing and graceful in its architecture. Singyesa Temple used to have many treasures, but in our homeland’s liberation war, it was brutally bombed by America. So everything was burned and only the sights remain. Singyesa Temple’s worth as a national treasure is to show Chosun’s history of architecture and progression.'” Quite the welcome to the temple, and a reminder that you’re north of the DMZ.

How To Get There

You don’t. At least not right now in the current state of political relations between the world and North Korea.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Just for being in North Korea alone, and scared out of my mind the entire time, the temple rates as high as it does. The main highlights of the temple are the Silla-era three-story pagoda and the colourful Taeung-jeon Hall. Also, the political agenda behind the resurrection of Singyesa Temple from the ashes is made more than plain at the entry of the temple grounds with the stone marker commemorating and celebrating Kim Il Sung (The Supreme Leader of North Korea).

The Kim Il Sung visitor marker at the entry of Singyesa Temple.
A broad view of the temple grounds.
The Manse-ru Pavilion.
The Silla-era three-story pagoda.
The same pagoda from 1916.
The ornate Taeung-jeon Hall at Singyesa Temple.
The Taeung-jeon Hall from 1932.
Some of the amazing dancheong colours adorning the Taeung-jeon Hall.
One of the Palsang-do murals on the Taeung-jeon Hall.
And one of the Four Heavenly Kings.
A Munsu-bosal mural that also adorns the main hall at Singyesa Temple.

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