Gyeongsangbuk-do

Songnimsa Temple – 송림사 (Chilgok, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

One of the Underworld Paintings Adorning the Myeongbu-jeon Hall at Songnimsa Temple in Chilgok, Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Temple History

Songnimsa Temple is located on the southern slopes of the beautiful Mt. Palgongsan (1192.3 m) in Chilgok, Gyeongsangbuk-do. And the temple is located among other historical temples on Mt. Palgongsan like Donghwasa Temple and Pagyesa Temple. The name of the temple, Songnimsa, means “Pine Forest Temple” in English. The temple was first established in 545 A.D. during the fifth year of King Jinheung of Silla’s reign (r. 540 – 576 A.D.). Songnimsa Temple was built to enshrine the Buddha’s sari (crystallized remains) that were brought to the Korean peninsula from China by the Buddhist monk Myeonggwan. Songnimsa Temple was later destroyed in 1243. Fortunately for us, it was rebuilt in 1689.

The temple is home to an amazing four Korean Treasures. These Korean Treasures include the Five-story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #189; the Reliquaries from the Five-story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #325; the Wooden Seated Sakyamuni Buddha Triad of Songnimsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #1605; and the Stone Seated Amitabha Buddha Triad of Songnimsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #1606.

Admission to Songnimsa Temple is free.

Temple Layout

You’ll first pass by the newly built Iljumun Gate and under the Boje-ru Pavilion to gain entry to the main temple courtyard at Songnimsa Temple. Straight ahead of you in a field of grass is the Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple. The pagoda is believed to date back the 9th century during Later Silla (668 – 935 A.D.). This Korean Treasure is reminiscent of the brick pagodas at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju and Silleuksa Temple in Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do. The five-story structure consists of a main body of earthen bricks and a single layer platform made of granite. With the pagoda being made of bricks, the roof stones to each story are crowned and sloped. The gilt-bronze finial atop the pagoda is a replica that was made in 1595 during restoration work. And while it’s a replica, it helps historians better understand the upper part of pagodas that were created during Later Silla (668 – 935 A.D.).

The Reliquaries from the Five-story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple (Picture courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration).

Also found during repair work on the pagoda in 1959 were many relics inside the Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple. These are known as the Reliquaries from the Five-story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple, and they are Korean Treasure #325. On the first story of the pagoda, there were two wood, two stone, and two bronze Buddha statues that were discovered. In the second story of the brick structure, there was a reliquary found from the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.). They included a gilt-bronze stupa that was made of a thin gold plate. Additionally, a long-necked sari bottle made from green glass was also discovered. This green glass was adorned with jade and pearls. All were discovered inside a tortoise-shaped stone case. In the third story of the structure, a stone box with a wooden lid was discovered. Inside this stone box were decomposed papers. The over-turned bowl on the roof stone of the fifth story of the brick pagoda contained a round-shaped inlaid celadon case and two gilt-bronze ear ornaments. It’s believed that this artwork dates back to the late 12th century when inlaid celadon was flourishing artistically. In addition to all this, there were 281 beads, fifteen silver rings, and seven aromatic pieces of wood discovered inside the pagoda. And because the various items span a stretch of time starting during Later Silla and continuing into the mid-Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), it’s obvious that the brick pagoda was repaired numerous times. The Reliquaries from the Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple can now be found at the Daegu National Museum.

To the rear of the Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple can be found the Daeung-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the Daeung-jeon Hall are adorned with beautiful; yet simplistic, Shimu-do (The Ox-Herding Murals). Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find the largest historic wooden Buddha statues in all of Korea. The central image is that of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And this statue is an impressive 2.77 metres in height. Joining the central image of Seokgamoni-bul are the equally impressive statues dedicated to Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). And while these statues are rather large in size, they are beautifully proportioned, resulting in a balanced aesthetic. Seokgamoni-bul’s ritualized hand gesture is that of the Earth Touching mudra. And the two accompanying Bodhisattvas strike different mudra poses, while also holding onto long lotus stalks in both of their hands. Both the crowns and the lotus flowers seem to have been repaired in more recent years. It’s believed that the main altar statues date back to the mid-17 century, when most major temples were being repaired after the invasions of the Imjin War (1592-98). More specifically, an invocation paper was found inside the Buddha that clarifies when, and by whom, the statues were commissioned. In total, some eighteen sculptor monks were used to complete the project under the watchful eye of the monk Dou. The Wooden Seated Sakyamuni Buddha Triad of Songnimsa Temple are Korean Treasure #1605.

To the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall, three additional temple shrine halls can be found. These include the Samseong-gak Hall to the far left. Housed inside this shaman shrine hall are three vibrant murals dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint), Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit), and Chilseong (The Seven Stars). To the right rear is a smaller shrine hall solely dedicated to Sanshin. And to the far right is the Eungjin-jeon Hall. Housed inside this temple shrine hall is a gorgeous golden statue dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul in the centre of the main altar. This central image is joined by sixteen statues dedicated to the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). These statues are then backed by elaborate murals of the Nahan studying, teaching, and learning.

To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall and the Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. Surrounding the exterior walls of the Myeongbu-jeon Hall are some of the most terrifying murals dedicated to the afterlife in all of Korea. Their punishment is grotesquely illustrated on the Judgment Hall after having a mirror held up to them, reflecting their misdeeds in their former lives. After that, their judgment is read to them by one of the Siwang (Ten Kings of the Underworld). Expect to see disturbing illustrations of people boiling in water; people with their tongues being torn out of their mouths; and people roasting over spikes and hot coals, essentially a Buddhist version of Dante’s Inferno.

And to the left of both the Daeung-jeon Hall and the Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple is the Cheonbul-jeon Hall. Housed inside this hall that also includes one thousand statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is a main altar triad centred by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This central image is joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). This main altar triad is known as the Stone Seated Amitabha Buddha Triad of Songnimsa Temple, and they are Korean Treasure #1606. The statues were completed in 1655. The statues are made from zeolite, which is a soft and porous stone. The stones originally came from the Gyeongju area. And again, the statues were created by the monk Dou and his team of sculptures.

How To Get There

Songnimsa Temple is a bit tricky to get to. And if you’re not taking a taxi, you can take Bus #427 to Dongmyeong/Giseong-dong from the Daegu Bukbu bus stop. You’ll need to get off at the Giseong-ri stop. From this stop, you can walk to Songnimsa Temple.

Overall Rating: 8/10

The temple rates as high as it does because it’s home to four Korean Treasures. And one of those treasures is the amazing Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple. Other highlights to look for are the statues, which are also Korean Treasures, inside both the Daeung-jeon Hall and the Cheonbul-jeon Hall. The hellish artwork surrounding the Myeongbu-jeon Hall and the stunning shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall are other things to look for, as well. There’s so much to see and enjoy at this lesser known temple on Mt. Palgongsan.

The temple courtyard at Songnimsa Temple.
The Five-Story Brick Pagoda of Songnimsa Temple.
A look inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
One of the accompanying Bodhisattvas inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
Joined to the right by the other.
One of the Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals) that adorns the exterior walls of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Samseong-gak Hall to the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The Dokseong (Lonely Saint) mural inside the Samseong-gak Hall.
To the right is the Sanshin-gak Hall and the Nahan-jeon Hall.
A look inside the colourful Nahan-jeon Hall.
Another of the Underworld murals adorning the exterior walls of the Myeongbu-jeon Hall.
And yet another of these frightening murals.
The main altar inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall.
And a look inside the Cheonbul-jeon Hall.

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