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Ssangbongsa Temple, which is located in Hwasun, Jeollanam-do, means “Twin Peak Temple” in English. Ssangbongsa Temple was first established by the monk Cheolgam-seonsa. At the age of twenty-eight, Cheolgam-seonsa (797-868 A.D.) traveled to Tang China (618-907 A.D.) to study Buddhism. Cheolgam-seonsa returned to the Korean peninsula in 847 A.D. alongside Beomil-guksa (National Preceptor). Cheolgam-seonsa settled around Mt. Pungaksan in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do. He later moved to Hwasun, where he built a temple that he called Ssangbongsa Temple. The name of the temple was based upon his pen-name, which literally means “twin peaks” in English.
However, there is some dispute as to when the temple was built. The stele dedicated to Hyecheol at neighbouring Taeansa Temple in Gokseong, Jeollanam-do states that Hyecheol spent a summer at Ssangbongsa Temple after returning to the Korean peninsula from Tang China during King Sinmu of Silla’s (r. 839) reign. So it appears as though the temple had already been built before 839 A.D., and definitely before Cheolgam-seonsa’s return to the Korean peninsula in 847 A.D.
Whoever first built Ssangbongsa Temple first, the temple was part of the Sajasan School of Seon Buddhism. The monk Jinghyo first opened the Sajasan School of Seon Buddhism at Heungnyeongsa Temple in Yeongwol, Gangwon-do. Heungnyeongsa Temple is now known as Beopheungsa Temple, and it was one of the original Seonjong Gusan (Seon Sect Nine Mountains). Ssangbongsa Temple, under the watchful eye of Cheolgam-seonsa, was the first branch temple to open up under the Sajasan School of Seon Buddhism.
When Cheolgam-seonsa died at the temple at the age of seventy-one, King Gyeongmun of Silla (r. 861-875) awarded Cheolgam-seonsa with a posthumous honorary title in recognition of all the service he had done as a teacher for the state. It was also at this time that Stupa of Master Cheolgam at Ssangbongsa Temple (N.T. #57) and Stele for Master Cheolgam at Ssangbongsa Temple (T #170) were built to honour the Buddhist monk.
Ssangbongsa Temple was later rebuilt by Hyeso-guksa in 1081. From this time up until the later part of the 16th century, Ssangbongsa Temple was repeatedly expanded. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), Ssangbongsa Temple was destroyed in 1597. In 1628, the temple was reconstructed, and it was further rebuilt in 1667 and 1724.
Until recently, there were only three historic wooden pagodas that date back to the early 17th century that were Korean National Treasures. They were the Palsang-jeon Hall at Beopjusa Temple, the Mireuk-jeon Hall at Geumsansa Temple, and the Daeung-jeon Hall at Ssangbongsa Temple. While both the Palsang-jeon Hall and the Mireuk-jeon Hall still stand to this day at their historic temples, the Daeung-jeon Hall no longer stands. In 1984, while a worshiper was celebrating Buddha’s Birthday, the worshiper tripped over a candle and the entire Daeung-jeon Hall burned to the ground. The one that now stands at Ssangbongsa Temple is a precise replica of the former wooden pagoda.
Ssangbongsa Temple, despite the tragic destruction of the Daeung-jeon Hall, is home to one National Treasure and three additional Korean Treasures.
Ssangbongsa Temple is located in a bend in a country road. From the temple parking lot, you’ll see the stately Iljumun Gate right in front of you. With slender pillars and a top heavy roof, the Iljumun Gate is a beautiful introduction to the temple. Next up is the Cheonwangmun Gate. Housed inside the Cheonwangmun Gate are four eye-popping Four Heavenly Kings. Just to the left, as you emerge on the other side of this entry gate, is the temple’s Jong-ru (Bell Pavilion).
Towering over top of the Cheonwangmun Gate, and the rest of the temple grounds for that matter, is the rebuilt Daeung-jeon Hall. The present three-story wooden pagoda dates back to 1986, when it was rebuilt as an exact replica of the original. The exterior walls are beautifully adorned with intricate Dancheong colours. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar of the Daeung-jeon Hall, is a statue of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).
Directly to the rear of the three-story Daeung-jeon Hall, and up an embankment, is the Geukrak-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are adorned with Shimu-do (The Ox-Herding Murals). And sitting on the main altar of this temple shrine hall is the central image of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This statue is joined on either side by standing statues dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul).
To the left of the Geukrak-jeon Hall, and still up the embankment, is the Jijang-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this hall are adorned with some pretty scary murals dedicated to the Afterlife and the Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld) and the particular underworld that they rule over. As for the interior, and sitting on the main altar, sits a green haired statue dedicated to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife). This central statue is joined by the Siwang. All of these statues are officially known as the Wooden Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Triad and Ten Underworld Kings of Ssangbongsa Temple. They are also Korean Treasure #1726. The collection of wooden statues date back to 1667, when they were first created by the monk Unhye and a team of Buddhist monks.
To the right of the Geurak-jeon Hall are two additional temple shrine halls. To the immediate right of the Geukrak-jeon Hall is the Nahan-jeon Hall. The exterior walls are adorned with various depictions of the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). As for the interior, you see statues of the Nahan inside. And in front of the Nahan-jeon Hall is the Hoseong-jeon Hall. This building is off-limits to the general public; however, there are some beautiful paintings adorning the exterior walls of this temple shrine hall.
As for the rest of the temple grounds, and definitely the most historic, you’ll find the stupa and stele dedicated to Cheolgam-seonsa to the rear of the temple grounds in a sectioned off area. The Stupa of Master Cheolgam at Ssangbongsa Temple is National Treasure #57. The stupa is believed to have been first constructed in 868 A.D. upon the death of the beloved monk. While the stupa is typical of the designs of Later Silla (668 – 935 A.D.), the finial is missing from the top of the stupa.
Also in this part of the temple is the Stele for Master Cheolgam at Ssangbongsa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #170. The stele is believed to have been built at the same time as the accompanying stupa. While the body of the stele is missing, the base is turtle-shaped with the features of a dragon’s head. The dragon is holding a cintamani in its mouth, while the capstone is engraved with a cloud design.
How To Get There
From the Hwasun Intercity Bus Terminal, you can catch Bus #218 to get to Ssangbongsa Temple.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Unfortunately, the historic three-story Daeung-jeon pagoda no longer exists; instead, it’s been replaced by an exact modern replica. In addition to this beautiful architecture at Ssangbongsa Temple, you can see two amazing stone artifacts that give us a glimpse back into Korea’s past. There are a handful of temple shrine halls with beautiful paintings, as well as the treasured statues housed inside the Jijang-jeon Hall at Ssangbongsa Temple.