Tapsa Temple – 탑사 (Jinan, Jeollabuk-do)
Tapsa Temple, which is located in Jinan, Jeollabuk-do, means “Pagoda Temple,” in English. The story of Tapsa Temple begins with the enigmatic layman Lee Gap Yong (1860-1957). Lee first came to Mt. Maisan (687 m), or “Horse Ear Mountain,” in English, at the age of 25. And for the next thirty years, Lee not only spent time meditating, but he single-handedly built one hundred and eight spherical stone pagodas. Of the one hundred and eight pagodas that were originally constructed, eighty of these pagodas still stand to this day at Tapsa Temple. Much later in life, Lee Gap Yong became an ordained monk with the Jogye-jong Order and the grounds became a temple under this Korean Buddhist Order.
As to the pagodas at Tapsa Temple, they were piled one by one without the support of modern conveniences like an excavator or forklift. The stone for the smaller pagodas were harvested locally. As for the larger stones, which can reach up to nine metres in height, they were collected from streams, rivers and mountains throughout Korea so as to reach a level of harmony with their overall spiritual energy.
As for the design of the pagodas, Lee constructed the pagodas by following and incorporating the eight progressive positions of Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮 – 181-234 A.D.). Using Zhuge Liang’s methods, stones are first laid in a circular configuration. Only then are additional stones placed inside this circle. Afterwards, more stones are then placed in a position to form a conical pyramid. Only then is the structure topped off with flat-shaped stones. To complete these style of pagodas, another flat stone, in a yin or yang position, is added over and over to the top until the desired shape and height of the pagoda is completed. Lastly, but certainly not least, smaller sized pebbles are placed inside the gaps of the stone pagoda, and the larger gaps in its construction, to help stabilize the structure.
You first approach the temple up a 1.5 kilometre stretch of road inside the Maisan Provincial Park. The road skirts the beautiful twin peaks of Mt. Maisan. The initial stretch of the road is occupied by gaudy tourist trappings of restaurants and knick-knack stores, but they eventually give way to the beauty of Jeollabuk-do. When you finally do arrive at the outskirts of Tapsa Temple, it’s like you’ve entered another world. The extra-terrestrial feel of the terrain for which Tapsa Temple rests upon is something from another world. It almost feels like you’ve landed on the face of the moon. Both small and large spires stick out from the stony landscape. These pagodas look fragile in design, and yet, they’ve stood for over one hundred years.
Standing in front of this rather bizarre landscape, you’ll notice a bronze statue dedicated to Lee Gap Yong inside an artificial cave. To the right of the main temple grounds, you’ll notice the temple’s bell pavilion. As you make your way up the mountainous trail, heading towards the main hall, you’ll get an amazing view of the surrealistic landscape that’s situated all around you. Perched above the landscape of pagodas is the diminutive Daeung-jeon Hall. Sitting on the main altar of the main hall is a triad of statues centred by Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). Flanking the Buddha on either side is Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). To the left of the main altar, and hanging on the wall, is a mural dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars). And on the far left wall is a picture of Lee Gap Yong and Gwanseeum-bosal. Hanging all on its own on the right wall is a Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural).
Behind the main hall, and perhaps one of the most original interiors in all of Korea, is the Sanshin-gak Hall. Sitting to the right is a statue of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). And to the centre left is a life-size statue of Lee Gap Yong in older age (images of him are everywhere at the temple, so be forewarned). The painting of Sanshin inside this hall has a triad of images. In the centre is the standard image of Sanshin, while to the right is a female Sanshin. And amazingly, and once more, is the image of Lee Gap Yong with a set of stone pagodas at Tapsa Temple.
Beyond both of these halls, and to the rear, are two of Tapsa Temple’s most famous collection of pagodas: Cheonji-tap Pagoda and Obang-tap Pagoda. To the left of the main hall, and down the side of the mountain trail, are two additional statues. The first is a beautiful granite statue of Gwanseeum-bosal, while the second is of a stoic Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).
The final hall inside the temple grounds at Tapsa Temple is the Yeongshin-gak Hall. Inside this smaller sized hall sits three statues on the main altar. The first, and the one in the centre, is Seokgamoni-bul. To the right sits Gwanseeum-bosal and Jijang-bosal. Interestingly, and behind Gwanseeum-bosal in the painting is another image of Lee Gap Yong.
The entire temple complex really is something unlike anything else you’ve ever seen at a Buddhist temple in Korea. This temple goes a long way in rebutting the common complaint that all Korean temples look the same. At every angle, and every turn, you’ll see an all-new pagoda or statue buried in the pock-marked landscape of Maisan Provincial Park and Tapsa Temple.
Admission to the temple is 2,000 won. And if you have a car, the parking will set you back an additional 2,000 won.
How To Get There
You’ll first need to get to the Jinan Bus Terminal from wherever it is you call home in Korea. From this bus terminal, take a bus bound for Maisan Provincial Park. These buses leave every forty minutes and start at 7:30 a.m. and run until 6 p.m. Once you’re dropped off at the entry to Maisan Provincial Park, you’ll need to walk for an additional 1.5 k.m. towards Tapsa Temple. The fifteen to twenty minute walk with Mt. Maisan off in this distance is one of the more memorable strolls you’ll have while approaching a Buddhist temple in Korea.
Overall Rating: 9/10
Just for originality alone, Tapsa Temple gets the rating it does. With some eighty pagodas, and a handful of temple shrine halls, it’ll seem like you’ve stepped out of Korea and onto an entirely different planet. This temple is truly a one-off. And any visitor to Korea, whether you like temples or not, should make Jeollabuk-do, and Tapsa Temple in particular, a must on your to-do list of things to see in Korea.