Yeongguksa Temple – 영국사 (Yeongdong, Chungcheongbuk-do)
Yeongguksa Temple is located in Yeongdong, Chungcheongbuk-do on the eastern slopes of Mt. Cheontaesan (715.2 m). Yeongguksa Temple dates back to the late Silla (57 B.C. – 668 A.D.) or early Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). One theory states that the temple was first founded during the reign of King Jinpyeong of Silla (r. 579-632 A.D.), while another theory states that it was first constructed during the reign of King Munmu of Silla (r. 661-681 A.D.). Either way, it does seem like that it dates back to around this time period in Korean history.
Originally, the mountain where the temple is situated was first called Mt. Jiruksan; however, when the temple was headed by Uicheon (1055-1101), who popularized the Cheontae school of Buddhism at this time, the mountain had its name changed from Mt. Jiruksan to that of Mt. Cheontaesan.
Yeongguksa Temple was reconstructed during the 12th century by Wongak-guksa, who was also known as Deokso. And after King Gojong of Goryeo (r. 1213-1259) ordered that the pagoda, stupa, and Daeung-jeon Hall be rebuilt at the temple site, the temple changed its name to Gukcheongsa Temple.
The temple’s current name of Yeongguksa Temple, which means “Peaceful Country Temple” in English, was given by Gongmin of Goryeo (r. 1351-1374). After fleeing from the capital of Kaeseong after the Red Turban Invasions of Goryeo (1359-1360), King Gongmin of Goryeo fled to Yeongguksa Temple. While at Yeongguksa Temple, King Gongmin of Goryeo offered prayers to the Buddha for the safekeeping of the people and the monarchy. After the Red Turban Invasions of Goryeo had been quelled, and as a thank you, Yeongguksa Temple underwent several repairs.
The temple suffered great damage from a landslide that occurred in 1879; but gradually, the temple was rebuilt. Both the Daeung-jeon Hall and the three-story pagoda were repaired in 1934 by the monk Jubong, who was the head monk at the temple at this time.
While the current configuration of the temple is arranged from south to north, a recent excavation at the temple behind the Daeung-jeon Hall revealed that originally the temple site was aligned from east to west. In fact, it’s believed that the former temple site was located some one hundred metres up towards Mt. Cheontaesan and away from the current location of the main hall.
In total, Yeongguksa Temple is home to four Korean Treasures and one Natural Monument.
As you first make your way up to the main temple courtyard at Yeongguksa Temple, you’ll pass by a stunning 31.4 metre tall ginkgo tree. This ginkgo tree is the Natural Monument at Yeongguksa Temple, and it’s believed to be about a thousand years old. And if you’re lucky enough to see this tree during the fall months, you’ll see this ancient tree’s leaves turn a beautiful yellow.
A little further up and to the left, you’ll now be standing squarely in front of the Manse-ru Pavilion. This two-story structure has an entry gate and stairs that will lead you up into the main temple courtyard at Yeongguksa Temple on the first floor. As for the second story of the structure, it’s simply left open for visitors to rest.
Straight ahead of you, as you now stand in the centre of the main temple courtyard, is the Daeung-jeon Hall. Fronting the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Yeongguksa Temple that’s Korean Treasure #533. This pagoda dates back to late Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.), when pagodas and statues became smaller and simpler in design (which this pagoda certainly is). More specifically, this pagoda was previously located at an different temple site. It was relocated to Yeongguksa Temple in 1942 by a monk named Jubong-josa. The body of the pagoda has a pair of stone relief doors on the east and west side of the structure, and the finial atop the pagoda has been well-preserved.
Behind the three-story stone pagoda is the temple’s compact Daeung-jeon Hall. The Daeung-jeon Hall was rebuilt in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and rebuilt again in 1893 and 1934. The current Daeung-jeon Hall was last restored in 1980. The exterior walls are absent of the more traditional Shimu-do (Ox-Hering Murals) and the Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals). Instead, the walls are plainly painted in the traditional dancheong colours, and there is an intricate network of multi-bracketed eaves. Stepping inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a main altar occupied by three smaller statues. In the centre rests an image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). And this central image is joined to the left and right by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife).
Stepping outside the Daeung-jeon Hall, and to your left, you’ll find the Geukrak-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to this temple shrine hall are adorned with Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life Murals). Stepping inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall, and under a wonderfully elaborate red canopy (datjib), you’ll find a triad of statues resting on the main altar. In the centre, and surrounded by a fiery mandorla, is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This central image, absent the fiery nimbus, are Gwanseeum-bosal and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). Rounding out the interior of the Geukrak-jeon Hall are murals dedicated to Jijang-bosal and a Banya Yongseon-do (Dragon Ship of Wisdom Mural), as well.
To the rear of both the Daeung-jeon Hall and the Geukrak-jeon Hall, and to the right, is the Samseong-gak Hall. The exterior walls to this shaman shrine hall are beautifully adorned with a mural dedicated to a male and female Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) to the right and a mural dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint) adorning the left exterior wall. Stepping inside the Samseong-gak Hall, you’ll find three paintings hanging on the main altar. In the centre hangs a mural dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars), while to the left hangs a mural dedicated to Dokseong. Of the three, and to the right, the most interesting mural of the shaman triad inside the Samseong-gak Hall at Yeongguksa Temple is Sanshin mural. In particular, have a look at the swirling eyes of the tiger joining the Mountain Spirit in this mural. Interestingly, and once again, you’ll find a male and female Sanshin mural adorning the right interior wall of this shaman shrine hall.
To the left of the main temple courtyard, and where the trail forks in three, you’ll need to head down the middle one to see a collection of stupas and stele for which Yeongguksa Temple is famous. The first of these three is the Stele for State Preceptor Wongak at Yeongguksa Temple. The stele is divided into three parts: the turtle-shaped base, the body, and the capstone. The turtle-shaped base has a head shaped like a turtle, and its overall appearance is typical of the Goryeo-style. As for the body of the stele, it is missing the bottom part of it. As for the capstone, it’s adorned with engravings, clouds, and a dragon with the epitaph of “The Stele of State Preceptor Wongak” on it. The stele is believed to have been first erected in 1180.
Backing the Stele for State Preceptor Wongak at Yeongguksa Temple are a pair of stupas. Both are Chungcheongbuk-do Tangible Property. The first, the Ball-Shaped Monastic Stupa at Yeongguksa Temple, is believed to have been made some time in the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) to the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). This stupa stands 184 cm in height. Unfortunately, it’s unknown who this stupa is dedicated to. And behind this stupa stands the Stone Bell-Shaped Monastic Stupa of Yeongguksa Temple. Just like the previous temple, it’s unknown to whom this stupa belongs to, and it also dates back to the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) to the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). This stupa stands 190 cm in height.
The final Korean Treasure at Yeongguksa Temple is the Stupa of Yeongguksa Temple. This stupa is Korean Treasure #532. The stupa is located some two hundred metres south of the temple grounds. The stupa is octagonal in shape. The base is designed like a lotus petal. It’s body has a rectangular door engraved on it on just one side. And a lock is carved in relief on the side of the door. Rather beautifully, the roof stone has roof tiles designed in stone relief. It’s believed that the stupa was likely erected in 1180.
How To Get There
From the Yeongdong Train Station, there’s a bus stop once you exit the train station. From this bus stop, take Bus #125. After thirty-four stops, or one hour and two minutes, get off at the “Yeongguksa Stop.” From where the bus drops you off, you’ll need to walk twenty minutes, or 1.4 km, to get to the temple.
But if you’d rather take a taxi, you can simply grab a taxi from outside the Yeongdong Train Station. The taxi ride will take you fifty minutes over 26.5 km, and it’ll cost you 30,000 won (one way).
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
This little known temple in Chungcheongbuk-do is filled with history and stone monuments that testify to the antiquity of Yeongguksa Temple. Once you first enter the temple grounds and are greeted by the thousand year old ginkgo tree, it’s a beautiful introduction to what still awaits you. The temple is beautifully framed by Mt. Cheontaesan in the background. And the natural beauty is only matched by the handful of Korean Treasures that reside at Yeongguksa Temple. A beautiful temple with a beautiful past.