Yeongoksa Temple is located in Gurye, Jeollanam-do, and it was purportedly first constructed in 543 A.D. by the the Indian monk Yeongi-josa, who also founded neighbouring Hwaeomsa Temple in 544 A.D. According to legend, Yeongi-josa discovered a pond while reading about the land. While he was looking out at the middle of the pond, a swallow flew out from a whirlpool of water. After that, the pond dried up and the place where the pond used to inhabit was used for the temple grounds. As a result, Yeongoksa Temple means “Swallow Valley Temple” in English.
The temple was later renovated in the 9th century by Doseon-guksa. During the 900’s, Yeongoksa Temple was a renowned site for meditation up until the 16th century. Yeongoksa Temple was later destroyed by fire and looted during the Imjin War (1592-1598) in 1598. It was rebuilt in 1627 by the monk Soyo after this devastating war that ravaged much of the Korean peninsula. Three centuries later, Yeongoksa Temple was destroyed once more by Japanese soldiers fighting the Korean Resistance in 1907. More specifically, and after Go Gwangsun established a base at Yeongoksa Temple for his militia forces to fight the colonizing Japanese after the signing of the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905, on August 26th, 1907, Yeongoksa Temple was destroyed and Go Gwangsun lost his life during a nighttime raid by the Japanese.
Once more, Yeongoksa Temple was rebuilt in 1924 only to be destroyed during the Korean War (1950-1953) in 1950; this time, by South Korean soldiers fighting communist sympathizers. A decade later, a small Daeung-jeon Hall was built on the temple grounds, as well as a Yosachae (monks’ dorms). Then on March 1st, 1981, a new Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall was built with a budget of 130 million won. In 1983, the Gwaneum-jeon Hall was built, and the Yosachae was expanded in 1994. More recently, the Iljumun Gate was built in 1995 and followed by the construction of the Jong-gak Pavilion in 1996.
In total, Yeongoksa Temple is home to an impressive two National Treasures and four additional Korean Treasures. The two National Treasures are the East Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple (NT #53) and the North Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple (NT #54). As for the four Korean Treasures, they include the Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Yeongoksa Temple (T #151), the Stele for Master Hyeongak at Yeongoksa Temple (T #152), the East Stele of Yeongoksa Temple (T #153), and the Stupa of Buddhist Monk Soyo at Yeongoksa Temple (T #154).
You first approach Yeongoksa Temple past the top-heavy Iljumun Gate that has two twisted wooden pillars that support the weight of the first entry gate. Next, you’ll find the newly built Cheonwangmun Gate. The exterior walls to the second entry gate are beautifully adorned with vibrant and realistic murals dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings on the four front and back panels. And the two wide side panels are adorned with equally vibrant murals dedicated to Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power), almost symbolically making it a Geumgangmun Gate in the process. Stepping inside the Cheonwangmun Gate, you’ll find four large statues dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings. And making these large statues even more imposing is that they intimidatingly lean forward from the back walls of the entry gates interior.
Before entering the main temple courtyard at Yeongoksa Temple, you’ll pass under the Samhong-ru Pavilion. Up the stairs, you’ll find the beautiful Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall straight ahead of you. Before climbing the stairs that lead up to the main hall that are book-ended by a pair of seokdeung (stone lanterns), you’ll find the Jong-gak Pavilion to your left rear. Housed inside this bell pavilion is a large Brahma Bell sheltered underneath a large roof and framed by the rolling mountains of Mt. Jirisan.
The exterior walls of the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall are adorned with large Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals). And the front latticework is supported by an assortment of butterfly hinges. Stepping inside the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall, you’ll find a triad of statues resting on the main altar. In the centre of the three is an image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This central image is joined on either side by statues dedicated to Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) and Nosana-bul (The Perfect Body Buddha).
To the left of the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall is the Gwaneum-jeon Hall at Yeongoksa Temple. The exterior walls of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall are adorned with a collection of murals dedicated to the various incarnations of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). And they are some of the finest in Korea. Stepping inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall, you’ll find a solitary image of Gwanseeum-bosal on the main altar. And the Bodhisattva of Compassion is joined by rows of tiny figurines dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal. And the ceiling and beams of the interior of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall are adorned with stunning murals of dragons, Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities), and phoenixes.
To the right of the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall, on the other hand, is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. The exterior walls to the Myeongbu-jeon Hall are plainly adorned in simplistic dancheong. And the interior is occupied by a newer collection of Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld) and a central image of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) on the main altar.
Slightly up the hillside, and to the right of the stone entranceway that leads up to all the Korean Treasures and National Treasures at Yeongoksa Temple, is the Samseong-gak Hall. The three shaman murals housed inside the Samseong-gak Hall are modern and beautiful. The first of the three as you enter, and to the far left, is dedicated to Dokseong (The Lonely Saint). In the centre hangs a mural dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars). What’s interesting about this painting, and according to Prof. David Mason, is that Okhwang-sangje (the Jade Emperor of Heaven), who is the supreme Taoist deity, is front and centre in a double-star crown almost like alien antennas. Backing this front and centre image of Okhwang-sangje are seven earthly officials that almost appear to look like an incarnation of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). And the final painting in the set of three, and to the far right, is the mural dedicated to Sanshin. This modern painting features two tigers and a seated image of the Mountain Spirit holding a golden fan. To the right of Sanshin is a girl dongja (attendant) holding a golden bottle that is presumably medicinal wine. And the male dongja to the far right carries a gourd also probably filled with wine.
To the rear, and between the Daejeokgwang-jeon Hall and the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, you’ll find a stone archway entrance that leads up to the stone treasures. The first of the two National Treasures is the East Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple, which is just a little jaunt up the hillside. The stupa dates back to Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.), and this stupa was built to enshrine the sari of a prominent monk. The stupa consists of three parts: a base, a body, and a roof stone. And of the three historic stupas housed at Yeongoksa Temple, the East Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple is the most beautiful and best preserved. The base of the stupa is comprised of three parts: the lower, the middle, and the upper parts of the base. The lower part is double-tiered and there are lions surrounded by clouds carved onto the base. The middle part of the base consists of the eight deva guardians found in Korean Buddhism. And the upper part of the base is a double-tiered structure carved with lotus petals, pillars, and Gareungbinga (Kalavinka). The main body of the stupa has borders carved on each of its faces, and the images carved onto these body faces are incense burners and the Four Heavenly Kings. The roof stone, on the other hand, is elaborately carved with rafters and tiles including roof-end tiles. And the finial of the capstone has decorative phoenixes with open wings and a lotus blossom. While there is no clear evidence has to who this stupa belongs to, it has been argued by some that the stupa in fact belongs to Doseon-guksa. And during Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945), there were attempts made by the Tokyo Imperial University to have the stupa moved to Japan. After studying the stupa for several months, the Japanese attempted to move it; however, because of the mountainous terrain, and the pathway leading down towards the temple being treacherous, it was impossible to smuggle the historic stupa off to Japan.
The East Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple is joined by the East Stele of Yeongoksa Temple. Typically a stele consists of a pedestal, a body stone, and a capstone; however, the East Stele of Yeongoksa Temple is missing its body stone. With that being said, both the pedestal and the capstone have wonderful designs. The pedestal is shaped like a dragon lying with its four legs outstretched and clawing forward in the ground. Rather uniquely, this dragon-faced tortoise stele is adorned with wings upon its shell. The capstone, on the other hand, is adorned with cloud designs and a flaming lotus bud atop the stone structure. This stele was erected during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392); and like the neighbouring stupa, this stele, also, could be dedicated to Dokseon-guksa. However, without the body stone to the stele, it’s uncertain.
Further up the mountainside trail, and definitely a more strenuous hike than the one that led you up to the east stupa and stele, you’ll find the other National Treasure at Yeongoksa Temple: the North Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple. The north stupa is a near replica of the east stupa. It’s almost the same size and form; however, the decorative details on the north stupa are slightly different than the neighbouring east stupa. Again, the North Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple consists of a base, a body, and a capstone. The north stupa also consists of three parts: the lower, middle, and upper base. The first level of the base is double-tiered with the lower tier carved with clouds and the upper tier adorned with a lotus flower that has 26 petals. The middle part of the base is also double-tiered and is carved with railings and lotus blossoms. The upper part of the base, on the other hand, is adorned with a Gareungbinga (Kalavinka). Like the east stupa, the north stupa is adorned with the Four Heavenly Kings and incense burners around its body. The roof stone is carved with rafters and tiles, while the finial is adorned with four phoenixes and a lotus blossom. Unfortunately, it’s unknown as to whom this stupa was erected for.
Continuing down the trail, now heading down the slopes of the mountain, and completing the semi-circular trail, you’ll come to a walled-off area with a collection of stupas. Housed inside this area is the Stupa of Buddhist Monk Soyo at Yeongoksa Temple, which is the second Korean Treasure at the temple. This stupa is joined by a row of more contemporary stupas. Slightly elevated, the Stupa of Buddhist Monk Soyo at Yeongoksa Temple is located in the western part of the temple grounds. The stupa was first erected in 1650. The stupa consists of a main body that houses the sari of Soyo, a base, and a finial. All three sections are octagonal in design. The base of the stupa is divided into three tiers; of which, each is engraved with a lotus flower pattern. Above this lower base stone is a much thicker supporting stone, which is unusual. Only one of the eight faces of the body is adorned. The adornment is a Korean-style door. The other body stone surfaces are carved with reliefs of the eight deva guardians. A large flower adorns each corner of the roof stone, and the finial; especially for its age, it’s quite well preserved.
Down a stone flight of stairs and past the modern memorial for Go Gwangsun, you’ll find the Stele for Master Hyeongak at Yeongoksa Temple, which is the third Korean Treasure at Yeongoksa Temple. The stele dates back to the early Goryeo Dynasty, and it was already missing its body stone by the time of the Imjin War (1592-1598) in 1592. Now all that remains of the stele are its pedestal and capstone. Rather dramatically, the tortoise pedestal has a large dragon’s head with long whiskers. It also has large eyes and a broad mouth. The body stone support is carved with a panel adorned with a flower design. And the capstone of the stele is carved with several intertwined dragons that are rendered vividly. The inscription on the middle of the front surface of the stele’s capstone states that the stele was first erected in 979 A.D.
And the final Korean Treasure at Yeongoksa Temple is situated in a lower area of the temple in front of the Stele for Master Hyeongak at Yeongoksa Temple. The Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Yeongoksa Temple is rather typical of the plain Silla design. The pagoda consists of three stories. The corners to each of the body stones is engraved with a pillar design. Because the base is so large, the body stones seem somewhat small in comparison. It’s presumed, based on the pagoda’s design, that it was constructed during late Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). And in 1967, during the restoration of the pagoda to repair the third story of the structure, the upper layer of the base rendered a standing bronze Buddha.
How To Get There
From the Gurye Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take Bus #8-1 to get to Yeongoksa Temple. This bus will head towards Piagol Valley. You’ll need to take this bus for nearly one hour, or 21 stops. You’ll need to get off at the Pyeongdo bus stop – 평도하차.” From where the bus drops you off, you’ll need to head north for nearly a kilometre, or 17 minutes.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
It’s rare to find so many Korean Treasures and National Treasures in just one location. And the lesser known Yeongoksa Temple is home to six. The most impressive of the collection are the East Stupa of Yeongoksa Temple, the East Stele of Yeongoksa Temple, and the Stele for Master Hyeongak at Yeongoksa Temple. However, all six stone structures are impressive. In addition to these six historic stone monuments, the vibrant Cheonwangmun Gate, the exterior murals to the Gwaneum-jeon Hall, and the atypical shaman murals inside the Samseong-gak Hall are all worthy of your time. So while in Jirisan National Park, take the time to explore one of its lesser known treasures.