Here’s a great guide to Korean temples, Dale’s Korean Temple Adventure. Set up by an expat in Busan, it focuses mainly on temples in the lower half of the country. (Which is fine, because that’s the heart of Korea’s Buddhist history and culture. )
He includes a lot of photos with each post, and relates the history of the temple, along with travel info and his overall impressions of how worthwhile it is to visit the temple. Here’s what Dale wrote about Hwaeomsa (화엄사):
Jirisan National Park was a place I long wanted to visit, but never got around to for one reason or another. I didn’t want to go hiking or camping, or anything like that at all. Instead, I wanted to visit two famous temples that sit on the side : Hwaeomsa and Ssangyesa temples. And finally, in the fall of 2005, I visited with my wife.
The first of two postings will cover the most renowned temple at Jirisan National Park: Hwaeomsa (“Flower Garland Sutra Temple”).
Hwaeomsa (화엄사) was founded by Yeon-gi Josa in 544, when Buddhism was just gaining a hold ofKorea’s religious landscape. The temple was continuously expanded until its total destruction during the Imjin War of 1592. Fortunately for us temple lovers, it was rebuilt three decades later. And today, it’s one ofKorea’s largest and most well-respected temples.
Once you’re dropped off at the bus stop at Hwaeomsa village, just south of the temple, you’ll have to walk about a kilometer up a beautiful and scenic valley road. You’ll pass through two gates, one of which is ensnared by dragons sculpted around the stone pillars. In the third gate are four largely sculpted heavenly kings protecting the temple from evil spirits. In the lower courtyard are two similar looking five-tier pagodas. As you continue walking straight, and on the upper level of the courtyard, is the main hall. Usually, the main hall is the largest structure at the temple; however, the main hall is dwarfed by the building that stands just left of it: Gakhwangjeon. Gakhwangjeon has a two-tiered roof, and it’s also one of the largest and oldest buildings, dating back to 1703, in all of Korea.
It’s a massive building that houses seven figures on its altar. Another strange feature about this temple is that the Seokgamoni Buddha (the historical Buddha) sits in Gakhwangjeon, and not in the main hall. Accompanying the Seokgamoni Buddha in this building are Amita and Dabo Buddhas, as well as the Gwaneum, Bohyeon, Munsu, and Jijeok bodhisattavas. Directly in front of this massive hall is the largest stone lantern in all of Korea, standing five metres tall. Next to this pagoda is an impressive “sari budo” with four fierce looking lions adorning it
But even more impressive than the massive Gakhwangjeon is what stands on the hill just above this building. On the hill stands the most uniquely designed pagoda (next to the ones at Bulguksa) and stone lantern. The five metre tall granite pagoda has three-tiers on top and four lion-shaped pedestals at its base. Each lion represents the four primary human emotions: love, sorrow, anger, and joy. At the centre of these lions stands a human figure with hands held to his chest. There are numerous other designs etched onto this pagoda, so take your time and enjoy the intricacies of this pagoda. And just in front of this pagoda is the equally unique stone lantern with a squatting figure at the centre of its base. Some have suggested that this is the founder of the temple kneeling in obedience to his mother.
HOW TO GET THERE: To get to Hwaeomsa from Busan, there is a direct bus from Seobu bus terminal at the Sasang subway stop (#227). It costs about 14,000Won, and the trip takes about three hours. If you’re not getting to Hwaeomsa from Busan, you can take a bus to Gurye. From Gurye to Hwaeomsa, you can take a bus that goes to Hwaeomsa village for about 1,000 Won.
Admission to the temple is 3,000 Won (and trust me, it is well worth it!)
OVERALL RATING: 10/10. For its historical significance alone, Hwaeomsa rates highly amongst Korean temples. But if you add the giant splendor that is Gakhwangjeon, and the temple rates that much higher. And to top it all off, on the hill stands two of the most uniquely designed pagodas and lanterns in all of Korea. So if you couldn’t tell already, I highly, highly recommend a visit to Hwaeomsa for both its cultural significance and artistic beauty!
(Photos: These are from my collection. I didn’t take them, but I can’t remember who gave them to me. Sorry! – Chong Go Sunim. As you can see, Dale has great info about these temples (and photos as well), so be sure to check out his blog.)