I have been to many Buddhist temples in Korea, but one I had been meaning to visit for quite sometime was Songgwangsa Temple located in the Jeollanam-do province on the southern portion of the peninsula:
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I have been wanting to visit the temple because it is one of the most photographed temples in Korea. I would have to say that Haeinsa Temple is probably the only temple photographed more than Songgwangsa. Considering how popular the temple is for photographers it is actually located in quite an isolated area. Along the way to the temple there is an impressively large river bed that can be seen:
During the monsoon season I bet this river is quite a sight to see when it is flooding. Something else that can be seen on the way to Songgwangsa is Juarm Lake::
From Juarm Lake there is a turn off to the temple. The parking area has all the typical Korean shops that sell trinkets and simple food items to visitors before they head off on the walk to the temple:
The walk to the temple is about half a mile through the heavily forested and rugged mountains of Jogyesan Provincial Park:
Here is a map of the park:
The trees that cover the mountains around the temple are not very large so it may be regrowth from the Korean War era for all I know. Never the less the scenery is still quite beautiful:
It is an easy walk to Songgwangsa which I found to be one of the larger temple complexes I have visited in Korea once I got there:
Here is the first gate that I passed through on the path to Songgwangsa:
Eventually the trail comes to the entrance to the temple. The picture below of the pavilion and the bridge across the creek is probably the photograph most commonly taken by photographers that visit this temple:
The day I visited the temple it was very overcast with poor light conditions so I didn’t see anyone with serious camera equipment trying to take any pictures of the temple. From the creek I walked across the covered bridge and into the temple. Here is the view from the bridge looking back at the pavilion:
Over the years this temple has been destroyed and rebuilt many times with the most recent occurrence happening during the Korean War when the entire temple was burnt to the ground. However, the temple has since been nicely reconstructed and features a number of beautiful buildings and gates:
Here is some calligraphy I saw carved on a stone outcropping which I have no idea how old it is or what it says, but it is one of the few things at the temple that not even fire can destroy:
According to information provided by the temple, Songgwangsa would founded 1200 years ago during the late Shilla period as Kilsang-sa Temple. During the Koryo period in 1197 the temple was expanded as a major center of the Chogye traditon of Korean Buddhism. At this time the temple was renamed Suson-sa Temple. It was a few centuries later before the temple was renamed once again to its current name, Songgwang-sa Temple which means “Spreading Pines Temple”. Of the three Buddhist jewels: the Buddha, his teachings, and his disciples; Songgwang-sa represents the third because of its great tradition of training Buddhist masters. The monastery has produced a total of 16 national masters and many other great monks for the Chogye order. In 1969 the temple was designated the primary training ground for the Jogye order.
The main hall of worship at Songgwangsa is very similar to other main halls in Korea with it being a medium sized building with elaborate artwork on the exterior:
There is a large courtyard in front of the building:
Here is a closeup of the bright artwork that covers the edges of the exterior of the building:
Just like the other major Buddhist temples in Korea the main hall had a number of brightly colored pieces of religious artwork for visitors to see:
The only piece of artwork I recognized was this one featuring the Korean folk hero monk Wonhyo:
Wonhyo in 661 was traveling to China with a friend where they hoped to study Buddhism further. Somewhere in the Baekje region the two friends took shelter in cave when a heavy rain storm struck. During the night Wonhyo became thirsty but in the dark he could not see. So he felt around until he found something he believed to be a cup and drank some water from it. In the morning Wonhyo discovered that the cave was actually a cemetery littered with bones and the cup he drank from was actually a skull. Wonhyo took this experience to be a source of enlightenment because he was impressed by how the human mind is able to transform the reality of the cemetery into a comfortable haven.
The other pieces of art I saw I did not recognize which Buddhist story they represented:
Inside the main hall there was this golden Buddha that was accompanied to his left and right by two other statues that appeared to represent some important monks:
Below is the view from the main hall looking across the courtyard towards the mountains:
Many temples in Korea you really do not see many monks walking around, however the day I visited Songgwangsa I saw monks walking around quite frequently:
Since this temple is focused heavily on training the monks I saw walking around appeared to be trainee marching in formation almost as if they were in the military:
This gate led to the living quarters for the Buddhist monks which was off limits to visitors:
For people that want to try and get a taste of what it is like to be a monk, there are temple stay programs available at the various Korean Buddhist temples to include Songgwangsa. This is actually something that has been gaining in popularity in recent years.
Outside some of the temple’s buildings some of these brightly colored flowers could be seen growing:
On the perimeter of the temple I spotted these two small buildings which I think may be shrines of some sort?:
Here are a few more pictures from the temple:
There is plenty of other buildings to see at the temple, but all in all Songgwangsa really doesn’t have anything other than the scenic bridge entrance to the temple that makes it stand apart from other temples in Korea. I didn’t have time to hike in the mountains around the park but they look like some place that would be nice to explore for those who have the time. All in all thoughI don’t think it is worth taking a trip solely to check out this temple from a place as distant as Seoul. I recommend a trip to the temple in conjunction with visiting either the nearby cities of Suncheon or Yeosu or even a visit to the green tea plantations in Boseong. Those interested in doing the temple stay program though may actually enjoy doing an extended stay at the temple.