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Temple History and Myth
Yongmunsa Temple, which means “Dragon Gate Temple” in English, is located in Yecheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do to the south-west of Mt. Sobaeksan (1439.6 m). Yongmunsa Temple was first established in 870 A.D. by the monk Duun-daesa. Initially, the Daejang-jeon Hall was first built at the temple in 1173 to house the first set of the Tripitaka Koreana. This set was eventually destroyed in 1232 during the Mongol Invasions of Korea (1231-1270). The second set of the Tripitaka Koreana was started in 1237, and it was completed twelve years later. In 1398, the completed set was moved to Haeinsa Temple, where they have been ever since.
During the Later Three Kingdoms Period, Wang Geon (877-943 A.D.), who would become King Taejo, the first king of the newly established Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), visited Yongmunsa Temple while he was still a general under Gung Ye (869-918 A.D.). Gung Ye (r.901-918) was the king of the short lived Hugoguryeo (901-918 A.D.). During his attempted visit to Yongmunsa Temple, Wang Geon couldn’t find the temple, or even the road, because of the thick fog. Suddenly, two blue dragons appeared and guided Wang Geon the rest of the way. Hence, where the temple gets its name. Because of Wang Geon’s eventual ascent to the throne, as well as his close connection to Yongmunsa Temple, the temple greatly prospered after the unification of the Korean peninsula under Goryeo rule in 936 A.D. In fact, Yongmunsa Temple was protected by the Goryeo royal family.
Since the Goryeo Dynasty, Yongmunsa Temple has been a site for prayer to help overcome national crisis. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), the Jaun-ru Pavilion at Yongmunsa Temple, which still stands to this day, was used as a command post for Korean soldiers.
In total, Yongmunsa Temple is home to seven Korean Treasures. It used to be home to nine, but both the Daejang-jeon Hall (former Korean Treasure #145) and the Yunjangdae (formerly Korean Treasure #684) became a combined national treasure, National Treasure #328, in 2019. Both were raised to national treasure level because of their scarcity, as well as their overall culture value.
The first temple structure to greet you at Yongmunsa Temple is the Sacheonwangmun Gate. Housed inside this entry gate are four uniquely designed wooden statues of the Four Heavenly Kings. Next up is the Haeun-ru Pavilion. This pavilion is a two-story structure with the first floor acting as a narrow entry to gain access to the rest of the temple grounds, while the second story has a large Beopgo (Dharma Drum) housed inside it.
Climbing another set of stairs, you’ll finally emerge on the other side standing squarely in the main temple courtyard. To your right is the Jong-ru. This compact bell pavilion houses all four of the traditional Buddhist percussion instruments. Of note is the impressive Mokeo (Wooden Fish Drum) that hangs to the far left. This light green Mokeo is stout with a large dragon head with horns.
Straight ahead, and beautifully framing the Bogwangmyeong-jeon Hall, are two stately five-story stone pagodas that have beautiful finials adorning each of the pagodas. The first of the two, and the one standing on the left, is adorned with Buddhas and guardians. The second of the two standing to the right is rather plainly adorned. As for the exterior of the Bogwangmyeong-jeon Hall, it’s adorned with a set of Palsang-do (The Eight Scenes from the Buddha’s Life) and a set of Shimu-do (Ox-Herding Murals). While not the most refined, they are rustic like much of the surroundings. As for the interior, and resting on the main altar, you’ll see a large central statue dedicated to Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). To the right sits a statue dedicated to Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of Medicine, and the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise). Of the set, it’s the statue of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) to the left that’s most impressive. This statue was first created during the early sixteenth century, and it’s Korean Treasure #1637. Found inside this statue was a two sheet list of donors that funded the creation of Amita-bul, as well as prayers. The list of names of donors are in the hundreds. Amita-bul is dressed in two beautiful layers of clothing.
To the right of the Bogwangmyeong-jeon Hall is a large bronze statue dedicated to Podae-hwasang (The Hempen Bag). And next to this statue is the most famous structure at Yongmunsa Temple: the Daejang-jeon Hall. First built in 1173, as was previously mentioned, the shrine hall was renovated in 1665. The exterior walls to this shrine hall are plainly adorned, while the eaves are adorned with various Gwimyeon (Monster Mask) wood carvings.
As for the interior, it’s filled with Korean Treasures and a National Treasure. First, and resting on the main altar, are a triad of statues centred by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). Amita-bul is then joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul). This triad was first created in 1684, and it’s Korean Treasure #989-1. The statue of Amita-bul is completely covered except for the neck and partial chest with a thick robe. This triad is then backed by a beautiful golden wooden relief that was first carved in 1684. It’s the oldest of its kind, and it’s Korean Treasure #989-2. The bottom four images are the Four Heavenly Kings. The central image of Amita-bul is joined in the middle and upper portion by eight Bodhisattvas. And the upper four Bodhisattvas are book-ended by two kneeling Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). Joining the main altar and wooden relief inside the Daejang-jeon Hall are a pair of Yunjangdae, or “Revolving Scriptures Pillar” in English. A Yunjangdae is a spinning bookshelf that’s used in Buddhist ceremonies. It’s believed that by spinning the Yunjangdae that enshrines Buddhist scriptures, a person could achieve good karma. So basically by spinning a Yunjangdae, a person could/can achieve the same level of good karma by spinning it as they would by reading Buddhist sutras. This was especially helpful for a large portion of the Korean population that were illiterate when these Yunjangdae were originally built at the Daejang-jeon Hall in 1173, and later renovated in 1625. These twin Yunjangdae are beautifully adorned with various wooden floral patterns around their exterior. Also, these Yunjangdae, alongside the Daejang-jeon Hall, were recently made National Treasure #328 in 2019.
To the right of the Daejang-jeon Hall are a collection of buildings. The first are the halls that are used for the Temple Stay program at Yongmunsa Temple. Behind these halls is the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. This newly constructed shrine hall is colourfully adorned with various Gwimyeon (Monster Mask) on the entry doors. As for inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, you’ll find a large green haired statue dedicate to Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) on the main altar. This statue is then joined on both sides by the Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld). To the right of the Myeongbu-jeon Hall is the diminutive Eungjin-jeon Hall. The wooden image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on the main altar looks older in age as do the sixteen Nahan (The Historical Disciples) that join the Buddha inside the Eungjin-jeon Hall.
To the rear of the Bogwangmyeong-jeon Hall are a collection of three temple shrine halls in the upper courtyard. The first of the three is the newly built Gwaneum-jeon Hall. Sitting on the main altar of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall is the multi-armed and headed statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). The statue is surrounded by a beautiful fiery nimbus. To the rear of the Gwaneum-jeon Hall is Sanshin-gak Hall. Housed inside this shaman shrine hall is a large painting of Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). On the exterior left wall of the Sanshin-gak Hall, you’ll see a nicely painted image of a tiger sitting all alone on a mountainous outcropping. And to the rear of the Sanshin-gak Hall is the large Cheonbul-jeon Hall. Housed inside this shrine hall are one thousand white Buddhas. Resting on the main altar is the central image of a golden Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) statue. If you look up at the ceiling of the Cheonbul-jeon Hall, you’ll find an assortment of paintings that include blue Haetae, a pair of white elephants, and various Bicheon (Flying Heavenly Deities) flying around.
If you have the time, I recommend visiting the museum at Yongmunsa Temple. It houses four Korean Treasure: The Royal Edict of Labor Exemption Issued to Yongmunsa Temple (T #729), Buddhist Painting of Yongmunsa Temple – The Eight Great Events (T #1330), Hanging Painting of Yongmunsa Temple – The Vulture Peak Assembly (T #1445), and Buddhist Painting of Yongmunsa Temple – Thousand Buddhas (T #1644).
How To Get There
From the Yecheon Intercity Bus Terminal, you’ll need to take a direct bus to Yongmunsa Temple. These buses leave seven times a day starting at 6:10 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m. The bus ride from the Yecheon Intercity Bus Terminal to Yongmunsa Temple takes about thirty minutes.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Yongmunsa Temple is one of those major temples in Korea that you’ve probably never heard of before, but you probably should have. There is literally something for everyone at Yongmunsa Temple: history, artwork, and architecture. In total, there is one national treasure and an additional seven Korean treasures. If you haven’t been to this rather remote northern part of Gyeongsangbuk-do, and you love Korean temples, you really should make the effort to explore the lesser known Yongmunsa Temple.