Bulhoesa Temple is located in Naju, Jeollanam-do to the south of Mt. Deongnyongsan (376.4 m), and it’s said to have been established in the late 4th century, although the exact date is uncertain. One legend states that it was founded in 384 A.D. by the famed Indian monk Marananta, who introduced Buddhism to the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.). Another legend states that the temple was founded in 367 A.D. and rebuilt in 713 A.D.
The temple was renamed to Bulhosa Temple in 1530, according to documents. Later, in 1798, a fire completely destroyed the temple, which was then rebuilt in 1808. It’s also said that the temple was renamed from Bulhosa Temple to Bulhoesa Temple around the time of its reconstruction in 1808. The temple would then suffer further damage during the Korean War (1950-1953). The temple was then rebuilt over a twenty-five year period starting in 1991.
There are two legends associated with the temple. According to one legend, there was a monk named Seyeom (? – 1415), who was living at Bulhoesa Temple, when he accidentally met a tiger. Seyeom saved the tiger’s life by pulling out an ornamental hairpin that was stuck in the tiger’s neck. To express its gratitude, the tiger presented the monk with a maiden, whom it had carried in its mouth to the temple courtyard. However, the monk knew that this maiden was a daughter of the Kim clan that lived in Andong, so Seyeom brought her back to her home. The Kim clan then repaid the monk, because they were so appreciative, by providing Seyeom the funds he needed to expand the temple.
The other temple legend is also connected to the monk Seyeom. During the temple’s expansion, an auspicious day had been chosen for the performance of a good luck ritual. But on the day of the ritual, preparations were delayed. So there simply wasn’t enough time for the ritual to be performed before the sun set. So Seyeom went to the top of a rock on the neighbouring mountain and prayed to the sun for more time. Thanks to these prayers, the sun agreed and stayed in the sky for the ritual to be successfully held before the sunset. It’s said that a hermitage was named Ilbongam Hermitage, which means “Sealing up the Sun Hermitage” in English. This hermitage was built to commemorate the spot upon which Seyeom prayed.
You first approach Bulhoesa Temple up a long valley. Past the expansive Iljumun Gate at the entry, you’ll find a pair of stupas to your left. The first is an ancient stupa that’s joined by a modern stupa with beautiful dragon designs around its body and four dragon heads holding up a wisdom pearl that crowns the top of the stupa. This stupa is fronted by a tortoise-based stele.
A little further up the valley, and you’ll next come to the Stone Guardian Post of Bulhoesa Temple, which are classified by the Korean government as National Folklore Cultural Heritage #11. This pair of Stone Guardian Posts are some three hundred metres away from the main temple courtyard, and they are believed to date back to 1719. Traditionally, these guardians were either made from stone or wood, and they were used to denote the temple’s boundaries and/or to ward off evil spirits. Specifically, these two Stone Guardian Posts are distinctively male and female. The Stone Guardian Post to your right is male with its deeply carved lines, a goatee, and a hair knot on top of its head. Its upper canine teeth are sticking out the corner of its mouth and it has the inscription Hawondang Janggun (General Hawondang) on its body. The female Stone Guardian Post on the left, on the other hand, is more gentle in its composition. Its lines are shallower, and it has a smiling face. On its body, there’s the inscription Ju Janggun, which was originally Sangwonju Janggun (General Sangwonju). Both posts have big round eyes and short, stubby noses.
Further up the valley, and you’ll come to a tortoise based stele in a clearing with a pair of older steles on the neighbouring hillside. It’s past this clearing and steles, and to your right, that you’ll finally come to the main temple grounds at Bulhoesa Temple. A stream flows to the south of the temple grounds and under the Jinyeomun Gate, which is reminiscent of a smaller version of the front facade found at Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do.
Across the bridge that spans the tiny stream, and past the pair of vibrant Vajra Warriors adorning each of the entry doors on the Jinyeomun Gate, you’ll enter into the Sacheonwangmun Gate. Housed inside the Sacheonwangmun Gate are four, two metre tall paintings dedicated to the Four Heavenly Kings. This Sacheonwangmun Gate’s exterior are adorned with various murals depicting the initial construction of the temple, as well as murals that depict the temple legends.
Past the Sacheonwangmun Gate, and into a clearing, you’ll now face the two-story Daeyang-ru Pavilion. An expanded lecture hall rests on the second floor of this structure, while the first floor acts as an entry gate to the main temple courtyard at Bulhoesa Temple. To the left of the Daeyang-ru Pavilion stands the Jong-gak (Bell Pavilion) at Bulhoesa Temple. Housed inside the Jong-gak Pavilion are the four traditional Buddhist percussion instruments. Of note is the large gold coloured bronze bell that hangs in the middle of the pavilion.
Passing under the Daeyang-ru Pavillion, and entering into the expansive main temple courtyard, you’ll see the historic Daeung-jeon Hall standing in front of you. The Daeung-jeon Hall dates back to the latter portion of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and it’s Korean Treasure #1310. In fact, the Daeung-jeon Hall is believed to have been renovated, according to a Sangnyangmun (piece of remarks written on a ridge beam of a newly built building) inside the main hall, in 1799. The exterior walls are beautifully adorned with vibrant dancheong colours that cover the intricate woodwork that occupies the eaves of the Daeung-jeon Hall at Bulhoesa Temple. In total, there are four fierce-looking dragons that take up residence on each of the four corners of the eaves. And two, no less intimidating, dragons hang above the entry at the Daeung-jeon Hall.
As for the interior of the Daeung-jeon Hall, and resting upon the main altar, you’ll find a triad of statues centred by the image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This statue is officially known as the Dry-lacquered Seated Vairocana Buddha of Bulhoesa Temple, and it’s Korean Treasure #1545. This statue dates back to between the late Goryeo (918-1392) and early Joseon Dynasty. It was made using the dry-lacquered method. It is one of the earliest known images of “The Knowledge Fist” mudra in Korea where the hands of the mudra were changed. Originally, and during the Later Silla (668-935 A.D.) and early Goryeo Dynasty, the mudra had the right hand clasp the left hand’s index finger. But from the latter portion of the Goryeo Dynasty, this changed, and the hands changed. This statue is an early example of this change.
Accompanying the central Birojana-bul statue are a pair of Bodhisattvas. These Bodhisattvas are of Bohyeon-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power) and Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). They were made using the same dry-lacquered technique, and they are both believed to date back to the 15th century. They both wear regal crowns, their bodies are quite large in comparison to their heads, and both of their bellies stick out. They are Jeollanam-do Tangible Cultural Heritage #267. The rest of the interior of the Daeung-jeon Hall are filled with older murals that depict the twenty-two sects found in Buddhism. Also, there’s a large Shinjung Taenghwa (Guardian Mural) to the right and a shrine for the dead on the left wall.
To the right of the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find the Myeongbu-jeon Hall. The exterior walls are adorned with simplistic murals like the mother tiger with her cub. Stepping inside the equally ornate exterior filled with vibrant dancheong colours, you’ll find a golden capped statue of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) inside. This central image is joined on both sides by ten statues of the Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld).
To the left of the Daeung-jeon Hall, you’ll find a collection of three temple shrine halls and a large, mature carnelian tree with pink flowers on it during the summer months. The first, and closest of the three temple shrine halls, is the Samseong-gak Hall. Housed inside this shaman shrine hall are three paintings dedicated to the central image of Chilseong (The Seven Stars). This painting is joined by an older image dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) to the right and a bulging-eyed image dedicated Yongwang (The Dragon King) to the left.
The other two temple shrine halls in this area are the Nahan-jeon Hall and the Geukrak-jeon Hall. Housed inside the Nahan-jeon Hall is a central image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) joined by the sixteen Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). Of note, and rather interestingly, during excavation work conducted in 1994 around the Daeung-jeon Hall, there were statues of the Nahan discovered. These statues are presumed to date back to around the end of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) to the start of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). However, the Nahan housed inside the Nahan-jeon Hall aren’t these historic Nahan found during excavation.
How To Get There
To get to Bulhoesa Temple, you’ll first need to board Bus #403 from the Naju Bus Terminal. The bus ride will last fifty-three stops, or an hour and ten minutes. You’ll need to get off at the “Useong Mokjang – 우성 목장” bus stop. From where the bus lets you off, you’ll need to walk about twenty-five to thirty minutes, or two kilometres, to get to Bulhoesa Temple.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Bulhoesa Temple in Naju, Jeollanam-do is one of the rarer temples to be home to two Korean Treasures and one National Folklore Cultural Heritage. The Stone Guardian Posts are both terrifying and beautiful all in the same breath. And both the Daeung-jeon Hall and the triad housed inside it are just simply stunning with their vibrant colours and masterful craftsmanship. In addition to these Korean Treasures, have a look for the beautiful entry gates and pavilions, as well as the handful of temple shrine halls that can be explored at Bulhoesa Temple. This remote temple is definitely a treat!