ESSAY: Traveling to Seonunsa Temple on 9/24/2017

“Traveling to Seonunsa Temple on 9/24/2017”
by Maija Rhee Devine (이매자)

Even before a couple dozen of us arrived at Seonunsa Temple, after a four-hour ride south of Seoul, I savored the music playing among the place names of where the temple is located—Dosolsan, Sam-on-ri, Ah-san-meun, Gochang-gun, Cholla Bukdo, North Cholla Province.
This essay includes stories about the Seonunsa Temple as well as those about Buddhism and its temples in general. For example, would you know how to count the number of the tiers of Buddhist pagodas and how the numbering system reflects the principles of feng shui, an offshoot of the Yin-and-Yang-and-Five-Elements philosophy, which in turns derived from Taoism? I will get to points like that.

As expected in September, it was a day of chon-go-mah-be (the “high sky season when horses fatten.” The legend surrounding the founding of the temple tells a story befitting the olden times when “tigers smoked.” During the reign of King Weeduk of Baekje Kingdom (18 BC-678AD), in 577 A.D., Gum-dan, a Buddhist monk intent on clearing the land to build a temple, chased away a dragon living in a lake and threw rocks into the water. Suddenly, a devastating eye disease hit the villagers. When they brought straw sacks full of charcoal and dumped them into the lake to help the monk fill the lake, their eye disease vanished. Inspired, villagers piled on more and more bags of charcoal until the lake was filled. On that site, Master Gum-dan built the Seonunsa Temple and named it Seonun (Spirit-Cloud), stressing that from such a mysterious terrane, one must sharpen the knife of one’s soul to reach Buddhahood. Gum-dan also led the villagers to a way of earning their living--by culling salt from nearby ocean. Grateful, villagers made offerings of salt (bo-eun yum) each fall and named their hamlet Gum-dan-ri after him.

The Master may have had clouds in mind, but the temple and the paths by a clear brook and meadows are covered with Tango-dancers’-lip-red Sangsa Wha (the Love-Sickness Flower), so named because the leaves flourish in winter and spring, and a massive number of flowers burst and form red carpets in the fall, where they never meet the leaves.

During the century of expansion under Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-935 A.D.), Seonunsa included 89 amja small temples and 189 yo-sah structures spread over large areas of mountains and hills. However, during Japanese invasion in 1597, much was burned. Only a dozen structures remain, including a seven-story pagoda.

After the viewing of  the stone monuments to the Buddhist Enlightened Ones in the Budo Field, including the great Zen (Seon) master Baekpa’s (1767-1852), with inscription showing the calligraphy of renowned Chusa Kim Jeong-hui, we proceeded through the Il-joo Gate (the One-Pillar Gate). It’s hard to imagine gates standing on one pillar, but regardless of the number of pillars, the first gate to a temple is called One-Pillar Gate. It comes from the side view of two pillars looking like one. Such naming seems to correspond to the uniqueness of the Buddhist philosophy of life, death, and salvation. By passing through the One-Pillar Gate, we leave behind worldly focuses, which include five desires (for wealth, fame, eating, sleeping, and sex) and seven emotions (joy, anger, sadness, feeling of pleasure, loathing, fear, and love). None of us, however, left behind our desire to eat bibimbop and kimchi. At lunch after the tour, we devoured the rice-egg-and-vegetable dish, and some of us might have qualified as gluttons in Buddhist view as we savored local blue berry wine and makkoli as well.
We then passed through the shrine of Four Guardian Spirits, each representing four directions they guard against evil. The South Guardian (with a closed mouth) holds a yeo-ui-joo, jewel. The East Guardian (with an open mouth) wields a sword. The North Guardian carries a bepah musical instrument while the West Guardian stands with a three-pronged spear.

After this, we visited the Main Worship Hall and a dozen smaller halls at our own pace, and focused on the aspects of structures, external wall arts, etc., of our individual interests. One of my pursuits during this free-roaming time was viewing paintings done on exterior walls or eaves of worship and prayer halls. I was particularly interested in finding a shimwoo-do (a painting of a boy riding an ox). It is an eight-panel series that lead viewers through the progress the boy (representing humans) makes in disciplining the ox (our nature) (Photo #1).

The ox is dark colored at the beginning, but gradually attains white hue, showing the journey’s evolution from desire-and-emotion-laden human nature to having all those burned off and attaining Enlightenment. I saw numerous paintings done both on interior and exterior walls of a dozen worship and prayer halls, but not the boy-and-the-ox. I did view in the Pal-sang-jeon and appreciated the beauty of brilliant colors and artistry on an eight-panel pal-sang images of Buddha’s spiritual journey from his “ox-nature” to Enlightenment. Different temples displayed different paintings. So, my pursuit for the boy-and-an-ox artwork continues.

One exterior wall art depicted student monks sitting on the floor of a Lecture Hall and being taught Buddha’s teachings. One of the students seemed to be receiving a caning by a master for dozing. A bamboo stick in the hand of a master tipped the student’s body to a point of nearly falling. (Photo #2)

The Great Worship Halls, Dae Ung Jeon, of temples are named after the main Buddha figure shrined in the Hall. A larger temple generally houses three Buddha figures—the Great Buddha, Kwoneum, the Buddha of Mercy, and Mireuk, the Buddha of the Future. Seonunsa being one of the largest temples from Korea’s Three Kingdom Period (57 B.C.-676 A.D.), its Great Worship Hall is National Treasure #290 and presents three Buddha figures. Hundreds of paper notes bearing the names of dead worshippers being prayed for to enter heaven (suhbang-guk, the Heaven in the West) hang from the ceiling. The usual paintings of lotus blossoms, statues and images of various luminaries including, bodhisattvas who could have entered heaven but who delayed it in order to stay in hell and help the condemned-to-hell to go to heaven offered inspiration as well as a visual feast.

In the courtyard of the Great Worship Hall stands a pagoda. According to one instruction on how to count the number of tiers, this was a seven-story one. The odd number explains how Buddhists followed certain feng shui principles.

Syncretism, borrowing from other religions and philosophies, was widespread in Korea and elsewhere in Asia. Thus, Buddhists chose odd numbers for the tiers of pagodas in order to achieve a feng-shui-based balance of the yin and yang. The yin feminine and negative force ruling the lowest level of the pagoda where ashes of master monks are stored is counter-balanced by the odd number of tiers, the odd number representing the yang (masculine and positive) element. However, another source described this pagoda as six-tiered. Apparently, counting of the tiers is not as easy as it sounds.
If the founding members of Seonunsa heeded feng shui advice, they didn’t do so in choosing the site of the Great Worship Hall or other major structures. This reflects the Buddhist belief that the location of prayers and meditation did not need to be special. The depth of meditation and continuously grueling process of hammering to death one’s bovine nature would achieve godly nature and attract the qi concentrated in mountains.

Finally, on the question of the hair style of Buddha images—why do they show tightly curled hair and not a shaven head as is common with monks? One theory traces the curly hair to the founder of Buddhism, Prince Siddhartha Gautma. He had an Indian Aryan heritage that features a sharp nose, deep-set eyes, and curly hair. Another theory credits the instruction manual listing 72 identifying characteristics Buddha images must exhibit.

Outside the temple grounds, rows of stalls of souvenirs and hot teas beckoned us. At one of the tea stalls, we met Do-oh, one of the Seonunsa Temple staff monks. He gifted to us two talismans he drew himself. One keeps the owner from traffic accidents (Photo #3).

The other keeps the carrier of the charm in exuberant health. They are similar to those produced by fortune tellers and shamans. Once again, a Buddhist monk’s good luck charms seem to verify the synchronism practiced by followers of different religions and philosophies.
After we left the magnificent Seonunsa, we visited the over-100-year-old workshop of Mr. Ahn Si Sung, a master potter of onggi a 40-minute ride away on Onggigamagil, Backsan-meon, Gimje City. This was an area where Catholics hid during persecutions in the 19th century. They made large onngi pots. A section of the roof of Mr. Ahn’s tunnel-style kiln recently collapsed, necessitating him to use a smaller kiln, which was still a couple of yards long and takes 18 hours of firing to 1200 Celsius followed by cooling.

The damaged one took 4-5 days. Mr. Ahn, the current exponent of National cultural asset 403 (the onggi kiln of Bugeori village), greeted us with a winning smile and immediately placed himself by his wheel and sliced a chunk of clay from a two-feet-tall tubular block. He slapped it on the floor, cut it in half and slapped the pieces again and again to flatten, elongate, and get air bubbles of the clay.

Then, he cut slabs and began joining them by pinching. In no time, a two-feet-tall pot came alive. When asked why he became an onggi master, he flashed a boyish smile and recounted an onggi-making demonstration he watched and how that moment changed his life. He wanted to dedicate himself to the creation and preservation of the art of ongii making. What are the benefits of ongii pots? The ash mixture used as glaze applied to onggi clay allows the clay to remain porous and to “breathe,” letting harmful air out but allowing oxygen in. The oxygen acts as a catalyst for healthy fermenting process—as occurs in kimchi jars buried underground in the winter. The fermentation occurring in onggi containers produce bacteria beneficial to humans (like cancer-fighting agents) at a faster rate than inside ceramic containers. Videos on onggi making and benefits are at (,
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Tea and snacks of songpyon rice cakes, slices of figs, and grape tomatoes arranged on Colombian-coffee-bean-hued onggi platters awaited us in the display area. While we feasted on the tea, fruit, and rice cake, some of us succumbed to the desire to own a few of the master potter’s creations, and we left his studio as proud owners of rare treasures. Our expert driver led us through four hours of traffic back to Shinyongsan Station, the starting point for this and many more excursions that help broaden our views and minds, as we embrace other cultures and peoples and seek to understand their struggles with five desires and seven emotions.

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