I’ll admit, whenever I visit another country, I always seem drawn to places of religious significance. Buildings that exude a sense of the unknown, a subliminal space that is ‘Other’. Regardless of spiritual calling: atheist, agnostic, or otherwise, religious sites can have a profound impact on a person’s outlook and frame of mind, whether temporary or lasting.
In South Korea, from a survey conducted in 2005 (which was sent to individual families around the country), around a quarter of the country identified as Buddhist. A more recent survey, conducted in 2015, showed it had reduced to 15%. However, the 2015 survey relied heavily on the internet and so some of the population without, or unfamiliar with, the internet may have been unable to take part.
Regardless of the technicalities, Buddhism was, and still is, a leading religion in the country. There are plenty of Buddhist temples all across the country, and visiting these has become something of a hobby of mine.
I have compiled a list of my all-time favourite Buddhist temples in Korea for you to take a look at!
1. Jogyesa Temple (조계사), Seoul
Built in the 14th Century, Jogyesa, like many historical buildings in Korea, was once burnt completely to the ground before being rebuilt in 1910 under a new name, Gackhwangsa Temple. In 1936, it became the head temple of Korea’s Buddhism, known as Tegosa Temple. The year 1954 saw the temple purified from Japanese influence and given the name known to us today, Jogyesa Temple.
It is the main temple of the Jogye Order in Seoul and is host to many ceremonies, lectures, and other events each year. Open 365 days a year, this place remains a focal point for Buddhism in Korea.
Jogyesa was one of the first temples I ever visited in Korea, and so it will always hold a special place in my heart. Located close to Insadong’s shopping district and with the presence of modern Seoul (literally and figuratively) pressing in on each side, Jogyesa looks deceptively modest and small on the street front.
Taking the first flight of stairs, you arrive on a small platform decorated with life-size statues and hanging from above, various paper lanterns of alternating shapes, sizes, and colour.
Beyond, a solitary tree stands in the middle of the main temple grounds. Lanterns wrap themselves around the tree, following the weaving shape of the multiple branches.
Depending on the type of year, the outer decorations can drastically change. In May, the month of the Buddha’s birthday, intricate lanterns will be at the main entrance of the temple and an amazing ceiling of multi-coloured lanterns will overhang the temple itself.
In August, beautiful water lilies fill the grounds in tall baskets which you can walk around.
2. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사), Busan
If you want to visit a temple with the ‘wow’ factor, Haedong Yonggungsa is a must-see!
This temple is particularly famous for its placement by the shore line, offering visitors a beautiful view of Busan’s coast. With traditional temple structures, a cave, and a stunning white bridge built on the rocky shore line terrain, it’s not hard to see why people find Haedong Yonggungsa irresistible.
This temple was originally built in 1376, and with some reconstruction work done in 1970, it stands proud today, a striking figure welcoming thousands of tourists each year.
The contrast between the precise edges of the temple, with its intricately colourful paint work, the rugged and sharp outlines of the grey terrain, and the soft luscious blue of the sea makes for a powerful combination! Seeing the temple from afar, with the sea batting its waves against the rocks, makes me feel incredibly tranquil.
As a lover of Korean architecture, particularly Buddhist temples, and someone who also enjoys the ocean and the sound of water, Haedong Yonggungsa is one of those special places I never tire of visiting.
There are multiple levels to the temple, with pathways leading underneath the main temple to the Buddhist Sanctum, down a stairwell which brings you out onto the rocky cliffs which offer an amazing view of the temple, and throughout the main temple buildings themselves.
One day, I will see this temple during the Buddha’s birthday celebrations! Watch this space.
3. Samgwangsa Temple (삼광사), Busan
If you are looking for a temple with a big presence, look no further than Samgwangsa Temple.
Built in 1986, Samgwangsa temple sits in the hillside of Baekyang mountain. And like Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, Samgwangsa Temple in Busan is open 24/7 every day of the year.
My first trip to Samgwangsa Temple was in August 2017. I was showing my parents around Korea and we decided to spend a few days in Busan to explore the beaches, food, and cultural attractions. Given the humidity, we opted to take a taxi to the temple from Buam station. I remember the taxi ride vividly, thinking ‘how far up is this temple?’ and ‘thank goodness we didn’t walk!’ as we continued to ascend the steep hill to the temple.
At the entrance, a tall flight of stone stairs leads to the main temple area, the sides of which are engraved with images of water, flowers, and animals. That’s right – after traversing (by foot or car or flying carpet, whatever your preference) the hill to reach the temple, the hard work doesn’t end there! Taking these stairs will bring you to the main area of the temple. And believe me, it’s completely worth it.
Reaching the top of the stairs, the soft sound of music can be heard, urging visitors to continue on wards. The temple grounds are beautiful and open, with a wide courtyard situated between the main buildings, and a steep pathway leading to another building. Given the location, the sound of birdsong is more prevalent here than in the city centre, and that mixed with the sound of meditation music, leaves visitors feeling incredibly refreshed.
The reason I love this temple so much is that it feels completely separate from the busy city of Busan laying just below it. Compared to the crowded Haedong Yonggungsa, Samgwangsa is very peaceful and quiet.
Again, as with the other temples, the decorations adorning Samgwangsa temple change depending on the month. In August 2017, I was able to view the mass water lilies covering the temple grounds, and in the latter part of May 2018, I was able to see the remaining lanterns from the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations before they were taken down.
The lanterns were beautiful and hung from every corner of the temple grounds! I arrived quite late, so most of the lanterns had already been taken down, and in the photos you will be able to see the metal frameworks from where the lanterns used to hang.
Nevertheless, the remaining lanterns were beautiful. In all shapes, sizes, and colours, it was incredibly fun to wander around and admire them all!
4. Haeinsa Temple (해인사), Hapcheon
Astonishingly, Haeinsa Temple was founded in 802! It feels incredibly fulfilling wandering around historic buildings, and imagining the countless footsteps made by people who have long since passed, and the important figures who have also walked along these paths, and seen the same sights.
The temple became a cultural heritage site in December 1995 and houses many national treasures, including the Tripitaka Koreana (a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto over 80,000 wooden blocks).
Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon was the very first temple I visited in Korea. Located close to my town, I come here every year and reminisce about my early days in Korea, and the wonderful memories I have created here since.
I can remember feeling overwhelmed at the beautiful colours lining the walls, the carvings etched into the roofs and stone, the sound of chimes striking in the wind, and the sight and sound of birds flying overhead. I had experienced nothing like it before.
I would like to do a temple stay here before I eventually leave Korea (Haeinsa Temple offers temple stays only at the weekend, for a one-night or two-night stay on Saturdays and/or Sundays).
Pretty amazing places, right? If you’ve ever visited these temples or have any other temples you’d like to recommend to me, leave a comment!