The First Jewel: A visit to Songgwangsa Temple

Main Temple Building

 

Songgwangsa Temple is known as one of the “Three Jewels of Korean Buddhism” (the other two are  T’ongdo-sa and Haein-sa Temples). Relatively isolated, it is located high up on Mount Songgwangsan and visitors can choose to hike the mountain from the base or take a bus partly or the whole way there. I would encourage the relatively spry to hike at least part of the way, the trek is a natural beauty in itself. Whether you walk or take the bus, it is better to get to the mountain in the morning when the temple is most active.

All along the walk, if you keep a sharp eye out, you can spot ancient inscriptions carved into stone faces or the occasional forgotten tombstone wrapped in vines. Because of the dense tree cover and altitude, even on a hot summer day the temperature at Mount Songgwangsan is much cooler than at the base. There are springs spread out along the trails, too, so visitors may refresh with the cold mountain water and refill canteens. Upon arrival to the main temple area, you are welcomed by a flood of color; blue, green, red, yellow artfully adorn the temple buildings in intricate designs. During the spring and summer seasons, they are accompanied by the pinks and yellows of indigenous flowers.

Soggwangsa Temple one of the oldest active Buddhist temples in South Korea and you can feel the weightiness of its timeless legacy from the moment you step onto the grounds. Built more than 1,000 years ago, the temple site has grown seamlessly into its natural environment with lush green mountains and low-hanging clouds as its backdrop and bridges connecting the main structures of the temple over untouched rivers. During the summer there are fewer monks on the grounds, but those that are there can be spotted performing their daily tasks throughout the temple area. There is a small museum on the grounds (no shoes allowed) where you can see some of the treasures of the temple’s past and read about the history of Korean Buddhism. Because only some English translations are available, doing a bit of research on the area before you go, or hiring a local tour guide would definitely enhance the experience.

If you need to get away from stress of urban life or just want explore a traditional part of South Korea, you must visit Songgwangsa Temple. It will be an unforgettable trip. When you depart Mount Soggwangsan, grab lunch near the base of the mountain where there are some small traditional-style restaurants that serve vegetarian Korean food (in keeping with the Buddhist tradition they do not serve meat). The overall experience may tire you out physically, but it is a truly spiritually and mentally refreshing adventure.

Temple painting7
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