▲ Buddhist monks endured the suppression of their religion for hundreds of years, many on Jeju hid in the mountain around the Gwaneumsa area during their persecution. Gwaneumsa temple now plays a significant role in the island’s Jogye Order of Buddhism. Photos by Colleen Hyde
Gwaneumsa Temple is the oldest temple site on Jeju Island. The temple is located just south of Jeju City, tucked on the slopes of Mt. Halla, and lends its name to the Gwaneumsa hiking trail. This large mountain temple is as picturesque as it is historic.
Gwaneumsa is the head temple of the Jogye Order for Jeju Island. The Jogye Order is the largest Buddhist order in Korea and is very traditional. Jogye Buddhism follows the Seon (Zen) tradition. Monks (known in Korean by the title Sunim) wear simple grey clothing for everyday tasks and more formal grey robes with maroon layers for rituals. Both male and female monks shave their heads and adhere to Buddhist principles. Monks in the Jogye Order remain unmarried, have few worldly goods and refrain from eating meat. Each temple is populated with either male or female monks and the monks at Gwaneumsa are all men. They lead simple contemplative lives, but they are also happy to open their temple and share their daily lives and rituals with lay Buddhists and other visitors.
Encountering the temple monks and watching rituals is a highlight for any visitor. But the buildings and natural setting of Gwaneumsa are just as interesting as its inhabitants. Set on the slopes of Mt. Halla, the temple is surrounded by natural beauty. Gwaneumsa temple was refounded in 1905 and buildings were rebuilt on its ancient site in the early 1900s. Although the dates are modern, today’s Gwaneumsa temple definitely retains an ancient atmosphere and the buildings are all in the traditional style.
Visitors to Gwaneumsa are greeted by a giant Buddha statue at the temple entrance. This statue was added in 2008, but is surrounded by much older small guardian statues holding swords and other weapons. The impressive statue is just a taste of things to come.
The long, stately path uphill to the main buildings is one of the highlights of a visit to Gwaneumsa. After passing through the first gate, the stone path is lined with hundreds of seated Buddha statues; all identical except for their varied gestures. Halfway up the path is another gate to pass through, which contains statues of the four Heavenly Kings common to most temples. These fearsome Kings stand as guardians of the temple. Leaving the gate, the path continues with more lines of statues and just before the main buildings there is a small cave-shrine to the right of the trail.
The first sight at the main complex is a stone pagoda beside a small reflecting pond. Stop at a bench beside the pond to enjoy the tranquil scene and have a moment of quiet contemplation, before continuing to the main buildings. The temple’s shrines are richly decorated, and it is possible to catch monks performing Buddhist rituals throughout the day. To the left of the main courtyard, and above the bell and drum pavilion, is another large Buddha statue. The statue is in front of a large natural amphitheatre which is carved into the hill, and hundreds of small Buddha statues are seated around the towering statue. Spend time relaxing around the temple complex and enjoying the peace of the setting.
The temple is both a major tourist attraction and a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. It is also a working temple with monks in grey going about their daily lives. Various festivals also take place throughout the year, including the big Buddha’s Birthday celebration in the spring. For Buddha’s Birthday the temple is decked out for months with strings of colorful lanterns, and welcomes thousands of visitors.
Gwaneumsa Temple is a beautiful quiet place for meditation but it also retains scars of a modern tragedy. The temple’s history includes Jeju’s April Third Uprising, also known as “Sa-sam”. Jeju residents, including many women and children, were forced to leave their villages and hide from government troops on the slopes of Mt. Halla. Many tried to survive in the Gwaneumsa area but eventually died of starvation or cold. Some of the simple structures used for shelter can be seen near the middle gate to the temple, to the right of the path. Visitors can view the building remains and imagine the hardships of trying to survive on the mountain in hiding.
Gwaneumsa Temple is a great mountain temple on Jeju’s Mt. Halla. The temple is packed with a long history, beautiful buildings and is blessed with amazing artwork inside and out. Gwaneumsa Temple is located on the northern slope of Mt. Halla, just south of Jeju City. Nearby attractions include the Gwaneumsa hiking trail and Gwaneumsa campground, located to the west of the temple.
For more information about Gwaneumsa call 064 722 2829. Gwaneumsa is also a member of Korea’s Templestay Program, for more information, visit http://eng.templestay.com/.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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