2012 Travel Diary #19: Beopgyesa Temple and those Japanese feng-shui stakes

by Philip Gowman on 16 October, 2012

in Buddhism | Colonial period | Gyeongsangnam-do | Silla Dynasty | Travel diaries

Beopgyesa Temple (법게사) is the highest in Sancheong County and at least the third-highest in Korea. The good people of Sancheong believe that Beopgyesa is the highest temple in South Korea, a claim which is supported by Beopgyesa’s entry on the Cultural Heritage Administration website, where the following text is to be found: “It is located on the highest altitude among the temples in Korea, 1400m above the sea.”

Looking up towards the highest part of Beopgyesa, to the main shrine and the three-storey stone pagoda

Looking up towards the highest part of Beopgyesa, to the main shrine and the three-storey stone pagoda

Korean mountain expert and Goodwill Ambassador for the entire Baekdu-daegan, David Mason, places Manggyeong-sa on Taebaek mountain in Kangwon-do as the highest temple in South Korea, and next according to him comes Myohyang-am, also in Jirisan National Park like Beopgyesa, but over the provincial boundary in Jeolla-do. The latter is a mere hermitage (-am) rather than a temple (-sa) so maybe it doesn’t count. But in email correspondence with me Mason stands behind the claim of Manggyeong-sa to be the highest temple.

Regardless of relative altitude, Beopgyesa needs a visitor to have a strong pair of legs to get up there, and I was glad of the rest when I got there. On a clear day, the views are special, but I could only imagine them, as I was greeted by grey swirling clouds. This added drama and mystery to the place.

Beopgyesa Samcheungseoktap

The view from the top: Beopgyesa Samcheungseoktap (the three-storey stone pagoda) with a shoulder of Chonwangbong in the distance

Beopgyesa does not quite have the precarious location of Jeongchuiam, another temple in Sancheong-gun which clings to the rocks high up on a hillside, but still the location is dramatic. An irregular and steep stone stairway connects the lowest buildings (the administrative area: the kitchen, washing facilities and offices) to the highest (the main shrine), via the guest accommodation in between. Alongside the stairway runs a small stream which is barely a trickle in the dry season but which can turn to a torrent within a couple of hours given a bit of rain.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration website, the temple is said to have been built by a Buddhist Monk, Yeongijosa, in 544 CE. Yeongijosa seems to have been a prolific temple-builder, because the foundation of Daewonsa (548 CE) on the eastern slopes of Jirisan and Hwaeomsa (544 CE) to the southwest are both attributed to him.

The pagoda is the oldest surviving part of the temple

The pagoda is the oldest surviving part of the temple

In common with many Buddhist temples in the area, it suffered in the Japanese invasions at the end of the 16th century and again during the Korean War, and most of the temple buildings are newly constructed. But a plain three-storied pagoda has survived. It stands on a foundation of natural rock, a method of construction which leads to the conclusion that it was built in the early Goryeo period – thus not contemporaneous with the temple’s original foundation, but still the oldest part of it which remains.

Each body and roof stone consists of a single stone and wide corner pillars are carved on the bodies. Each roof stone is rather thick and has a three-stepped cornice under it. On the ornamental top, the shell-shaped stone is laid but it seemed to be made later. Using natural rock as the foundation of the pagoda was popular after the Silla Dynasty. (says the Cultural Heritage Administration website).

This simple stone pagoda, officially called Beopgyesa Samcheungseoktap, is Treasure No 473 in the Cultural Heritage Administration’s system. It is at the top level of the temple, close to the main sanctuary, and from which there are views through the clouds to another shoulder of Jirisan’s Cheonwangbong peak.

One of the many Japanese pins driven into the Baekdu-daegan

One of the many Japanese pins driven into the Baekdu-daegan. This one was found on Jirisan near Beopgyesa and is on show at the temple

At the lower levels of the temple, outside the administrative area beside the stairway, is a memory of Japanese colonial times: a meter-long steel pin which had been driven deep into the rocks of Jirisan. Controversy surrounds the exact purpose of these pins. Many believe that they were placed purposely by the Japanese to disrupt the gi, the geomantic energy, of the Korean peninsula. And Jirisan, being the southernmost extremity of the Baekdu-daegan, Korea’s mountain backbone, has one of the strongest concentrations of gi in Korea.

But some observers suspect a less sinister and mysterious purpose, namely that the Japanese used them simply to assist with a geological survey.

Bearing in mind the many different ways in which the Japanese aimed to break the Korean spirit during the course of the colonial occupation (of which more will be heard later in this travel account), I’m inclined to believe the more malign interpretation, though no direct documentary evidence for this has yet come to light. Nevertheless, the Chosun Ilbo has a photograph of Japanese soldiers, together with what appears to be a shaman-like figure, taking part in some form of ceremony in front of one of these metal spike on Baekdusan – the northernmost extremity of the Baekdu-daegan. This does not seem to be a photograph of a geological expedition.

A Japanese ceremony on the top of Baekdusan

A Japanese ceremony on the top of Baekdusan which seems to involve a metal spike similar to one found near Beopgyesa (source: Chosun Ilbo)

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