2016 travel diary 22: Daeheungsa and the righteous armies

Gurim-ri, Samsan-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do, 19 May 2016, 6:00pm

After our pleasant visit to Iljiam, we walk back down the hill to Daeheungsa, the mother temple, hoping to be there for the eventide ringing of the temple bell before retiring to our lodge at the temple’s entrance.

The view of Mt Duryusan as you enter the main temple courtyard
The view of Mt Duryusan as you enter the main temple courtyard through the Haetalmun entrance gate

Daeheungsa (대흥사) is said to date back to the time of Seong, the king of Baekje who moved his capital from Ungjin (Gongju) to Sabi (Buyeo) in 538, and who made Buddhism Baekje’s state religion. The temple is significant enough to be included in South Korea’s tentative listing of Traditional Buddhist Mountain Temples at UNESCO (edit: and included in the official World Heritage listing in 2018), and is thus in the company of other distinguished temples such as Tongdosa near Busan and Seonamsa near Suncheon. The temple is said to be particularly beautiful in the autumn, when the leaves on Mt Duryunsan which cradles it turn their spectacular colours.

As with many sites that were on my itinerary this year, I did not earmark enough time for its exploration as it was not among the prime objectives of my visit. With Daeheungsa, my objective was the small hermitage, Iljiam, where Choui had spent so much of his life. Nevertheless, Daeheungsa is well worth a visit in its own right. Dale Quarrington, the tireless explorer of Dale’s Temple Adventures, has included it on his itinerary and has documented the main buildings well, with some great photographs of the interior of some of the worship halls, particularly the shrine of the 1,000 Buddhas (the Cheonbuljeon). His focus though is on the temple’s main buildings rather than the people associated with them or the hermitages up in the mountains. Maybe, like me, he was short of time. Ideally, I would spend a whole day at Daeheungsa and its environs, taking my time walking the various hiking trails on Mt Duryusan, and hopefully arriving at Iljiam when the resident monk is not beset by a TV crew.

Another hermitage in the vicinity is equally worthy of note: North Mireugam, which is where you can find National Treasure No 308 – a seated Buddha that was carved onto the rockface in the early Goryeo period. The three storey stone pagoda at the hermitage also is considered important enough to be designated Treasure No 301.

Daeheungsa map

Down in the main temple itself, the layout is unusual in that the buildings are divided into two areas separated by the stream – the Geumdangcheon – which you encounter as you walk up the valley from the main car park. To the north of the stream the temple feels more enclosed, intimate and prayerful. It is here that you will find the main worship hall (the Daeungbojeon – literally, the Great Hero Treasure-Hall) dominating one side of a small secluded courtyard which you enter through an entrance gateway after crossing a small granite bridge over the stream. As you enter the courtyard, your attention is grabbed by the intimacy of the space and the beauty of the Daeungbojeon in front of you, and you do not realise that you have passed underneath the temple drum which is situated in the upper storey of the entrance building. The drum, around two metres in diameter, is suspended from the roof on giant straps and is an integral part of the daily cycle of prayer.

The Daeungbojeon
The Daeungbojeon

We had returned to the main temple from our walk up to Iljiam, and were happily ambling around the courtyards as the afternoon was gradually turning to evening. At around 6:20 we were lucky enough to be standing in front of the Daeungbojeon just as a grey-robed monk climbed the stairs to approach the drum and started performing.

When you see drumming troupes performing live on stage – including those that are performing a style of drumming inspired by Buddhist temple practice – it is all very theatrical. The drummer is likely stripped to the waist, revealing a perfectly sculpted torso. Maybe he will crouch down as he strikes the drum. There will be yelling, maybe a bit of leaping about – anything to add to the drama of the performance. Even at Seoul’s Giweonjeongsa on Buddha’s birthday a few days previously, the drumming performance by the Japanese monks the emphasis had been on entertainment, with the main drummer’s upper body covered only by a loose-fitting tabard leaving his arms bare and plenty of room for ventilation.

At Daeheungsa, this solitary monk remained fully robed. As the drumsticks whirred in all directions, an effect accentuated by the long flowing sleeves of his robe, his body remained erect and perfectly still. His head, at the centre of the circular storm being conjured up by his arms, was unmoving and peaceful. As the thunderous sound of the drum faded into the distance, the evocative sound of the moktaks and sutra chanting emerged from the prayer hall.

The performance had been an unexpected and vivid experience, and somehow, as the sound of the evening prayers floated around the temple, the physical buildings themselves did not seem so important any more. Perhaps we had already overloaded on physical sights for one day. We wandered around the temple, drinking in the sounds of prayer and breathing in the early evening stillness, saying nothing to each other, each content with our own thoughts or maybe even trying to empty the mind of any thoughts at all. Much of what follows is therefore reconstructed from from the few photographs that I took (almost on autopilot), interpreted with the assistance of Dale Quarrington’s and the Cultural Heritage Administration website.

So, before leaving the intimate northern section of the temple, I should note that to the right of the Daeungbojeon is the Eungjinjeon hall which according to Quarrington is divided in two: the room on the left houses statues of the 16 Nahan while the one on the right boasts particularly fine paintings of Dokseong (The Recluse) and Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). In front of the Eungjinjeon is a three-storey stone pagoda (Treasure No 320) which enshrines a sarira of Sakyamuni Buddha that was brough back from China by the Silla monk Jajang. The pagoda itself dates from the ninth century. The courtyard is graced with elegant calligraphy: the signboard for the Daeungbojeon is by Wongyo Lee Gwangsa (1705-1777), while that for the Muryangsugak, to the left of the Daeungbojeon, is by Chusa Kim Jeonghui (1786-1856) and for the Baekseoldang dormitory by Kim Seonggeun (1835-1919).

The portrait of Seosan Daesa, also known as Hyujeong, inside the Pyochungsa
The first building is the entrance to the small courtyard which is the home of the Cheonbuljeon

On the south side of the stream the temple’s feeling is more spacious, though tucked away in a small courtyard somewhere (which shamefully we managed to miss) is the Cheonbuljeon, the main dharma hall of the southern section of the temple. “Art historians generally agree that Daeheungsa’s Cheonbuljeon Hall (천불전) is one of the most important works of its kind remaining today, historically and architecturally,” says the Cultural Heritage Administration, who have it designated as Treasure No 1807. The interior woodwork supporting the roof is particularly ornate, under which sit the 1,000 yellow-robed stone Buddha statuettes. The building’s most recent renovation was in 1813 but it looks and feels timeless. The 1813 restoration is documented in detail in a 1821 record written by the monk Punggye Hyeonjeong with the evocative title of Ilbon pyohaerok (Record of Drifting at Sea in Japan), a reference to the story of the 1,000 statuettes. Apparently they were made in Gyeongju and were sent to Haenam-gun by sea, but on the way a storm drove the ship to Japan. The Japanese were persuaded to send the cargo onwards to its destination when they were visited in a dream by the tiny Buddhas.

Inside the Cheonbuljeon
Inside the Cheonbuljeon (photo: www.daeheungsa.co.kr)

Outside the courtyard which houses the Cheonbuljeon we are in the main open space which you enter when you walk through the entrance gateway at the westernmost end of the temple grounds. The temple bell is on the north side of this wide open space, and next to its pavilion there are two ancient trees with their roots touchingly intertwined.

Somewhere in the temple is Treasure #88, a bell which according to the Cultural Heritage Administration is “one of the most valuable cultural assets of the Goryeo Dynasty”  – clearly too precious to be rung every day.

On the southern side of the space is a picturesque lily pond shaded by an ancient-looking tree. A small way southwards behind the pond is a small enclosure containing a statue, surrounded by a low stone wall. Thankfully, Insoon has both sharp eyes and enough knowledge of Chinese characters to tell me who the statue is.

The statue of Choui in Daeheungsa
The statue of Choui in Daeheungsa

It is Choui himself, sitting cross-legged on a pedestal, a bowl in front of him, with prayer beads in his left hand while he braces himself with his right hand leaning on his stick and gazing into the distance. Towards the end of his life he lost his sight, and in Yi Chong-jun’s The Rebirth of Words the main character imagines Choui sitting up in Iljiam looking sightlessly over the valley below, making his precious tea by the feeling in his fingers alone.

The portrait of Seosan Daesa, also known as Hyujeong, inside the Pyochungsa
The portrait of Seosan Daesa, also known as Hyujeong, inside the Pyochungsa

But Choui (1786–1866) is not the only famous resident of Daeheungsa. Behind this small enclosure, as you walk around the temple to the path that leads up to Iljiam, is the Pyochungsa, a shrine which commemorates three monks, the great monk Seosan himself pictured in the centre of the hall, together with his followers Samyeongdang Yujeong and Noemukdang Cheoyeong, who together led the volunteer monk armies during the Japanese invasions of 1592-98.

The Pyochungsa, with its calligraphy by King Jeongjo
The Pyochungsa, with its calligraphy by King Jeongjo

The shrine was built in 1788 and is distinguished for the royal calligraphy above the door: King Jeongjo himself bestowed the hand-written signboard to the temple. The shrine was moved to a different part of the temple in 1836, but moved back to its original site in 1860, when Choui wrote an inscription commemorating the installation of the roof’s ridge-beam.

The stele to monk Seosan
The stele to monk Seosan, together with a stele commemorating the erection of the Pyochungsa

In the precincts of the Pyochungsa is a stele dedicated to Seosan. Little is known of his history, or indeed his military experience, prior to 1592, but he was appointed Paldo Seongyo Daechongseop (Great General Commander of the Monk Armies of the Eight Provinces) – leader of the Righteous Armies made up of Buddhist Monks. A letter from King Seonjo (r 1567–1608) to this effect is preserved in the Daeheungsa archives. The original letter was destroyed during the war, but it was reissued in 1602 to confirm the appointment. Seosan would have been still alive to have his appointment retrospectively reconfirmed. He died two years later at the (Korean) age of 85. He was (Korean) age 73 when he was appointed leader, and in modern day recognition of his achievements a set of Taekwondo moves has been named after him. The Seo-san is made up of 72 individual movements (72 being his Western age on appointment) and is the longest named composite movement in the art. He also achieved recognition in the 18th Century, when King Jeongjo personally wrote a letter to Daeheungsa temple praising Seosan’s dedication to duty, on the occasion of the unveiling a portrait of Seosan in 1794.

Seosan’s armies were headquartered in Heungguksa, in modern Yeosu-si, close to the area of operation of Yi Sun-shin’s fleet.

A sample of Seosan's calligraphy from the Sayings of the Four Masters
A sample of Seosan’s calligraphy from the Sayings of the Four Masters (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

Also preserved in the Daeheungsa archives is the Sadaesaeo (Sayings of the Four Masters) – a compilation of “answers to questions about Zen from four major Zen masters of the Song Dynasty”. The manuscript is written in Seosan’s “free and vivacious” calligraphy style and was considered sufficiently unusual to be included in the list of cultural Treasures relating to Seosan (along with his robe and rice bowl) designated by the Cultural Heritage Administration.

After exploring the Pyochungsa, we sit at a small table outside a tea and gift shop at the edge of the main entrance courtyard, drinking from our bottles of water. We do not need to talk, each happy to sit or wander as the fancy takes us. I find myself walking over to the south side of the yard to enjoy the lily pond again and sit on a nearby stone opposite the temple bell; Insoon walks in almost the opposite direction along the stream that divides the temple in half. In between us was the pavilion housing the temple bell. At this magical moment we are rewarded as a monk enters the pavilion and starts ringing.

There is something supremely evocative about the sound of a temple bell as its echoes resound around the valley at the end of the afternoon. It was the perfect end to a very busy day, and we wandered back down the hill, satisfied and at peace, towards our lodge in search of something to eat. Somewhere among the stupas in the graveyard to the left as we walked down the slope was Treasure #1347, that belonging to Seosan, dating from 1647. But as I hadn’t done my homework I didn’t notice it. Next time.

Treasure No.1347: the stupa of Seosan Daesa
Treasure No.1347: the stupa of Seosan Daesa (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

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