On my trip through South Korea I stayed in Gongju to visit the Gyeryongsan National Park and the Magok-Sa Temple. As I was a bit hard pressed for time I only managed to give the Gongsanseong Fortress and the Royal Tombs of King Muryeong a cursory glance.
Magoksa Temple, which means “Hemp Valley Temple” in English, is located outside the beautiful city of Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do There are two competing stories as to when the temple was actually first built. One states that the temple was first built, during the “Three-Kingdom Perid” by the famed monk Jajang-Yulsa (590-658 A.D.) in 640 A.D. Upon his return from China, Silla’s Queen Seondeok tgave him 200 gyeol (an ancient measurement of land estimated at about 6,800 square meters) of land on which he built a brick pagoda and Magoksa Temple. Incidentally, Jajang-Yulsa is also the very same monk to have built Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Another legend states that the temple was founded by the monk Muyeom (800-888 A.D.) upon his return to the Korean peninsula in 845 A.D. after studying in Tang China.
The name of the temple is also linked to a legend. Apparently, the monk Bocheol-hwasang saw how many people had gathered to listen to the dharma talk at the temple. This reminded the monk of how hemp stalks are typically packed close together, hence the name “Hemp Valley Temple”.
During the turbulent years between the transition from the Silla Dynasty to the Goryeo Dynasty, Magoksa Temple was closed. For nearly 200 years, the temple became a hideout for thieves. It wasn’t until 1172 that Bojo-guksa (1158-1210) drove these criminals from the temple grounds and renovated the temple with the help of his disciple, Su-u. King Sejo of Joseon (r.1455-68) traveled to the temple and personally wrote the plaque for the Yeongsan-jeon Hall. During the Imjin War (1592-98), most of the temple buildings at Magoksa Temple were destroyed. It wasn’t until 1651 that the Daeungbo-jeon Hall, the Yeongsan-jeon Hall, and the Daegwangbo-jeon Hall were rebuilt.
Magoksa Temple is also associated with the independence fighter from the late Joseon Dynasty, Kim Gu (1876-1949). Kim Gu was jailed at Incheon Prison for the murder of a Japanese military officer in 1896. Kim Gu believed that this lieutenant, Tsuchida Josuke, was part of the assassination of Empress Myeongseong. During his imprisonment, Kim Gu was tortured and sentenced to death. In 1898, Kim Gu escaped from prison and fled to Magoksa Temple, where he received the dharma name of Wonjong. He learned under Master Haeundang. Kim Gu stayed at the Baekbeom-dang Hall (Baekbeom being Kim Gu’s pen name). This hall currently displays a picture of the independence fighter. And in front of the Daegwangbo-jeon Hall, there’s a juniper tree that was planted by Kim Gu after Korea was liberated from Japanese Colonial rule (1910-45). This was done as a sign of respect and appreciation. Tragically, Kim Gu was assassinated on June 26, 1949.
Gyeryongsan National Park
One of Korea’s smallest parks, Gyeryongsan means ‘Rooster Dragon Mountain’ because locals thought the mountain resembled a dragon with a rooster’s head. At the western entrance is the temple Gap-sa, while at the eastern entrance you can find the Donghak-Sa, one of Korea’s few nunneries. Although I visited the Park from Gongju, the shortest approach is probably from Daejeon, the journey from the Daejeon bus terminal to the park taking about an hour.
There are several hikes within the park, all less than 10 kilometers in length, with varying degrees of difficulty. All of them are very well signposted and maps are freely available at the Tourist Inofrmation center. There are also three Buddhist temples with over 1,000 years of history: Donghaksa, Gapsa, and Sinwonsa Temples. By stringing together a couple of courses, you can see most of the sites in one day. I started at the Gap-Sa Temple then hiked to the top of Yeoncheongbong (739m), from where I made my way to the peak of Gwaneumgbong (816m) and then proceeded to Sambulbong (775m) before descending again towards the Gap-Sa Temple. I really enjoyed the walk along the ridges between the three peaks, which mainly consists of rocky paths and and stairs.
The Gap-Sa temple is not only the oldest temple in the Gyeryong National Park but also one of the oldest temples in South Korea. It was constructed, during the reign of the Baekje dynasty, in 420 CE, just about 40 years after the arrival of Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula, by a monk called Ado. In 556 CE, just before the conquest of the Baekje Dyansty by the Shilla dynasty, the temple was extended for the first time while a second extension followed in 859 under the reign of the Shilla Dynasty. Like most temples in Korea, the Gap-sa temple was destroyed during the Japanese Invasion (1592-1598 CE). However, by 1604 it had been fully reconstructed and todays structures date backroughly to 1654 CE.