GUINSA TEMPLE or as it is known “Temple of Salvation and Kindness”, is in the YEONHWA area of the SOBAEK MOUNTAINS located near Danyang, South Korea. It is the headquarters of the CHEONTAE SCHOOL of Korean Buddhism. GUINSA is the administrative centre of over 140 sub-temples and hermitages of the sect.
GUINSA, at 70 years, is young for a major religious site. It was founded in the final year of the Japanese Occupation as a “lone hut”, but it quickly became a destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. Now the “towering complex” fills a valley.
Although the architecture of GUINSA follows that of many other Buddhist Temples, in Korea, it is also markedly different in that the structure is several storeys tall, instead of the typical two-storey structures that many other Korean Temples have. This may be due to the restraints of the valley in which it is located and to modern construction techniques, but it creates a visual experience that is both beautiful and unique from what one sees at other temples. The ubiquitous black slate roof tiles, found commonly on Korean Temple, is occasionally replaced by “orange glazed tiles”, reminding one of those seen on the roofs of Beijing’s FORBIDDEN CITY. Some buildings resemble the POTALA PALACE, in Lhasa, with their use of height and vertical lines.
Up to 10,000 monks can live here at any given time, while the kitchen can serve food for twice that number. The Temple operates and maintains a large farm system covering over 60,000pyeong and provides much of the food prepared and consumed at the temple. Massive earthenware pots fill the kitchen courtyard ——-, there is soy sauce, fermented beans and red pepper paste. The monks grow and preserve all their own food, from cabbage to chestnuts. Traditional staples like fermented soy, marinated sesame leaves and kimchi stretch the gaps between harvests. Inside the kitchen, there is a cement horseshoe lined with massive cauldrons. Each holds enough rice for 500 or soup for 3,000. The food is simple vegetarian fare : rice and kimchi, soybean soup and roast potatoes. Sharing food is integral. Food is an expression of community.
Unlike many of Korea’s Temples, GUINSA TEMPLE is fairly new. The Temple is strikingly located squeezed into a narrow valley surrounded on all sides by mountains like the petals of a lotus. Its location was decreed by head monk SANGWOL WONGAK’S interpretation of the LOTUS SUTRA. The original Temple was burned down during the Korean War, but the reconstruction of the first building was completed in 1966 and the complex, which now incorporates over 50 buildings, is still expanding.
GUINSA can only be covered on foot, and its quite a hike uphill from the bus terminal to the top. The area is large and it is best to arrive early and reserve at least a few hours for exploring the complex. The complex consists of 50 buildings, most of them built in modern style from concrete, but with opulent decorations The bus terminal is housed in a temple-style building at the bottom of the valley. Some of the notable structures here are :
(1) The FOUR HEAVENLY KINGS’ GATE, is a two-storey stone structure containing the statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, marking the start of the Temple complex.
(2) The GREAT TEACHER HALL. A shrine erected in memory of SANGWOL WONGAK, a statue of whom can be found inside.
(3) The FIVE-STOREY DHARMA LAW HALL, completed in 1980, is reportedly one of the largest temple buildings in Korea, and like so many other buildings in the Temple complex, is elaborate both in terms of painting and structural design. The 1st and 2nd floors contain meditation halls for the monks. The 3rd and 4th have “shrine rooms” for devotees wishing to offer prayers. The 5th floor contains the huge DHARMA HALL, housing a large gilded altar of the main Buddha SHAKYAMUNI, Supreme Buddha of the present, flanked by his attendants. On the left sits AVALOKITESVARA (BODDHISATVA of Compassion) and on the right side site MAHASTHAMAPRAPTA (BODDHSATVA of Wisdom). A unique THANGKA, behind the Buddha, is a painted raised wood carving.
(4) The CAFETERIA HALL contains the huge kitchen and large temple cafeteria where the contents of the pots are served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
(5) CENTRAL COURTYARD. Check out the huge clay pots located on seemingly every available surface : these are the Temple’s storehouses of kimchi.
(6) The THREE-STOREY STONE PAGODA, located in front of the main sanctuary is a “reliquary” housing the SARIRA of the Buddha brought back from the monastery of the JETAVANA in India. 3 elephants support the base of the Pagoda and these strong, intelligent animals symbolize the Buddha’s Dharma.
Once the largest and most powerful of Korea’s 18 schools, CHEONTAE, gradually lost popularity over the years and disappeared completely for some time, but was re-established in 1945 by SANGWOL WONGAK and now commands a respectable 2million followers. CHEONTAE posits the following mind-bending truths : ** All things are empty and without essential reality. ** All things have a provisional reality. ** All things are both absolutely unreal and provisionally real at once.
GUINSA is well-placed to take full advantage of Korea’s seasons, with warm temperatures, in summer, and heavy snow in winter and is open all year round. However, the most popular time of the year to visit is autumn (Sept.-Nov.), when the mountainsides burst into dramatic fall colours.