Waking up really, my wife, in-laws and I decided to visit Seokbulsa Temple (석불사) in Busan. It’s only about a 15 minute drive from my in-laws place, and it had been at least six years since I last visited it, so it was an easy decision to make to visit a lesser known, hard to reach, but beautiful Buddhist temple in Busan.
The temple was formerly known as Byeongpungam Hermitage (“Folding Screen Hermitage”) based on the way that all the rock faces are formed like a screen between the folds of the mountain rocks. But guessing, once the rock carvings of the Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, and guardians were etched into the face of the mountain, the name of the temple changed to its present name: Seokbulsa Temple, “Rock Buddha Temple.”
Parking the car a bit down the mountain, we made a 10 minute hike up the side of Mt. Geumjeongsan. But I guess it’s better than the 45 to 60 minute hike up the mountain if you’re walking from the base of the mountain. As you first approach the temple, you’ll first notice the sentry-like bell pavilion at Seokbulsa Temple. To the left, standing under the shade of the bell pavilion, is the old path that worked its way through the forest towards the temple. Along the way you can see a stupa for a deceased monk. And to the right is a locked door with swastikas on it that you used to be able to walk through to gain entrance to the temple. Unfortunately, it now seems to be off bounds. Continuing your way up the side-winding road, you’ll pass through the entrance gate. There are two menacing Nathwi (Monster Masks) staring down at you on either side of the gate. And under the arch of the gate are two beautifully intertwined dragons both chasing pearls into their mouths.
Once you’you’ve enter the asphalt courtyard, you’ll have amazing views of Busan down in the valleys below. And if you look close enough, you can see the Gwangalli bridge to the left side of the cityscape. Looking at the temple grounds, you’ll notice the newer looking bell pavilion that first greeted you to the temple on your walk up. Behind this bell pavilion is a much older, and more moss covered, Dharma Bell and Wooden Fish drum pavilion. To the left, and probably the main reason you came to visit Seokbulsa Temple, are the temple buildings and the 10 metre tall stone sculptures in a U-shaped stone enclave. To the immediate left is the monks’ dorms. Beside it is the two storied stone main hall. On the first level is where the solitary Seokgamoni-bul resides. Above him, on the second floor, are hundreds of small Buddha statues, with Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy) at the main altars centre. On either side of him is Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power). Instead of having any paintings adorning this rock temple hall, there are stone sculptures of dragons and phoenixes with smaller sized Buddha and Bodhisattva statues in the eaves. To the immediate right of the two storied stone main hall is a stone building dedicated to Chilseong (The Seven Stars).
Through a corridor between these two stone temple structures is the U-shaped stone enclave with the numerous and awe-inspiring 10 metre tall stone sculptures sculpted on to the face of a part of Mt. Geumjeongsan. Centred, and the figure that everyone is praying to on their mats, is Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion). To the left are two of the Heavenly Kings. Beside these two Heavenly Kings is an image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). On the right side of the U-Shaped stone enclave are the other two Heavenly Kings. And beside these two, again, is another image of a Buddha. There are numerous little cave shrines littered throughout the face of the mountain. Up the narrow stairs is a shrine hall dedicated to Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit) and Dokseong (The Recluse). On your way up you’ll notice smaller sized sculptures. These 16 smaller sculptures are the 16 Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). To the right of the Sanshin shrine hall is a narrow rock opening. Squeeze your way through to get some more amazing views of the city of Busan down below.
HOW TO GET THERE: As I said from the start, Seokbulsa Temple is neither easy to get to, nor is it easy to find. Use subway line #3 to Mandeok Station. Take exit #2 and walk toward the upper and older tunnel. Then follow the road uphill, past a bevy of motels and restaurants, for about 45 to 60 minutes. Follow the signs along the way that read석불사. Either that or you can use subway line #1 and get off at Oncheonjang Station, and exit through exit #1. You’ll then have to follow the brown sign pointing you towards Geumgang Park. Here, you can either take the cable car to the top of the mountain or hike it. I suggest taking the cable car. From where the cable car lets you off, find Nammun Village (남문마을). Nammun Village is a collection of restaurants and Jokgu (volleyball soccer) courts. Walk through this village and steer left as you follow a stream while you descend down towards the temple. The road will fork like a “Y”, follow the path that leads you right, because it’ll eventually (and hopefully) lead you to Seokbulsa Temple. Either way is strenuous, but the temple at the top will be well worth your effort! Admission to the temple is free.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10. For the 10 metre tall awe-inspiring stone sculptures alone, the time and effort it takes to find Seokbulsa Temple, it’s well worth it. But add to it the stone main hall and the shrine hall dedicated to Chilseong, as well as the beautiful views of Busan down below, and the temple is worth that much more of an effort to get to and find.