Ssanggyesa Temple’s One Pillar Gate
The luxuriously decorated roof looms large on top of proportionally short pillars, befitting a heavenly gate leading to the world of Truth.
Ssanggyesa (lit. Temple of Double Streams) in Hadong, nestled deep in the southern folds of Mt. Jirisan, was established by Seon Master Jingam. When he returned from Tang China in 830, he came to Mt. Jirisan in search of the site where Ven. Sambeop had founded a monastery in an earlier time. When he reached one valley, several roaring tigers appeared and led him to a ruin. Jingam built a temple there and called it Okcheonsa, but King Jeonggang of Silla later changed the name to the current Ssanggyesa, not to be confused with another temple of the same name.
Ssanggyesa’s One Pillar Gate was constructed in 1641 by Ven. Byeogam. Well-trimmed granite blocks were used as stylobates, placed underneath the bases fashioned out of natural rock, on top of which two large main pillars and four support columns are erected. The pillars are capped with a multi-bracket style roof with a gabled upper section, which becomes hipped as the roof slopes downward, ending with richly embellished double eaves. Support for the main pillars is reinforced by two auxiliary columns, whose capitals are adorned with lotus patterns.
The writing on the plaque hanging under the One Pillar Gate’s roof best represents the character of the temple. Inscribed on the front is “Ssanggyesa on Three Sages Mountain (mythical utopian mountains where spiritually immortal sages reside).” On the reverse side is inscribed “Great Temple of the Seon School.” Created by Kim Gyu-jin (1868-1933), who made his mark in Korea’s art scene in the early 20th century as a calligrapher and painter, the plaque highlights the dignity and beauty of the One Pillar Gate. A poem by Heo Gyun (1569-1618) epitomizes the natural beauty Ssanggyesa is famous for.
Beautiful are the double streams on Mt. Jirisan,
Unique is each of the ten thousand folds of Mt. Geumgangsan.
Or so I heard, but alas! I never had the chance to go in person,
Always busy composing farewell poems for the venerable.
A couplet inscribed on a vertical wooden tablet attached to the One Pillar Gate contains a vital teaching: “Once past this gate, do not say ‘I know’ with a deluded mind. The empty mind, devoid of delusion, is filled with awakening.”
The One Pillar Gate at Ssanggyesa was constructed using columns proportionally much smaller than the roof. To the faithful approaching the gate, this creates the awe-inspiring illusion that the large half-hipped roof, adorned with a cascade of sumptuously ornate eaves, is floating in the air. Just empty your mind right there at the One Pillar Gate and journey through to the Buddha Land unfettered, like Seon Master Jingam.
Heartfelt Adoration of the Buddha Cheonsanggyo Bridge
at Yeongamsa Temple Site in Hapcheon
Cheonsanggyo at the Yeongamsa Temple Site is evidence of the
reverence with which the ancient Koreans approached the Buddha.
Once upon a time, there was a heartbreakingly beautiful temple deep in the mountains. Rock formations of oddly fanciful shapes, encircling the temple like some fantastic folding screen, augmented the spirituality of this temple located on Mt. Hwangmaesan, as evident in its name, Yeongam (lit. holy rocks).
Now, the temple has faded into eternity, and the only witnesses to the glory and grandeur of the olden days are the rocks, still basking in timeless beauty. Well-dressed stones were tightly interknit to form the retaining walls for the foundations of the buildings. It must have been breathtaking when the buildings were yet standing. The stone lantern boasts gracious curves sitting on the foundation. When one looks at the stone lantern and the distant mountains behind it, one gets the feeling of looking at an artful oriental painting.
Normally, the front of the stonework foundation supporting the Main Buddha Hall would form a straight line, broken in the middle by stairs leading into the shrine. However, the foundation here has a rectangular section protruding in the center, squared off by six layers of neatly stacked long granite blocks. These serve as the base for a handsome stone lantern supported by a pair of lions carved out of stone. The raised square jutting out of the main foundation is flanked by a pair of arched bridges on each side, used as a passage to the Main Buddha Hall.
The arched bridges, each having nine steps, appear steep seen from the front. They rise in a gentle curve like a rainbow rising into the sky. Their nine steps symbolize the nine stages all sentient beings must pass through to be reborn into the Pure Land, from the lowest level of life mired in heinous crimes and evil deeds to the highest level of life devoted to reverent worship and virtuous practice. These bridges are narrow, allowing only one person to ascend at a time, encouraging visitors not to lose their devotion and piety.
The foundation stones and railings of the stairs are elaborately decorated with carvings of lions and heavenly beings playing instruments.
Yeongamsa’s Twin-Lion Stone Lantern (Treasure No. 353) was created in the United Silla period. The Japanese attempted to illegally smuggle the lantern out of the country during the Japanese occupation, but villagers prevented it. Thereafter the lantern was kept in a regional government office, and returned to its original spot in 1959. The twin lions, standing on lotus petals, are facing each other with their chests touching and standing on their hind legs. Exquisitely sculpted muscles in the limbs and tails are realistically expressed, robust and seeming to burst with barely contained strength.
The lions stand on a lotus flower and support a blooming lotus with their forelegs. On top of the lantern, four guardians protect the lantern’s fire chamber, which symbolizes the Buddha, faithful to their roles as defenders of the Buddha. The lantern is capped with an octagonal top, integrating the two different styles of the twin lions and the four guardians, a unique artistic configuration found nowhere else.
Scenes of lions and heavenly beings playing musical instruments, carved in relief on the stonework and stairs, are enough to make onlookers imagine the glamour and sophistication of a bygone era.
Gwon Jung-seo is an expert member of the Gyeonggi Cultural Alliance and a Dharma instructor of the Jogye Order.