|View on ticket from my visit in September 1983, with cement Mireuk Statue
Beopju-sa 법주사 法住寺 [Dharma Dwelling Temple]
One of Korea’s largest and most important historic monasteries, located on the western foot of Mt. Sogni-san (俗離山,
Remote from Mundane World Mountains, on the Baekdu-daegan range-line) in Sognisan Township (俗離山面) of Boeun-gun
County (報恩郡) in Chungcheongbuk-do Province (忠淸北道). It is deeply within the borders of the Songni-san National Park,
although the temple retains ownership and jurisdictional control over its entire valley, due to a title-document granted it by
King Sejo (世祖王, r. 1455–68) in the Joseon Dynasty that was validated by Korea’s Supreme Court.
Beopju-sa Temple is believed to have been founded during the reign of King Jinheung (眞興王, r. 540-78) of the Silla
Kingdom, by Master Uisin (義信) in 553, making it one of Korea’s oldest still-functioning temples. Uisin named it Beop-ju (法
住, Dharma Residence) because he enshrined the sutras he brought from India there, in a unique 5-story wooden pagoda. It
was initially devoted to the Beopsang School (East Asian Yogacara; 唯識宗, Consciousness Only School), and later became
one of the major Korean sites for the worship of Mireuk-bul (彌勒佛, Maitreya, the Future Buddha) along with Moak-san
Geumsan-sa Temple (母岳山金山寺), Palgong-san Donghwa-sa Temple (八公山桐華寺) and Yonghwa-san Mireuk-saji (龍華
Master Uisang (義湘, 625-702) greatly expanded Beopju-sa as one of the ten main monasteries of his Hwaeom-jong (華嚴
宗, Avatamsaka or Flower Garland School), constructing its initial Daejeokgwang-jeon (大寂光殿, Great Peace and Light
Hall) to enshrine both Biro-bul (毘盧遮那, Vairocana the Buddha of Infinite Cosmic Light, center), Amita-bul (阿彌陀佛,
Amitabha the Buddha of Western Paradise, left) and Seokgamoni-bul (釋迦牟尼佛, Sakyamuni Buddha, right). These three
statues are 5.5 meters tall and 4 meters wide, making them the largest seated Buddha-statues in Korea from before the
1950-53 Korean War. This hall, reconstructed by Master Byeok-am in 1624, is now entitled a Daeung-bojeon (大雄寶殿,
Great Hero Treasure-Hall; see Daeung-jeon entry).
The Samguk Yusa (三國遺事, Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms) records that Beopsang Master Jinpyo (眞表)
instructed his leading disciple Master Yeongsim to renovate the temple and rename it “Gilsang-sa” (吉祥寺). It was at this
point that it became also devoted to veneration of Mireuk-bul. Jinpyo himself visited it in 786, and when he was approaching
all the cows that were plowing in the local fields stopped and bowed to him. When the farmers saw this, they were ashamed
that even the animals recognized Jinpyo’s greatness when they had not, and so they renounced their secular lives and
followed Jinpyo into Beopju-sa to become ordained. This is said to be how the hosting mountain got its name “Sok-ri” (俗離,
Sogni), which means “to leave the mundane world far behind” or “remote from the ordinary world.”
During the reign of King Munjong (文宗王, r. 1046-83) in the Goryeo Dynasty, Master Dosaeng Seungtong (道生僧統, the
king's fifth son) became Juji (住持, Abbot) of the temple, and its name was restored to the original “Beopju-sa.” It was
expanded to gigantic size, consisting of more than sixty buildings with around seventy hermitages scattered across the
mountain slopes, with as many as 3,000 monks living there. The huge iron pot that was used to cook enough rice feed that
size of an assembly still remains in the main courtyard, as a sacred treasure. In 1363 King Gongmin (恭愍王) sent an envoy
to Mt. Yeongchui-san Tongdo-sa Temple (靈鷲山 通度寺) to remove one of the sari (舍利, sarira, crystal post-cremation
relics) of Seokgamoni-bul (釋迦牟尼佛, Sakyamuni Buddha, 563-483 BCE) from the Geumgang-gyedan (金剛戒壇, Diamond
or Vajra Precepts-altar) and deliver it to Beopju-sa. The Sejeon-sari-tap pagoda that enshrines it has been kept intact behind
the Neungin Hall (能仁殿) ever since then, making Beopju-sa one of the Jeokmyeol-bogung (寂滅寶宮, Silent Nirvana
Treasure Palace) temples.
During the early Joseon Dynasty, Great Master Sinmi (信眉) had the temple rebuilt again. A story from the official dynastic
annals tells that as King Sejo (r. 1455-68) was carried in his sedan-chair towards the temple to visit it in 1464, the lower
branches of a large spreading pine tree seemed to block his path. However, as they approached closely and the king
announced his passage, they perceived that the branches lifted up enough for the sedan-chair to pass safely underneath.
The king was mightily impressed at the tree’s noble politeness, and so he granted it Ministerial rank [as Jeong-i-pum (正二
品), a lower minister of the royal court], complete with enfeoffed land providing a budget for its maintenance and periodic
veneration, which lasted until the end of the dynasty. The “Jeongipum-song” (正二品松) pine-tree is still faithfully cared for
by the provincial government today, although it has gotten very sick in its old age with many of its branches dropping off, and
great efforts are being made to preserve its life and form as long as possible. It is widely used as the symbol of Boeun-gun
County (報恩郡) and Chungcheongbuk-do Province (忠淸北道).
Most of the Beopju-sa's buildings were destroyed during the Imjin Waeran (壬辰倭亂, 1592-98 Japanese Invasion). Masters
Sa-myeong Yujeong (四溟 惟政) and Byeok-am Gakseong (碧巖 覺性) led its reconstruction afterwards. This included a
fresh rebuilding of the five-story wooden pagoda hall, now named Palsang-jeon (八相殿) in 1624, to enshrine a set of
Palsang-do (八相圖, Eight Paintings of Scenes of the Life of Seokgamoni-bul). This remains as the oldest wooden pagoda in
Korea, and is designated as National Treasure #55. Joseon Prime Minister Gwon Don-in sponsored Beopju-sa’s renovation
on a national-project scale in 1851, and it was further renovated in 1906 under King (“Emperor” at that time) Gojong (高宗王).
In 1964, President Bak Jeong-hui (朴正熙, Park Chung Hee, r. 1961-79) financed the construction of a 29-meter cement
standing Mireuk-bul statue on the western side of the main courtyard. In 1967, Master Taejeon Geumho began repair work
on the temple buildings, and in 1974 the government helped finance the all-out repairing of most buildings in an effort to
restore them to their original state. In 1990, Beopju-sa repaired its Bronze Seated Amita-bul statue and tore down the cement
Mireuk-bul statue. Financed by donations collected nationwide, it erected in its place a magnificent 33-meter-tall high bronze
standing Mireuk-bul statue in its place, with a large display-space named Yonghwa-jeon (龍華殿, Dragon-Flower Hall) as a
kind of temple museum displaying sacred cultural assets in its base. This remains Korea’s tallest statue, and is a very
popular and often-photographed pilgrimage-destination.
Beopju-sa also contains a Twin-Lions-base Seokdeung (石燈, stone lantern) designated as National Treasure #5, a Lotus-
shaped stone basin designated as National Treasure #64, and many lesser Treasures. It is now the gyogu-bonsa (敎區本寺,
district headquarters temple) of the 5th District of the Jogye Order, administrating about 50 smaller temples and hermitages,
and is a popular destination for Buddhist pilgrims, hikers and tourists.