Guinsa temple was high on my list of things to see on my trip to South Korea. The headquarters of the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism is one of the most striking temple complexes in Korea and after reading about it, I just had to check it out! Located near the small town of Danyang, it’s also a little off-the-beaten-path which definitely suited me!
Exploring Guinsa Temple and Nirvana Palace, Danyang
History of Guinsa temple
Despite its ornate buildings, I was surprised to learn that Guinsa was completed as recently as 1966! Its founder, Sangwol Wongak, was a monk who built the temple after receiving a revelation. This, in turn, led to the resurrection of the almost-forgotten Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism. Sangwol Wongak became its leader and is celebrated throughout Guinsa to this day even after his death.
Getting to Guinsa
Guinsa is about 30 minutes from the town of Danyang which is about 150 kilometres from Seoul. There is a direct bus service that leaves for the temple from Danyang Intercity Bus Terminal right in the centre of town. This is also how most visitors will arrive in Danyang with regular buses to and from Seoul and other major cities. Inside the station building is a small tourist office and staff can help you with a map of the area and bus timetables for Guinsa and other sights in the area.
When the bus arrived, it had “Guinsa” written on a small board in English so you’ll definitely know when the right one comes along. You can grab snacks in one of the marts opposite the station as options at Guinsa are limited. The bus passes some beautiful scenery with mountains and lush forests coming into view zigzagging its way up Sobaeksan Mountain towards the temple.
Guinsa temple gates
Once off the bus, I headed up the steep hill towards the temple itself. Before I even reached the temple buildings, there are two impressive gates to pass through. After going through the small Gate of Non-Duality, I arrived at an imposing looking Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings. I couldn’t tell why it was called that until I climbed the steps to the top. Inside were four huge (and intimidating) statues placed here to help ward off evil spirits.
As I continued up the hill, there was plenty to see. There were prayer halls, monk and nun dorms, a great bronze bell and a pagoda resting on the backs of three elephants. It’s said to house some remains of Buddha himself! The 50+ buildings of Guinsa are surrounded by lush vegetation and walking through the complex was a relaxing and tranquil experience. I saw monks meditating, praying and going about their business.
Daebeopdang Hall (Main Hall)
Eventually I reached a wide set of steps leading up to a huge modern building. This was the main hall of Guinsa, Daebeopdang Hall. It’s a pretty imposing building even if not particularly pretty, reminding me more of a conference centre than a temple! It was built in 1980 and has accommodate up to 5000 people! It’s also the largest Buddhist sanctuary in the whole of Korea.
Daejosa-jeon (Founders Hall)
The best was yet to come and after yet more stairs (Guinsa has a LOT of stairs) I found myself in a large open area. This is where you can see one Guinsa’s most beautiful buildings – the Daejosa-jeon or the Founders Hall. The three-storied hall is guarded by two huge warrior statues and for good reason. Inside the shrine sits a statue of Sangwol Wongak, the founder of Guinsa, himself! To the right of the hall is a huge stone monument with some of the Great Monk’s teachings.
I walked to the other end of the open area and was treated to incredible views of the valley in which Guinsa sits.
Hiking to Nirvana Palace
I was about to head back down the steps when I saw a small sign for Nirvana Palace alongside some wooden walking sticks. Intrigued, I decided to grab one and follow the arrows. It turned out to be a mini hike! There were loads of steps which zigzagged up the mountain side through the forest. The afternoon sun was breaking through the treetops and it was warm. There weren’t many other visitors making the ascent but I did see some of the volunteers staying at the temple. Visiting the Nirvana Palace is like a rite of passage for Cheontae Buddhists because it’s the final resting place of Great Monk Sangwol!
Shrine at the top of the mountain
After more steps I finally got to a small clearing at the top of the mountain. I’ve made it to Nirvana Palace! There was a raised wooden platform with a shrine and various monuments on the grass hill beyond. Devotees were paying their respects and asking for blessings in quiet prayer. I sat down on a pew facing the shrine and just contemplated for a while. Nirvana Palace is incredibly peaceful and I just listened to the sound of the trees swaying in the wind and suddenly felt incredibly relaxed and content.
I could have probably sat there for hours but I eventually got up and started my way back down the mountain. Before I did though, I walked down a small path below Nirvana Palace to another clearing which offered stunning views of the other side of the valley.
Heading down the mountain
I started walking back towards Guinsa but this time I took a more adventurous route. Once in a while there would be gaps in the railings which allowed for shortcuts down the wild and rocky mountainside. Luckily, I managed to survive the uneven terrain and made my way back to the Founders Hall as the sun was starting to set.
I took a different route down and saw more of Guinsa’s beautiful buildings before finding myself back at the Gate of Four Heavenly Kings. I bought a ticket back to Danyang (you can’t get return tickets to Guinsa) and looked back up towards the mountain where I just came from. Making the journey here felt like an adventure but it was worth every single minute of it.
It’s possible to spend a longer period of time in Guinsa as part of the Templestay cultural program. Visitors can stay for two or three days and experience life of a Korean Buddhist. You don’t have to be religious or have done anything like this before – it’s designed in a way that everyone can get a taste for what life is like in a temple. You will take simple meals together with monks and other visitors, can try your hand at meditation and attend chanting services. For more information, visit the official Guinsa Templestay website
5 Tips for visiting Guinsa
#1 – All visitors to Guinsa can join in during mealtimes and take simple monastic meals in the cafeteria. Mealtimes are
#2 – Bring comfortable walking shoes – it’s a hilly ascent to the Founders Hall and there are loads of stairs. This is before you even start heading up to Nirvana Palace!
#3 – There is a small shop by the car park where buses drop off and pick up visitors – this is also where you get your tickets for the journey back to Danyang
#4 – Some parts of Guinsa are off-limits such as the dormitories – look out for signs and ask if in doubt
#5 – There is a reception office (building number 8 on the Guinsa map) which has plenty of useful information about the Templestay programme and the temple itself.
What: Guinsa temple is the headquarters of the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism and is one of the most striking temple complexes in the country.
Where: Near Danyang, North Chungcheong Province, South Korea.
Getting there: There are buses every hour from Danyang Intercity Bus Terminal to Guinsa – ask for a timetable at the tourist information office inside the station building. There are also direct buses from Seoul to Guinsa from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon station, line 2, exit 4). Guinsa is about 145 kilometres away from Seoul.
Accommodation: If the popular Templestay program is booked out or you would just prefer to stay in Danyang, check out Us On Earth guesthouse. The first floor of this converted house has three comfortable rooms, a spacious living area, fully stocked kitchen and modern bathroom. It also has a huge patio with amazing views of the town and the cliffs. It’s one of the highest rated properties I’ve stayed in (9.7/10 at the time of writing). Highly recommend!
If you liked this post, check out some of my other blogs on South Korea:
Pin it for later: