I went to Maisan Provincial Park in Jinan County, Jeollabuk Province, to see one of South Korea’s more unusual temples.
I walked from the entrance of Maisan Provincial Park to the pass between the peaks of Sutmaisan and Ammaisan – the path is essentially a long staircase. ‘Maisan’ means ‘Horse Ear Mountain’, ‘Sutmaisan’ means ‘Male Horse Ear Mountain’ and ‘Ammaisan’ means ‘Female Horse Ear Mountain’. Only Ammaisan has a trail to the top, but when I was there it was closed for maintenance. So I went down a short way from the pass to reach Eunsu-sa.
The temple by itself looks rather humble, but when put together with the ‘Horse’s Ears’, it looks both dramatic and serene.
Eunsu-sa is not just a Buddhist temple – it is also a place to worship Dangun, the mythic ruler of Gojoseon, the original Korean kingdom of legend. I visited another center of Dangun worship at Taebaeksan.
You can learn more about Eunsu-sa at Dale’s Korean Temple Adventures.
The two peaks of Maisan are made of some kind of volcanic pumice-like rock which looks like giant pieces of old styrofoam developing holes. And inside some of those holes, someone has piled up stones – no doubt a preview of what’s to come at Tap-sa.
And what is this Tap-sa that I just mentioned? Why, it is the unusual temple further down Maisan.
A layman, Lee Gap Yong, had spent 30 years (1885-1915) piling up stones here to form stone pagodas.
Even though he was just piling up stones, not using mortar or anything else to put these stones together, 80 of these stone pagodas still stand today.
As someone who has travelled a lot around East Asia, I know what temple fatigue is, and even though I generally find Korean Buddhist temples more aesthetically pleasing than Taiwanese and Japanese Buddhist temples, even I was getting gradually less excited about seeing yet another Korean Buddhist temple during my travels.
This temple, of course, feels really different from any other Buddhist temple I’ve visited anywhere.
Many of these stone pagodas have names and symbolic meaning, including the most famous set, which are the largest two, though I don’t remember their names or what their cosmic significance is.
There is also a natural spring on the site of the temple.
If you want to know more, you can, of course, consult Dale’s Korean Temple Adventures.
In a way, piling of stones is a really, really simple idea, but doing it so repetitiously makes this place really, really weird. Probably because few people have the patience to spend 30 years piling stones.
And really, isn’t this why I visited so many Buddhist temples in South Korea? Sure, I could have just chosen to visit one or two representative temples, but if I hadn’t visited so many and gotten a grip on what a ‘typical’ Korean Buddhist temple is like (and just a little bit of temple fatigue), I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate how unusual this one is.
Then again, it’s simply an unusual place period – and I probably would have felt it even if had never been to any other Buddhist temple ever.