Samgwangsa Temple: A Gem, Even Without Lanterns

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When I was planning my most recent trip to South Korea, the thing I was most excited about was visiting Busan’s incredible array of temples. The tough thing was deciding when to go.

Visiting for the Buddha’s birthday was an obvious choice. The event is a major national holiday in South Korea. At that time, temples across the country are beautifully lit up with thousands upon thousands of paper lanterns, transforming these places of worship into magical sanctuaries.

Samgwangsa Temple in Busan is arguably the best place in Korea to see the Lantern Festival. Images of the temple decked out in countless multicolored lanterns, multitudes of which even formed a ceiling over the temple’s massive courtyard had me seriously tempted.

However, in the end, I made a decision NOT to visit South Korea during the Buddha’s birthday. For starters, I wouldn’t have been able to do my temple stay at Beomeosa, the city’s most famous temple, at that time.

All the major temples in South Korea are incredibly busy arranging festivities during the Buddha’s birthday, so many of them don’t offer their temple stay program at that time.

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Samgwangsa Temple when the Lantern Festival is not taking place
Samgwangsa Temple is stunningly serene when the Lantern Festival is not taking place. (Shot with my favorite mirrorless camera for travel!)

Secondly, looking at the photos of Samgwangsa during the Lantern Festival (and almost all of the photos of Samgwangsa are shot during the festival), I knew that it was going to be swamped with people.

That’s why, in the end, I decided to skip out on the Buddha’s birthday, amazing though it must be, and visit Busan a month later when all the temples are their usual, serene and crowd-free selves. Even though I didn’t visit during the Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival, I’ll still include some details and photos of it at the end.

I hope my articles and photos below can encourage you to visit Samgwangsa at any time of the year, not just for the Lantern Festival.

This enormous, imposing, yet gorgeous temple complex features some unique structures, fine views, and it’s really fast and easy to get to from the Busan city center. I only saw a handful of other people when I visited on a weekday morning. I practically had the whole place to myself!

For more unique temple experiences in Busan, see my articles on hiking to Seokbulsa Temple and the temple by the sea, Haedong Yonggungsa. All of these temples make my list of the 10 best temples in Busan.

Introducing Samgwangsa Temple

Activity Hall at Samgwang Temple, Busan

Samgwanga Temple (more correctly “Samgwang Temple, as “-sa” means “temple”) is a major temple of the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism, which is Headquartered at Guinsa Temple in the Sobaek Mountains of central South Korea.

Cheontae Buddhism is Korea’s version of Tiantai Buddhism in China or Tendai Buddhism in Japan. The order considers the Lotus Sutra as the fundamental and highest teachings of the Buddha.

Over time the order was largely absorbed by Jogye, the most common order of Buddhism in South Korea, which Beomeosa temple in Busan belongs to. However, in recent times, Cheontae has made a resurgence and has about 2 million followers.

Busan Samgwangsa Temple

Samgwangsa is a very new temple, by South Korean standards, and is dedicated to Gwanseeum-bosal, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It was built in 1983, and has been enlarged many times since then. Today is occupies some 120,000 square-meter on the slopes of Mt. Baekyang (Baekyangsan), a mountain in central Busan that is known for its granite and limestone cliffs and caves formed by volcanic activity tens of millions of years ago.

Mt. Baekyang and Samgwangsa are located in Busanjin-gu, a central district in Busan that is also where you’ll find Seomyeon, Busan’s most fashionable commercial center.

Although Samgwangsa is surprisingly close and easy to get to from Seomyeon, the two places unsurprisingly feel world’s apart.

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Exploring the Samgwangsa Temple Grounds

View of Samgwangsa Temple with Busan in background
Samgwangsa looking down over Busan

If you take bus #15 (see below) or a taxi, you will likely bypass the tall entrance staircase to Samgwangsa and arrive right in the temple courtyard like I did. If you take one of the other buses, though, you will arrive by walking up the road and staircase to reach the temple.

Standing in the temple’s huge courtyard, the Main Hall will be in front of you. It’s worth having a close look at the gorgeous paintings on the outer walls of the Main Hall, as well as the main shrine with three Buddhas inside (the main one in the middle is Seokgamoni-bul, the historical Buddha, and some amazing carved reliefs on the walls to their left and right.

Daebo Tower, Samgwangsa
9-tier Daebo Tower beside the Main Hall. (See the Olympus 12-40mm lens I used to get this shot)

To the right of the Main Hall, the impressive Daebo Tower is supposedly the largest stone pagoda in all of Asia. The white structure has nine tiers topped with a gold plated lotus flower, 53 Buddhas around the body, and the zodiac animals and scenes from the Buddha’s life around the base. It sits in a special alcove with white walls caved with spiritual guardians. The tower enshrines sari, small crystals that are found among the remains of cremated high monks and are considered sacred relics.

Nearly as impressive as the Daebo Tower is the enormous, 3.5-meter bronze bell and oversized drum housed in the Bell and Drum Tower right in front of it.

Drum and Bell Tower, Samgwang Temple, Busan
Buddha and huge drum in the Drum and Bell Tower

On the right side of the main courtyard (if you are facing the Main Hall) sits an grand structure that houses temple classes and activities. The second floor of this building is a great vantage point to look out over the sea of lanterns if you come during the Samgwangsa Lantern Festival. This building is the header image for this article.

Temple buildings at Samgwangsa
Drum and Bell Tower, Jikwan-Jeon Hall, and Jijang-jeon Shrine Hall on the hill in the background

The left side of the courtyard is dominated by another huge building, Jikwan-Jeon Hall, beside which you will likely be dropped off if you arrive by bus or taxi. The building houses a souvenir shop, library, Buddhist college, worship rooms, and more. Supposedly it can house up to 10,000 people.

My favorite part of visiting Samgwangsa was walking up the path between the Main Hall and Jikwan-Jeon Hall. The short trail skirts a cedar and bamboo forest behind the Main Hall and then meanders up the hill to two more temples behind Jikwan-Jeon Hall.

Bamboo forest and view of Samgwangsa Temple
Looking down at Samgwangsa from the bamboo forest hiking trail
Roof of Samgwangsa Temple
Looking over the roofs of Samgwangsa from the hiking trail

The trail offers epic views over the roof of Jikwan-Jeon Hall, the other structures on site, the mountains in the distance, and all the way down to the city center below. I took a silly amount of photos as I walked the trail, as the view seemed to get better every time I took another few steps forward.

At the top of the hill, two-story Jijang-jeon Shrine Hall is a newer building (built in 1996) that is dedicated to Jijang-bosal, who is thought to help the deceased. During the Lantern Festival, the temple holds mainly white lanterns placed for the dead.

Jijang-jeon Shrine Hall, Samgwangsa
Jijang-jeon Shrine Hall, at the top of the hill behind the main temple complex

Though new, the building is strikingly ornate inside and out. I’m kicking myself now for not remembering to take pictures of the interior, but make sure you go up to the main shrine on the second floor, where you’ll see a jade statue of statue of Jijang-bosal, many other statues, and a golden vessel thought to carry the dead to the afterlife.

Next to Jijang-jeon Shrine Hall, there’s a recently built three-story Geungnak-jeon, a kind of pagoda dedicated to Amita-bul, the Buddha of Celestial Light, just before the vehicle road that takes loops you back down to the temple’s main courtyard. If you go past the pagoda on the hillside, there’s also a dirt trail that you can follow to enjoy views looking down at the front of Samgwangsa.

*Reference: Some of the information provided above, such as the names of the various structures, was obtained from this post on Dale’s Korean Temple Adventures, which has pretty much the only decent English information available online about Samgwangsa and many other temples in Busan and South Korea.

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The Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival

Lanterns at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan
Samgwangsa Lantern Festival

If you’ve ever heard of Sangwangsa, it was probably in relation to the Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival, which takes place annually on the Buddha’s Birthday.

The Buddha’s birthday is a important national event in South Korea. It is a public holiday, and at that time people across the country place paper lotus lanterns in the streets, in front of their homes, and especially around temples.

Some of the best lotus lantern displays can be seen at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, Tongdosa temple just north of Busan, Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, as well as Beomeosa and Haedong Yonggungsa in Busan. Several cities, notably Seoul, Daegu, and Busan, also have major lantern displays, parades, and even floating lanterns.

Note that there is another Lantern Festival in Seoul every November, which is said to be a copy of the Jinju Namgang Yudeung (Lantern) Festival held in the city of Jinju every October.

Of all the lantern displays across the country during the Buddha’s birthday, the one at Samgwangsa is undoubtedly the most mesmerizing. Some estimates say there are up two three million lanterns on display at the temple, though I honestly find that hard to believe.

Lantern Festival at Samgwangsa Temple in Busan
“Lanterns of Samgwangsa” by Indy Randhawa is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The point is, you will see A LOT of lanterns at Samgwangsa if you visit at this time. The display is also known for its sheer variety of lantern types, and most of them are assembled by hand by students and volunteers. Many of the lanterns also have wishes written below them by people who have assembled them or donated money.

If you visit Samgwangsa for the Lantern Festival, you will likely arrive by bus down the road (see transportation details below). Your first amazing experience will be ascending the tall staircase that leads to the main temple area, with a roof of lanterns above your head.

Arriving at the main temple area, you will find that the entire enormous courtyard has a canopy of lanterns, which is particularly impressive if you view it from above from the second floor of one of the temple buildings. Besides lanterns, there are also enormous lit up dragons, chanting and song performances, and more.

In short, this sounds likes the experience of a lifetime, so of course I do hope to make it back to Busan someday to experience it for myself.

So when is the Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival? Well, Buddha’s birthday usually takes place in May. You can see the exact dates of the Buddha’s birthday every year here. The Lantern Festival usually lasts for about two weeks leading up to the Buddha’s birthday.

For example, in 2019, the Buddha’s birthday was on May 12, so the Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival dates were April 28 to May, though you could probably still come a little earlier or later and see a lot of them being set up or taken down.

Check out Gamcheon Village for more amazing colors or visit scenic Taejongdae Resort Park for some of the best coastal views in Busan!

How to Get to Samgwangsa

The fastest and easiest way to get to Samgwangsa is by taking a taxi from Seomyeon, which costs around 5000 won.

The second best way, and the way I arrived, is by taking mini bus #15 from Seomyeon. To find the bus stop, take exit 9 of Seomyeon subway station and walk straight to Young Kwang bookstore. The bus stops across the street from the bookstore and only takes 10-15 minutes to reach Samgwangsa. The bus drops you off right in the temple courtyard.

There are a number of other buses you can take from Seomyeon, such as 44, 63, 81, 83-1, 103, 112, 133, and 201. For any of these, you should get off at Seongyeong apartments, and walk uphill about 10 minutes to reach the temple.

On the morning I visited Samgwangsa, I also visited the nearby temple of Seonamsa. Compared to Samgwangsa, Seonamsa was more serene and really tucked in to the forest. It’s the perfect place to chill out or do some meditation.

On the map, the two temples appear to be on two sides of the same mountain. It must be possible to walk between them, but it was a hot day and I didn’t want to get lost, so I had the souvenir shop call a cab for me. It cost 4000 won to get from Samgwangsa to Seonamsa.

However, after visiting Seonamsa (and yet another even smaller temple near it called Cheonansa), getting back down the mountain was not an easy task. I ended up walking all the way down to the mountain through an abandoned neighborhood, and it took me about an hour to reach Dongeui University subway station. I could have caught a bus or cab for part of that walk, but decided to just keep trekking.

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