Foremost Temple of the Rooster-Dragon Mountain
One of Korea's Oldest and Greatest Buddhist Monasteries
The main halls of Gap-sa were reconstructed by Baekje Master Hyemyeong 惠明 in 556 CE. Late in
the next century Master Uisang 義相 of the Unified Shilla Dynasty greatly expanded it as one of the
Hwaeom Shipchal [ten main teaching monasteries of his Avatamsaka School]. It was refurbished and expanded
one more time in 887 by Master Muyeom 無染. In either of those re-constructions, the Main Dharma
Hall and Courtyard were moved from the Daejeok-jeon site to their present location. It remained a very
important educational monastery throughout the Goryeo Dynasty and well in the Joseon era.
Tragically, all its buildings were burnt to the ground during the Imjin Waeran 壬辰倭亂 1592-8 Japanese
Invasion, because it served as a center of armed resistance to the Japanese invaders under Master
Yeonggyu. It was rebuilt in 1604, and then further expanded in 1654, both with Joseon royal support,
including the 1654 addition on its southwest corner of the Pyochung-won Shrine, which enshrines
portraits of the three Masters who were the leaders of warrior-monk-militias fighting against the
samurai army (rebuilt in 1738). For this reason Gap-sa is known as one of the key temples of the
Hoguk Bulgyo 護國佛敎 or nation-protecting Buddhism tradition.
Gap-sa remains famous for its surrounding natural beauty, its profound traditions of study, worship
and practice, and the many cultural treasures it has accumulated in more than 1300 years as one of
the ten greatest Hwaeom temples, such as the Scroll Altar Portraits of Triad Buddhas 三神佛掛佛幀畵
designated as National Treasure #298. It operates a popular TempleStay program.
This is the most important of the many temples in and nearby the Gyeryong-san National Park in
Chungcheong-namdo Province west of Daejeon City. Gap-sa is in the northwest quadrant of the
park, within the border of Gongju City. It is one of the oldest and most venerable monasteries
in all of Korea, certainly qualifying in the Top-21 Temples. It was previously known as simply
Gyeryonggap-sa 鷄龍甲寺 계룡갑사 or “Rooster-Dragon Foremost Temple”; this hanja character
gap 甲 originally meant “field” (farm-field or pasture) but in this specialized usage means leading
or best, creating a very unusual one-character temple name. It was called Gyeryongsa-sa in the
early Joseon Dynasty, with that first 사 meaning "fundamental". Since the end of the 18th century
its official name has been simply Gyeryong-san Gap-sa 鷄龍山 甲寺. It remains "foremost" as
far as being the headquarters monastery for all temples in this region, and a very popular tourist
and pilgrimage destination for Buddhists.
Gap-sa has an unusual and highly meaningful origin-story. According to old temple records of the
Goryeo Dynasty, Gap-sa was founded by a legendary missionary-monk from the Goguryeo Kingdom
named Ado Hwasang 阿道和尙 in 420 CE during the reign of Baekje King Guisin 久爾辛王, r.420-427.
It is said that Ado was traveling near this edge of the mountain in the evening, when he witnessed
a miraculous light stretching from halfway up the slope, and when he climbed up there the next
morning he found a granite boulder-formation looking like a “natural rock pagoda,” which he named
Cheonjin-botap or Heavenly-Truth Treasure-Pagoda. See the complete story on my page about
Shinheung-am Hermitage. He then founded Gap-sa down at the mouth of the gorge below, in a
highly favorable site for spiritual attainment according to Pungsu-jiri ideas, which is now the site of
the Daejeok-jeon Hall. It is not know what Ado's original name for this temple was.
|Old Administration Hall with Sambul-bong and Gwaneum-bong peaks in the distance Sujeong-bong closer, on the south
side of the main courtyard. All these photos are from my September 2012 visit with the Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail Project.
|It is highly unusual that the square courtyard contains no stone-pagoda nor stone lantern, but just a lotus
planter at the center. The original stoneworks here were totally destroyed by Japanese invaders during
the 1592-98 Imjin War, and have never been rebuilt because there was no surviving record of their forms.
|Old Pyeon-aek Signboard on the Boje-ru outer pavilion, with the original name Gyeryonggap-sa
|Grand Buddhist Ceremonies are periodically held in Gap-sa's main courtyard
|hold guardian over everyday matters, especially propitiated by women. In this case the Kitchen King is
attended by a womanly dongja offering pomegranates (a symbol of fecundity), and a male Water-Spirit
whose spiky facial-hair suggests association with the Yong-wang or Dragon-King (chief water deity).
|Vajrayana-derived artworks -- a "diamond-tough" heung guardian on a door, and a spinable sutra-case for devotional practice
|Beautiful wood-carved gong-holder, from about 1910, with twin dragons and a cutesy-haetae base
|The Gap-sa Bronze Dharma-Bell, Korean Treasure #478, cast in 1584,
featuring four images of Jijang-bosal the Bodhisattva of Afterlife Salvation
|Images of Bodhidharma, founder of Seon (Ch'an, Zen) Buddhism
[Lonely Saint] image,
on a large paper
lantern, seen at
Gap-sa in 2012.
|Yongmun Waterfall &