If you’ve ever taken the bus from Gyeongju to Daegu, you might’ve caught a fleeting glimpse of a giant golden Buddha off in the mountains to the north. No, this isn’t some apparition induced by sleep deprivation or soju poisoning. This huge Buddha actually overlooks Manbulsa (만불사), or literally “Temple of Ten-thousand Buddhas,” nestled at the foot of Mt. Gwansan (관산) on the way to Yeongcheon (영쳔).
Manbulsa is definitely one of the more unique Buddhist temples I’ve been to in Korea (and I’ve visited a lot of temples). It forgoes the wooded tranquility and rustic architecture traditionally associated with Korean temples. Rather Manbulsa is all about flash and kitsch in a way you’d more likely see in Thailand or Vietnam. Luckily for me though, I’m a connoisseur of the finest in kitsch , particularly when it comes to religion
I don’t know if they’ve taken the time to count how many Buddhas there actually are at Manbulsa, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re well past 10,000 by now. The onslaught of statues begins the minute you head up the driveway. The courtyard in front of Dharma Hall is full of baby Buddhas (in need of watering), prayer wheels, and statues of the 12 animals of the Zodiac (among other objects of worship) which give the place a carnival-like atmosphere.
But the best part of Manbulsa lies hidden inside the Dharma Hall itself. After your eyes have adjusted to the dim light inside, head to the far right corner of the hall and you’ll find the entrance to the Buddha labyrinth in the back. It’s not exactly a labyrinth, but rather winding hallways that are lined top to bottom with bronze Buddha statues. Wandering around back here is a pretty overwhelming experience. Photographers take note: I was told that you ARE allowed to take pictures back here, so be sure to bring your tripod.
For those itching to walk up to the towering Buddha statue itself, go right out of the Dharma hall and follow the prayer wheels up through a park (with yet even more Buddha statues) to the meditation hall. On your way, don’t miss the planting of the bodhi tree in the park. It is a transplant from Bodh Gaya, and is supposedly a descendant of the original bodhi tree under which the Buddha himself attained enlightenment.
From the meditation hall, turn right at the bell and head up the hill past the deer enclosure (which somehow adds to the theme park feeling of the place). In about ten minutes you’ll be up the hill, through the grave yard and standing at the feet of the impressive 33 m tall statue of the Buddha. If you want to do the full circuit hike, follow the trail behind the big Buddha back down to the valley past a large Reclining Buddha statue among even more graves. Be sure to rub his feet or tickle his toes for good luck.
To get to Manbulsa, take N.R. 4 for about 15 or 20 minutes heading east out to Gyeongju, and past Geoncheon. Keep an eye out for exit signs just after you cross the line into Yeongcheon (영쳔) County but just before going through Bukan Tunnel (북안터널). If traveling by bus, check at the tourist info kiosk for bus numbers and times. Though you might have just as much luck catching a bus to Geoncheon (건천) or Yeongcheon and hiring a cab to the temple from there. Manbulsa makes for a great day tip out of Gyeongju combined with visits to the Geumcheok-ri tombs, Yeokgeungol Valley and the ancient Buddha carvings of Dudae-ri.