Korean Temples from Above | Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto on Mt. Tohamsan __ Shin Byeong-mun

The Buddha Realm Living Up to Its Name,
Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto

Epitomizing Buddhist belief and art, Seokgatap (National Treasure No. 21)
and Dabotap (National Treasure No. 20) pagodas transform the temple compound
into a Buddha-land.

The cave temple of Seokguram consists of a rectangular antechamber and a
round main chamber. The dome was created with trimmed natural stones,
and then the roof was covered with dirt, giving it the appearance of a cave.

Situated at the southern tip of the Taeback mountain range, all of Mt. Tohamsan is considered a sacred Buddhist site. In the mountain’s southwestern foothills lies Bulguksa Temple, steeped in over a thousand years of history, and near its summit is Seokguram Grotto, often said to be the apex of Buddhist art and architecture.

According to Samguk yusa (Legends and History of Korea’s Three Kingdoms), the grand project of building Bulguksa was launched in 751 by Kim Dae-seong, Silla’s then chief minister, by royal decree of King Gyeongdeok. And after Kim’s death in 774, the state saw the project through to its completion. However, a different story is told in the Bulguksa gogeum changgi (Chronicles of Bulguksa), saying, “In 528, the year after the martyrdom of the Buddhist monk Yi Cha-don, Bulguksa was officially established by Lady Yeongje, the mother of then King Beopheung. In 574, Lady Jiso, the mother of then King Jinheung, had the temple rebuilt and enshrined Amitabha Buddha there.” Later, in 751, the temple seems to have been renovated by Kim Dae-seong, who had stone pagodas and bridges built, raising its stature as a major temple.

The 8th century, when Bulguksa reached the height of its prosperity, corresponds to Silla’s peak years in terms of national power and culture. Silla’s great artworks, like the Medicine Buddha image at Bunhwangsa Temple and the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok, were also crafted in this period. Bulguksa is a structure that epitomizes these pinnacle years of glory. However, the temple could not escape the disaster of the Japanese invasion. In 1593 the Japanese army set fire to the temple after uncovering some weapons hidden there, destroying most of the buildings. Its reconstruction began in 1604 and continued for a century until Bulguksa was finally restored to its former stature in the 1700s. In the modern era, a large-scale restoration project was launched in 1973.

Since then, remodeling has also been done on two Buddha halls, Daeungjeon (Main Buddha Hall) and Geungnakjeon (Paradise Hall), and on two gates, Jahamun and Anyangmun. Another restoration project reestablished four structures on their original sites: Beomyeongnu Pavilion, and three Buddha halls, Museoljeon, Birojeon and Gwaneumjeon. The Bulguksa temple compound largely consists of four independent areas: Main Buddha Hall area, Paradise Hall area, Vairocana Hall area and Avalokitesvara Hall area. Each area symbolizes an independent Buddha-land dedicated to a different worship system, and the boundaries are clearly demarcated by walls or corridors for the sake of doctrinal differentiation.

Yangdong Village in Gyeongju. If Korea’s
famous Hahoe Village can be called a river village
because the Nakdong River flows around it, Yangdong Village is a mountain
village as it sits in the foothills of a mountain.

Walking uphill along the mountain path from Bulguksa Temple, one finds Seokguram Grotto near the summit, National Treasure No. 24. Samguk yusa says Seokguram was originally named Seokbulsa Temple, but beginning in the 1910s, Japanese colonialists began to call it Seokguram. Samguk yusa says Seokguram was inaugurated by Kim Dae-seong, like Bulguksa, by royal decree, but its completion was undertaken by the state. As can be guessed, both Bulguksa and Seokguram began as major Buddhist projects based on the desires of all the Silla people and the royal families to manifest the Buddha-land on Earth.

Embodying the devout faith and artistic sophistication of the Silla people, Seokguram is a world-class masterpiece of architecture. In the center of Seokguram Grotto is enshrined a stone statue of Sakyamuni Buddha (3.48 m high), and on the walls of the grotto’s antechamber and entrance are carved standing images of eight guardian deities, Vajra warriors and the four heavenly kings. The walls surrounding the seated Sakyamuni Buddha are carved with standing images of heavenly beings, bodhisattvas, arhats and an Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. Ten niches are carved into the rotunda’s domed ceiling.

Padosori-gil (“sound of the surf trail”) near Gyeongju’s Yangnam is a coastal trail stretching along 1.7 km of shoreline
that features spectacular rock formations of columnar joints. Diverse forms of such formations include the lying-flat,
inclined, protruding and fan-shaped. They are breath-taking to see.

The directional orientation of Seokguram corresponds to Donghaegu, a sacred site of communal tombs for the royal Kim clan of the Silla Dynasty. Donghaegu refers to the area where Daewangam is located, the underwater tomb of King Munmu who unified the Three Kingdoms. King Munmu declared he would defend Silla by becoming a dragon of the East Sea even after his death. His patriotic spirit is embodied not only in Daewangam but also in Gameunsa Temple and at Igyeondae Lookout. Considering that the Sakyamuni Buddha at Seokguram looks toward Donghaegu, the establishment of Bulguksa and Seokbulsa (Seokguram) was a project on a national scale as was Gameunsa and Igyeondae.

Both Bulguksa and Seokguram, the embodiment of Silla’s aspiration to protect the nation, were registered on the World Heritage list in 1995 and continue to attract Buddhist devotees as well as tourists from home and abroad.

In front of Bulguksa’s Main Buddha Hall stand a stone lantern and two pagodas called Seokgatap and Dabotap. Behind these pagodas are two pavilions (Beomyeongnu and Jwagyeongnu) which exude a sense of tight tension created by their bilateral symmetry. The space in front of the Main Buddha Hall exudes harmonious energy because the placement of these stone structures is well-planned and balanced.

Author | Lee Min (freelance writer), Photo | Shin Byeong-mun (aerial photographer)

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