The White Buddha at
An Underappreciated Gem of Seoul
For the past thirteen years, I have had the privilege of teaching both undergraduates and adult learners at Sangmyung University in Seoul. Several years ago one of the students in my Continuing Education class, who lives in the neighborhood nearby, piqued my interest with stories of a marveous White Buddha that could be found below the steep hill of the university at a temple just next to the Hongjecheon Stream. From that point on, I began to investigate the rich history of the area surrounding my university with the help of my friend, Suk Ji-hoon, who is a historian now working on his PhD at the Asian Languages & Cultures Department at the University of Michigan. This culminated in the publication last year of our book Through the Gate of Violet Glow: A Short Historical Survey of the Northwestern Neighborhood of Seoul.
The official name of this carving is Okcheonam Ma-ae Bosal Jwasang (lit. “Rock-Carved Seated Bodhisattva at Okcheonam Hermitage”; Treasure No. 1820), but most people who are familiar with the piece call it Baekbul or the White Buddha, even though the figure is not exactly depicting a Buddha. The rock is mostly covered by a beautiful wooden pavilion which protects it, and the bodhisattva figure itself is brightly painted with white and other colorful pigments, giving it an almost three-dimensional quality.
The actual origin of the White Buddha is shrouded in mystery, as no inscription or written records have been found in regards to who, when, and why this figure was carved. By carefully examining several stylistic elements, however, especially the type of headdress the Bodhisattva is wearing which clearly shows a Mongol influence, it could be estimated that the figure was carved sometime in the late-13th century. There are a handful of similar looking bodhisattva carvings found elsewhere in the country – the most similar one being at Gaeunsa temple, near Korea University – but this is by far one of the biggest and the most exquisite examples of its kind.
Since its creation, the White Buddha appears to have been a very popular site for worship. Legend has it that even General Yi Seong-gye, who later founded the Joseon dynasty and became King Taejo (r. 1392-1398), came to visit the White Buddha to pray for his wishes to be fulfilled. Although there is no record to prove this particular occasion, the White Buddha did receive constant attention and support from the royal family throughout much of the Joseon dynasty, with the last major support coming from no other than Empress Min, wife of Emperor Gojong (r. 1863-1907), and Heungseon Daewongun (1820-1898, the Prince Regent and the father of King Gojong). The protective pavilion built on top of the White Buddha is believed to have been built or reconstructed in 1868 under the Daewongun’s sponsorship. Indeed, it was the Daewongun who gave the name Bodogak (lit.“The House of Spiritual Ferrying for All”) to the pavilion inscribed with his calligraphy.
The earliest written account of the White Buddha can be found in Yongjae chonghwa, a collection of stories and legends written in the 1490s by van early Joseon scholar and politician named Seong Hyun (1439-1504). In the book, Seong wrote of his own visits to the White Buddha in his youth, calling it “The Buddha Rock” and praising the workmanship as “outstanding.” Since then, the Buddha appeared in quite a number of Joseon-era books throughout the centuries, as Hongjecheon Stream was a very popular spot of leisure during the summer for many aristocrats living in Seoul.
Not only that, it became a subject of many legends among the commoners living in Seoul. One of these legends, first recorded by an American businessman and missionary Homer Hulbert in 1902, claimed that the carving was created by one Kim Su-dong (1457-1512) sometime in the early 1500s to appease the “fevered spirit” of his wife Hae-su who killed herself after constant abuse by her mother-in-law because of her “ugly complexion.” This certainly added more of a sense of mystique for many visitors to the White Buddha, even though it has nothing to do with its actual history.
Another interesting story of folklore is about the supernatural powers of the White Buddha. The locals still say that the power of the Buddha is responsible for preventing flood in the region and saving people from drowning. The White Buddha is also known to have influence over more banal affairs, most notably the ability to matchmake. Indeed, it was widely thought that in the late Joseon dynasty anyone who did not have a significant other would pray for a match to the White Buddha, and the Buddha would find the love of their life, who would be the first person one would encounter at the Hongjimun Gate right after the opening of the city gates in the morning. One can imagine a bunch of young men and women, impatiently waiting in front of the gate early in the morning after making a wish to the White Buddha down the stream. Beginning in the late 19th century, when Joseon finally opened its doors to foreign powers, the White Buddha became a popular tourist spot for many foreigners who visited the country. The earliest foreigner to visit the White Buddha was George W. Gilmore, in 1887, one of the three English teachers working at Yugyeong Gongwon, an English institute operated by the Joseon government. He is also the earliest person to take a photograph of this Buddha, which was included in his 1892 book, Korea from its Capital.
Since then, practically every foreigner who wrote about their experiences in Korea in the first half of the 20th century wrote about the White Buddha. This made the White Buddha one of the most frequently described and photographed Korean Buddhist images in this period. One of the foreign visitors, the famous American traveler Elias Burton Holmes (1870-1958) wrote in 1901, “Those who have traveled widely in Korea……all agree that the Buddhist monasteries in the remote mountain regions are well worthy of a pilgrimage; and that this must be true we are convinced as we pause before the ghostly outline of the White Buddha, the most curious sight in the environs of the capital.” The surrounding atmosphere at that time appears to have been quite idyllic as well, with a thick forest surrounding the hermitage and little stepping stones on the stream to reach the White Buddha.
However, this designated Korean Treasure has become largely obscure for most Seoulites nowadays, because of the construction of the Hongje Overpass in 1977 which was built right across the stream, effectively blocking the view of the Buddha from the main road. Regrettably, due to the constant redevelopment in the area, the White Buddha has lost most of its former status and wider appeal to those beyond its immediate environs. Given its significance in history and folklore, I earnestly hope that in the future it can be rediscovered and better appreciated by Seoulites and foreign visitors alike.
Photos courtesy of Mr. Suk Ji-hoon
The earliest known photo of the White Buddha, taken by George Gilmore in 1882. Notice the temple – Okcheonam – is yet to be built.
The stream was also quite close to the statue itself. The current protective pavilion is thought to have been built in the 1860s.
A hand-colored photograph of the White Buddha, originally taken by William W. Chapin, which appeared in the November 1910 issue of National Geographic magazine. A rickshaw driver is standing in front of the statue, suggesting that the area was quite well known to Western tourists (rickshaws were largely reserved for tourists at that time). There is also what appears to be a glass lantern – a luxury item in the early 20th century – in front of the statue, which indicates a recent visit of a rich patron to the statue/hermitage.
The locals giving offerings to the White Buddha. This photo was taken by Elias Burton Holmes, an American traveler and lecturer, in 1901.
Notice the new temple on the right side of the statue, as well as the new offering table in front of the statue.
Another photograph taken by the Swedish explorer Stan Bergman, who visited Korea in 1935. Notice the protective screen in front of the pavilion has been largely removed by this point.
A 1960 graduation photo of the nearby Segeomjeong Elementary School. By this time, the protective screen was completely removed. It was not restored to its original state until 2002.
Samuel Alexander Denny, Jr. comes from Fort Worth, Texas and has a twenty-year career in the field of English Education working in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Korea. Currently, he is an Associate Professor in the Department of English Education at the Seoul campus of Sangmyung University. He is an avid enthusiast of local history and a member of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (RAS-KB). With his students, he has participated in Templestay experiences at Geumsunsa in Seoul as well as at Baekdamsa in Gangwon Province.