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Seokguram · Bulguksa
Bulguksa: The Temple of Buddha Land

As the name indicates, Bulguksa was designed as a realization of the blissful land of the Buddha in the present world. It was intended to embody the happy land where the mortal being is released from the suffering of life by following the teachings of the Buddha, or the Lotus Land as promised in the Avatamsaka Sutra, which offered the theoretical foundation for construction of the temple. Therefore, the temple had to be not only faithful to the teachings of the Buddha but beautiful as well. It is obvious that prominent monks and artists contributed their thoughts and aesthetic ingeniousness to build the temple under the guidance of Kim Dae-Seong, who was a devoted believer and able administrator with a remarkable eye for beauty.

An imposing complex of beautiful wooden shrines and stone pagodas built upon decorative stone terraces, the temple stands on the western midslope of Mt. Tohamsan overlooking fertile plains and the mythical mountain, Namsan, beyond. The elevated compound is reached by climing up thirty-three stone stairs adorned with elaborate railings, named the Bridge of White Cloud and the Bridge of Blue Cloud, which symbolize the thirty-three heavens.
The cloistered sanctuary is divided into two realms, the land of Seokgamoni Buddha and the land of Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light. The "impure land" of Seakgamoni Buddha is larger and higher than the "pure land" of Amitabha. This is because Seokgamoni is praised as the more noble for the chose to appear in the mundane world out of his great compassion. The main courtyard which is dedicated to Seoakgamoni, the Historic Buddha, includes Daeungjeon, the main worship hall enshrining a gilt-bronze buddha triad. A pair of famous pagodas, Seokgatap, or the Seokgamoni Pagoda, and Tabotap, or the Pagoda of Many Treasures, stand in front of the main worship hall, A lecture hall named Musolijeon, or the Hall of No Discourse, stands to the north of the worship hall. The shrines of Vairocana and Avalokitesvara stand at the back of the lecture hall.
Geungnakjeon, or the Paradise Hall, dedicated to Amitabha, the Buddha of Western Paradise, is located to the west of the main courtyard. From the outer terrain, the hall is reached through a separate gate and stairs named the Lotus Bridge and Bridge of Seven Treasures. Amitabha, who vowed that all who believed in him and who called upon his name would be born into his paradise, has a broad following among Koreans. Faith alone ensures rebirth in his paradise, so it is certainly easier than self-attainment leading to enlightenment.
Among the many treasures of Bulguksa, the pagoda pair in the main courtyard have an unmatched reputation. Indeed, part of the fame of Bulguksa itself is owing to this unique pair. The princely dignity and simplicity of the Seokgamoni Pagoda dramatically enhances the complexity of the Pagoda of Many Treasures that stands some 100 feet away with its lavish decorative details. The two stone pagoda have stood in dynamic contrast for over 12 centuries surviving the flames of war that engulfed all of the temple's original wooden structures. None of the some thousand stone pagodas scattered across Korea excel them for profound philosophical depth and aesthetic charm.
The Seokgamoni Pagoda represents the finest style of Korean Buddhist pagodas that evolved from China's multistoried pavilion-type wooden pagodas. The three-story pagoda is admired for its proportions and simple but graceful style. The highly decorative Tabotap, symbolizing Prabhutaratna Buddha, is an exceptional case that demonstrates the wondrous skill of Unified Silla masonry. The pagoda features what is assumed to be an enlarged version of a luxurious sarira shrine supported by a roof-like square slab resting on four pillars and massive brackets. The pillars stand on an elevated platform approached by four staircases, each with 10 steps symbolizing the 10 paramitas, or great virtues.
The arrangement of the two pagodas was inspired by the legend that when Seokgamoni preached the Lotus Sutra, the pagoda of Prabhutaratna emerged out of the earth in witness of the greatness and truth of his teaching. Meanwhile, the Seokgamoni Pagoda is also called the "Pagoda without Reflections," denoting the sad legend of Asanyeo, wife of the Baekje mason, Asadal, who built the pagoda. The poor woman came to Gyeongju to see her husband as years had passed without any news from him. No outsiders were allowed into the site of a holy project and she was told to wait by a pond near the temple until the completed pagoda cast a reflection in the water. She waited in vain and finally threw herself into the pond.
A collection of precious treasures was found in the Seokgamoni Pagoda during repair work in 1966. They include a paper scroll of the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, printed between 706 and 751. Measuring 6.2 meters in length and 6.7 centimeters in width, the scroll is recognized as the world's oldest printed material. The pagoda also yielded three sets of exquisitely decorated sarira containers including a gilt-bronze casket in elaborate openwork, a gilt-bronze box with a fine engraving of bodhisattvas and heavenly kings, and a glass bottle containing 46 grains of holy relics.
The Pagoda of Many Treasures was dismantled and reassembled by the Japanese in the 1920s but no record concerning the repair or the treasures found inside it remains. Back in 1593 during the Hideyoshi invasions, a group of Japanese pirates set fire to the temple upon discovering weapons hidden in one of its shrines. All of the wooden structures were burnt down at this time. The temple was reconstructed over a period of 150 years beginning in 1604 but never regained its old splendor.
The foundations of lost structures were excavated in an intensive investigation conducted in 1969. Based on the result of the excavation, several buildings and cloisters were reconstructed and the stone terraces were repaired in the early 1970s. But a lotus pond known to have existed beneath the staircases leading up to the main courtyard was left out of the renovations.
Lee Kyong-hee, World Heritage in Korea (Seoul: Organizing Committee for thr Year of Cultural Heritage 1997 & Samsung Foundation of Culture, 1997)
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