Seokguram Grotto · Bulguksa Temple
A small but noble pantheon of divinities symbolizing Buddhist philosophy and aestheticism, Seokguram is a structure of sublime beauty culminating religious belief, science and fine arts which flowered in the golden age of Asian art
|Overlooking the East Sea far ahead beyond the
mountain ridges from the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula,
Seokguram stands as a proud testimony to Korea's brilliant tradition
of classical Buddhist sculpture. A small but noble pantheon of divinities
symbolizing Buddhist philosophy and aestheticism, the eighth-century
cave temple is a structure of sublime beauty culminating religious
belief, science and fine arts which flowered in the golden age of
Asian art. Seokguram is located near the tummit of Mt. Tohamsan, east
of the historic city of Gyeongju, capital of the Silla Kingdom (57B.C.-A.D.935).
|It is reached after an hour-long walk up a
steep, winding mountain path over some four km from Bulguksa, another
famous temple dating to the eighth century when Silla was at the peak
of its strength. The capital of Silla rivalled in splendor the Dang
capital of Jangan and its culture shared in the international character
of Dang at this time when all of East Asia enjoyed unprecedented peace
Buddhism first reached Korea in the fourth century through China but it truly flowered only after the court of Silla officially recognized it as the state religion.
|After Silla unified the peninsula in the mid-seventh century by conquering the rival states of Goguryeo and Baekje, Buddhism not only served a religious function but was looked upon as a protective force. Temples of magnificent scale were erected in and around Gyeongju as they were regarded as a supernatural defense against external threats and bastions of national consciousness. According to the scant historical records available today, both Seokguram and Bulguksa, the two supreme accomplishments of Silla Buddhist architecture, were built under the supervision of Kim Dae-seong, who came from the royal family and served as prime minister under the reign of King Gyeongdeok.
|The construction began in 742, the year after Kim resigned from his top position in court. He died in 774 without seeing the completion of the historic projects several years later under the reign of King Hyegong. As a complement to Bulguksa, which was dedicated to the present generation, the granite temple of Seokguram is said to have been intended to honor those who had been Kim's parents in his previous life. Whoever the patron or whatever the motivation, Seokguram was apparently designed as a private chapel for royalty considering its scale, philosophical depth and aesthetic standard, whereas Bulguksa, a grand complex of various worship halls and pagodas, was intended as a state monastery to serve the public.
|Too small and cozy to have been conceived as a place for congregation in spite of the enormous resources required for its construction, the grotto shrine represents a pinnacle of religious sculpture not only in Korea but in all of East Asia.
|One of Korea's most popular tourist destinations drawing thousands of visitors from home and abroad daily, Seokguram recalls the long journey Buddhism made from its homeland of India through central Asia and China to Korea. A gem of ancient Buddhist architecture punctuating the eastern terminal of the Silk Road, the shrine testifies to the enthusiasm and sacrifice of early Korean monk pilgrims who risked their lives to experience firsthand the exotic traditions of their faith in the faroff land of India. Buddhist grottos are generally believed to have originated in ancient India.
|They are divided largely into two kinds according
to form and purpose: caitya, literally a "sanctuary" or
a hall containing a sacred object to be worshipped such as a small
stupa or a Buddha image; and vihara, a monastery or shelter for monks,
often with chapels for images or a stupa placed in the central court
which also served as a place for instruction. Grottos in th caitya
style were later adopted by the Chinese in the hundreds of caves stretching
over a mile along the cliffs of Dunhuang and the sandstone hills of
Yungang. Seokguram, with a rectangular antechamber leading to a circular
domed main chamber, resembles ancient Indian cave temples.
|Though inspired by the cave temples
of ancient India and China, Seokguram differs in construction to its
prototypes which were mostly built by digging into hillsides and carving
on natural rocks. Korea's topographical features comprising solid
rock beds probably made it impossible to import the idea of the sculptors
of Karle or Ajanta, who carved thousands of figures, stupas and apse
ends out of the soft conglomerate rock and clay. Instead, an incredible
artificial cave was assembled with granite on the heights of a mountain
some 750meters above sea level, an architectural technique without
precedent the world over.
Apex of Korean Buddhist Sculpture
Highlighted by the majestic seated Buddha with a serene, all-knowing
expression as the primary object of worship, Seokguram enshrines an
impressive assembly of 40 different divinities embodying various aspects
of Buddhist teaching. The grotto chapel, in spite of the diversity
of the icons ensconced, has a unique feeling of peace and unity resulting
in an intense spiritual impression. The prominent skill for handling
solid granite aside, modern scientists investigating the source of
this rare sensation of sacred harmony discovered that the Silla architects
employed the geometric theories of the golden rectangle and symmetry.
Seokguram is meticulously designed to guide the faithful into the
holy of the Buddha, a mysterious spiritual journey to the realm of
nirvana in a limited span of time and space. In ancient times when
there was no transportation, everybody was supposed to walk up the
rugged, serpentine mountain path. The journey was to begin at the
foot of Mt.Tohamsan which was considered a holy mountain by the people
of Silla, or, symbolically, it began from Bulguksa which straddles
the mountain's western midslope. After climbing up the mountain for
an hour or so, the pilgrim was to quench his thirst with the icy cold
water gushing up from a fountain in front of the shrine.
Passing the arched entrance into the rectangular antechamber and proceeding
through a slightly narrower corridor, their walls decorated with a
legion of bas-relief images of various guardian deities, the worshiper
would leave the secular world behind and be prepared to face to Buddha
in the main rotunda. An image of serenity and power, the Buddha is
seated cross-legged on a lotus throne, with his eyes half-closed in
meditation and a faint smile on his lips.
The Buddha is surrounded by bodhisattvas, arhats and ancient Indian
gods carved in high relief on the wall of the circular hall. Here
the ancient Silla architects probably borrowed the concept of the
early Indian stupas and the mounded graves of Gyeongju but in a reversed
form to create a "hollowed stupa." Inside the shrine, with
the dim light making subtle changes to the texture of the granite
carvings as he moves, the worshiper could walk around the Buddha and
possibly face himself and experience nirvana to realize that life
and death can be one in the void of nothingness.
The construction method of Seokguram remains a wonder for modern architects. Hundreds of granite pieces of various shapes and sizes were assembled to form the cave. No mortar was used; the stones are held together by stone rivets. Natural ventilation was provided to control the temperature and humidity inside the cave, though the wisdom of ancient architects failed to be conveyed in the process of its preservation in modern times.
The main rotunda, believed to stand for heaven in contrast to the
earth which is represented by the rectangular antechamber, measures
6.84 to 6.58 meters in diameter. It has a drum built of 10 granite
slabs, upon which 15 granite panels with sculpted images of bodhisattvas,
arhats and ancient Indian gods form the circular wall. Above these
icons and separated by lintel, there are 10 niches, each containing
miniature statues of seated bodhisattvas and faithfuls. Slightly tilted
toward the back from the center of the rotunda is a round lotus pedestal,
on which th Buddha sits facing the antechamber across the corridor.
The domed ceiling is capped with a round granite plate decorated with
a lotus design.
The Buddha and Other Deities
The elegant and majestic main Buddha of Seokguram epitomizes the aestheticism
of Korean Buddhist sculpture. An enigmatic combination of masculine
strength and feminine beauty and a personification of divine and human
natures, the Buddha represents Korean Buddhist sculpture at the zenith
of classical realism.
Chiselled out of a single granite block, the 3.5-meter-high Buddha
image envisages Seokgamoni, the Historic Buddha, at the moment of
enlightenment. He is seated in a cross-legged position on a 1.34-meter-high
lotus pedestal, with his right foot exposed as it lays across his
left knee. His hands are poised in a mudar touching the earth to call
it to witness his realization of enlightenment.
The Buddha has tightly curled hair and a distinct usnisa, the protuberance
on the top of the head symbolizing his supreme wisdom. Beneath the
broad forehead the double eyebrows are shaped like crescent moons
and the eyes are half-shut gazing vaguely ahead in deep meditation.
He wears a faint smile and his body is rounded and voluminous as though
inflated by an inner force.
The robust torso is draped in a flowing robe with gentle folds exposing
the right shoulder in respect of early Indian customs. The drapery
is obviously a Korean interpretation of the Indian prototype of a
tightly-clinging robe. The fan-shaped folds about the legs also indicate
the Gupta-period Indian influence. The details of the robe covering
the right arm and chest are realistically portrayed.
The lotus pedestal on which the Buddha sits consists of three sections.
The upper and lower sections are round and decorated with lotus petals,
while the narrower central section is octagonal with eight small pillars
supporting the upper section at each point of the octagon. The pedestal
is placed on a round foundation. A big granite roundel adorned with
lotus petals around the rim is set on the wall behind the Buddha,
creating the illusion of an aureole around his head. This is one of
the distinct features of Seokguram. The nimbus is normally attached
to the back or the head of most other Buddha images.
The Buddha lords it over an assembly of three bodhisattvas, ten disciples
and two Hindu gods carved in relief on the wall of the rotunda as
well as the ten miniature statues of bodhisattvas, saints and faithfuls
seated in the niches above, at the level of his eyes. On the two walls
of the corridor leading out to the antechamber are relief figures
of the Four Heavenly Kings, two on each side. Two powerful bas-relief
images of Vajrapanis, the fierce guardians of temples, stand vigil
on either side of the entrance to the passageway and the Eight Guardian
Deities decorate the walls of the antechamber, four on each side.
Aside from the main Buddha, the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, or the
Bodhisattva of Compassion, standing at the center of the back wall
of the rotunda, probably draws the greatest admiration among all the
deities in the shrine. This graceful Avalokitesvara, standing 2.18
meters high on an opulent lotus base, wears a crown decorated with
the heads of ten bodhisattvas and a central Amitabha, or the Buddha
of Boundless Light. He is dressed in flowing robes and decked with
resplendent jewelry. He holds a vase containing a single lotus blossom
in his left hand and a long beaded necklace in his right hand, Standing
right at the back of the Buddha, this is the only figure facing straight
ahead while the faces of all other images are portrayed obliquely.
Ten arhats, or the disciples of Seokgamoni, are lined up beside the
Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, five on each side. They have distinctly
different countenances with sharp noses and deep-set eyes and bony
bodies that are easily traced to the Indian ascetics depicted under
Greek influence. Wearing ankle-length saris, each of the shaven-headed
arhats holds a small object like a book, a bottle or an alms bowl,
or has hands poised in a symbolic gesture.
Two elegant bodhisattvas stand next to the arhats, one on either side.
They are the popular Manjusri, the representation of divine wisdom,
who holds a small cup in his hand, and his companion Samantabhadra
holding a book. Next come the two famous Indian devas, Mahabrahmanah
(Brahma) and Sakradevanam Indra (Indra), with their egg-shaped haloes.
Standing to the left of the entrance of the rotunda, Brahma holds
a whisk in his right hand and a small bottle in his left hand. Indra,
standing on the opposite side to the right of the entrance, holds
a whisk in his right hand and a ritual thunderbolt in his left hand.
The corridor leading to the main hall features the Four Heavenly Kings,
the guardians of the four corners of the heavens who are often found
at Korean temple gates. They are presented two on each side of the
corridor. They are clad in armor and flowing robes, each trampling
a demon and carrying an object such as a sword or a small stupa. The
demons vary in shape and posture. Traces of paint remain in the recessed
portions of the demons.
Two horrific Vajrapanis guard the rotunda on the outside of the corridor, one on each side of its entrance. Deriving from Indian mythology, the fierce temple protectors with bulging eyes and big mouths, look intimidating, each raising one arm with the hand clenched in a tight fist. The muscular torsos are naked and a skirt is hung at the waist. Exhibiting terrifying strength, they are carved in deep relief and almost appear to stand apart from the wall.
Legend of a Filial Son
In the small village of Moryang-ri on the western outskirts of Gyeongju,
there lived a poor woman named Gyeongjo who had an odd-looking son.
The villagers made fun of the child as he had a big head and a flat
forehead that looked like a wall. They called him Dae-seong, meaning
The boy's mother was too poor to feed him so she gave him to a rich
neighbor named Bogan as a farm hand. Dae-seong worked so hard that
his master was moved and gave him a small piece of a rice paddy. About
this time, a virtuous monk named Jeomgae from Heungnyongsa temple,
visited Bogan and asked for a donation for a big ceremony at his temple.
As Bogan handed him fifty rolls of hemp cloth, the monk bowed in appreciation
and said that the Buddha would repay his generosity by blessing him
ten thousand times the worth of his donation.
Dae-seong overheard this and ran home and told his mother, "Now
we are poor, and if we do not give something to the temple, we will
be poorer in our next lives. Why don't we give our little rice field
for the ceremony so that we may have a great reward in our afterlives?"
His mother readily consented and donated their rice field to the temple.
Dae-seong died a few months later. On the night of his death, a voice
from heaven was heard above the house of Prime Minister Kim Mun-ryang.
The voice said that Dae-seong, a good boy from Moryang-ri, would be
born to Kim's family. Kim's wife conceived at the time the heavenly
voice was heard and gave birth to a boy. The child kept his left hand
tightly clenched for seven days after his birth. When he opened his
fist at last, they found the two characters for Dae-seong written
in gold on his palm. They gave him his old name and invited his mother
of his previous life to take care of him.
Dae-seong grew up into a strong man who loved hunting. One day he
climbed Mt.Tohamsan and there he killed a big bear. As he was sleeping
in a village at the foot of the mountain that night, the bear's ghost
appeared in his dream and threatened to kill and eat him unless he
built a temple for him. Dae-seong built a temple on the spot where
he killed the bear and named it Jangsusa, meaning the Temple of Long
Life. From that time he gave up hunting.
Dae-seong was moved by the heavenly grace. He built the beautiful
Bulguksa in memory of his parents of the present life and the wonderful
cave temple of Seokguram for his parents of the previous life. He
invited the two distinguished monks Sillim and Byohun to supervise
these temples. He had his fathers and mothers represented among the
icons at these temples in gratitude for bringing him up as a useful
After the great stone Buddha for Seokguram was finished, Dae-seong
was working on a large piece of stone for the ceiling of the main
hall when it suddenly broke into three pieces. He wept bitterly over
this and fell into sleep. During the night, gods descended from heaven
and restored the stone to its original condition. Dae-seong awoke
with joy and climbed the southern peak of Mt.Tohamsan, where he burned
incense and worshiped the deities. People called the place Hyangnyong,
or Incense peak, thereafter.
The erudite monk historian lryeon(1206-1289) had the wondrous skill
of interweaving legend and fact in his book which serves as an invaluable
source of information for students of early Korean history. While
most readers of his book today would find it difficult to believe
in the reincarnation of Kim Dae-seong, visitors to Seokguram can see
crack dividing the round capstone on the main rotunda's domed ceiling
clearly into three pieces. South of the temple, there also exists
a peak called Hyangnyong.
Another important history book, Samguk Sagi (History of the Three
Kingdoms), compiled by Kim Bu-sik in 1145, identifies the founder
of Bulguksa and Seokguram as Kim Dae-seong who served as prime minister
in 745-750 under King Gyeongdeok. He was the son of Kim Mun-ryang
who was also prime minister in 706-711 under King Seongdeok, according
to the oldest extant book on Korean history.
Unsolved Questions of Preservation
Seokguram has had its share of turmoil in Korea's history over the
centuries. It lost much of its religious and artistic splendor during
the Joseon period (1392-1910) when its Confucian-oriented rulers suppressed
Buddhism. The remote mountain grotto was left seriously damaged toward
the turn of the century. It underwent repair three times earlier this
century under the Japanese colonial government.
The first round of repairs was carried out from 1913 to 1915. Without
sufficient study of its structure, the cave was almost completely
dismantled and reassembled and a fatal mistake was committed in the
process. The entire structure was encased with cement about two meters
thick, which resulted in water leaks and erosion of the sculptures
because the cave could no longer "breathe."
Seokguram went through considerable "torture" in the name
of preservation in the following decades. In 1917, drainage pipes
were buried above the dome to channel rainwater out of the cave. As
the leaks continued in spite of the pipes, however, another round
of repair was conducted in 1920 to 1923. Waterproof asphalt was applied
to the surface of the concrete mass this time. But water continued
to leak and dew formed, and in 1927 the Japanese government-general
eventually employed the unthinkable method of spraying hot steam on
the granite surface to get rid of moss.
As the preservation of Seokguram continued to pose serious problems with high humidity inside the shrine, the government of the late President Park Jeong-hui instructed an in-depth investigation of its structure to be carried out in the early 1960s. Extensive renovation was undertaken based on the study from 1962 to 1964. The problem of temperature and humidity control was resolved to a remarkable extent by using mechanical systems.
Nevertheless, the wooden superstructure built over the antechamber
remains a mind-boggling question for many who believe Seokguram originally
did not have such a structure blocking the magnificent sunrise over
the East Sea from the view of Seokgamoni, aside from cutting off the
air flow into the cave. A glass wall keeping the visitors from the
main chamber is another point of debate regarding the contradiction
concepts of the preservation of the shrine and its availability for
religious worship and aesthetic appreciation.
Two statues in the niches of the wall of the main chamber and a miniature
marble pagoda which is believed to have stood in front of the Eleven-faced
Avalokitesvara at the back of the Buddha image remain missing. They
disappeared in the early years of Japanese occupation.
Geographically removed from China by Goguryeo to the north and Baekje
to the west, Silla was the last of the three ancient Korean Kingdoms
to accept Buddhism. But as soon as King Beopheung recognized it as
the state religion in 528, it spread quickly through out the country.,
The 13th century historian monk, lryeon, wrote that, by the mid-sixth
century in Gyeongju and its vicinity, "the golden roofs of temples
glittered against the sky like the Milky Way and lotus-crowned pagodas
stood in unending lines like flights of wild geese."
All these temples vanished in the turbulent course of history, but the description vividly conveys how enthusiastically the early Buddhists erected temples and pagodas around the capital of their thriving kingdom. Today, Bulguksa offers a glimpse of the splendor of Silla's state temples, although all of its present wooden shrines are in the much later Joseon style and much of its antique flavor was lost in massive rehabilitation work carried out in the 1970s.
|Lee Kyong-hee, World Heritage in Korea (Seoul: Organizing Committee for thr Year of Cultural Heritage 1997 & Samsung Foundation of Culture, 1997)