Away from downtown, but still within Gyeongju City Limits, lies Bulguksa and the Seokguram Grotto. Bulguksa is a temple which still has the original stone foundation from Silla times, and Seokguram Grotto is a cave dug out and constructed during Silla times, and houses one of the masterpieces of Korean art. It is a World Heritage Site, separate from the ‘Gyeongju Historic Areas’ World Heritage Site.
I went to Bulguksa on a bus with a Spanish woman. She loves Seoul and Busan, and this was her first outing in ‘provincial’ South Korea. She didn’t like it very much, but as tourists, visiting Bulguksa and Seokguram is practically mandatory, even if it is raining.
The entrance to the temple has a pond, shown in the photo above.
When I first approached the front of the temple, I didn’t appreciate the ornate stone foundation, or think about the fact that these stones were set down during the time of the Silla kingdom (in the 8th century C.E.). I think it took at least ten minutes for this to dawn on minute, after which I had to go back to the front to admire this ancient masonry.
Within the main courtyard are two ancient stone pagodas. Stone pagodas within a courtyard are usually identical, but these two pagodas are in two very different styles.
This pagoda, Dabotap is made in Baekje style, not Silla style (Baekje was one of the Three Kingdoms, and had been conquered by Silla before the construction of Bulguksa). Perhaps the temple builders decided to build one pagoda in Baekje style to represent political and religious unity.
The four lion statues which guarded each direction were all removed by the Japanese colonial government in the 1920s. One (shown in the picture) has been returned to its original location, another is in the British Museum, and the fate of the other two is unknown.
So where is the other famous stone pagoda, Seokgatap? When I visited Bulguksa, part of the temple was undergoing restoration, and Seokgatap happens to be in that part. I was able to see it, but not take good pictures of it.
In 1966, the “Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light” was discovered inside Seokgatap, apparently placed inside it during the original construction of Bulguksa, which makes it the oldest known woodblock printing of a sutra in the world.
Speaking of the 1960s, the wooden structures which stand at Bulguksa today are from the 1969-1973 restoration, which happened while Park Chung-hee was the President (de facto military dictator) of South Korea. As I said in the previous post, he had a particular interest in Gyeongju and its history.
The wooden part of the temple seems like a really typical Korean Buddhist temple to me.
Above is a corner of a roof with some very typical Korean trees. I could tell you that this was Korea just by looking at those trees.
The temple also has this stone lantern which was carved during the Silla era.
After seeing Bulguksa, I went up a highly developed trail to Seokguram grotto. Along the way there was a natural water spring where all of the hikers got a drink, as well as some frogs.
There wasn’t much point in photographing the exterior of Seokguram Grotto since it was under restoration, and photos can only be taken inside the grotto with special permission. However, Wikimedia Commons has some photos of Seokguram Grotto.
Construction of Seokguram Grotto required intricate technology, including an elaborate arrangement of stone slabs in order to maintain the dome’s integrity.
There is a lotus flower carved into the back wall, and when you look in from the front, it looks like a halo around the central Buddha statue. I don’t recall seeing this effect in any other Buddha statue.
I’ve seen the great bronze Buddha statue of Nara (which was made at around the same time as Seokguram Grotto), I’ve seen (and walked inside) the Tian Tan Buddha in Ngong Ping, which is the largest Buddha statue in the world, and I have seen plenty of Buddha statues through all of my travels in East Asia.
The Sakyamuni Buddha statue in Seokguram Grotto is hands down my favorite.
It’s not something you can see in photos (or at least it’s not something I see in photos of Seokguram Grotto), but when I was there, looking at the Buddha with my own naked eyes, I felt this weight within the statue, and I felt this calming energy, focused in the hand pointing toward the earth, which pressed down on me, and made me live in the present, not in the past or future. It felt human, and it felt like humanity at its best. I cannot recall any other work of art having that exact effect on me.
I don’t know how they did it, but this statue is the best work of Buddhist art I have ever seen.