Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
Seokguram Grotto And Bulguksa Temple
Cultural Republic Of Korea Asia And The Pacific

Construction of Seokguram Grotto, located on the south-eastern slope of Mount Toham, facing the East Sea, began in AD 751, the 10th year of the reign of Silla King Gyeongdeok, by the Prime Minister KIM Daeseong, and completed in 774, the 10th year of the reign of King Hyegong. It is recorded that it was originally known as Seokbulsa Temple. It is built from granite and features 39 Buddhist engravings on the main wall and the principal sculpture of the Buddha in the centre.

The grotto consists of an antechamber, a corridor, and a main rotunda. The Eight Guardian Deities are carved in relief on the walls of the rectangular antechamber, four on either side. Two figures of Vajradhara stand on either side of the entrance to the corridor leading from the antechamber to the main rotunda. The Four Guardian Kings are carved in pairs on either side of the narrowed part of the corridor. There are two octagonal stone pillars, one on either side of the entrance to the main rotunda, where the main Buddha stands slightly off-centre. The walls to the left and right of the entrance are covered with relief images of two Devas, two Bodhisattvas and the Ten Disciples. In the middle of the wall behind the main Buddha there is an exquisite wall carving of an eleven-faced Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

The stones beneath each carved figure on the walls of the antechamber and the main rotunda are also carved. At the time of construction there was a marble stupa in front of the Avalokitesvara, but it was removed during the Japanese colonial period. A large circular lotus flower is set in the wall above the Avalokitesvara behind the main Buddha, creating the illusion of a halo for the Buddha when seen from the front. There are 10 niches lining the upper wall on either side of this lotus flower: originally each contained images of Bodhisattvas or Buddhist devotees, but two are now missing. The vaulted ceiling is made from dressed stones that meet in another carved lotus flower at the top of the main hall.

The main Sakyamuni Buddha figure is 3.45 m high, and set on a lotus flower-shaped pedestal. The hair is tightly curled and there is a distinct usnisa, the protuberance on the top of the head symbolizing Supreme Wisdom. Beneath the broad forehead the eyebrows are shaped like crescent moons and the half-closed eyes gaze towards the East Sea. The Buddha's robe is slung over the right shoulder;the details of the robe covering the left arm and chest are realistically depicted. The Buddha is portrayed cross-legged with the hands in the bhumisparsha mudra position, the gesture with which the historical Buddha summoned the Earth as witness to his realization of Enlightenment. All the other figures - Vajradharas, Guardian Kings, Devas, Bodhisattvas, Disciples and Guardian Deities - are elaborately carved with great attention to naturalistic detailing.

The main Buddha of Seokguram is a masterpiece that perfectly depicts the moment Sakyamuni attained enlightenment, and Bulguksa Temple is an ambitious architectural work through which Silla revealed the world of Buddhism to the terrestrial world. Built at the same time Seokguram was constructed, the construction of Bulguksa Temple was also initiated and supervised by Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong. With deep filial piety, Kim Dae-seong built Bulguksa Temple in memory of his parents in the present life and the cave temple of Seokguram for his parents of the previous life.

The realization of Buddha Land in the mundance world was a long-cherished dream in Silla, and the people of Silla believed that their kingdom was this very land. Even the name, Bulguksa, indicates the great meaning it had to the people of Silla. It literally means Temple of Buddha Land. In other words, Bulguksa is a terrestrial paradise of the land of Buddha.

The grounds of Bulguksa were seen as a utopia of Buddhism itself in the mundance world, and are divided into three areas with wooden buildings on raised stone terraces. They are Birojeon (Vairocana Buddha Hall), Daeungjeon (Hall of Great Enlightenment) and Geungnakjeon (Hall of Supreme Bliss).

They represent the terrestrial and the two celestial abodes: The Pure Land of Buddhism, that is, the terrestrial of Vairocana Buddha;the paradise of Amitabha Buddha;and the World of Endurance of Sakyamuni.

Birojeon, Geungnakjeon and Daeungjeon and areas on stone terraces are posed as the land of Buddha;the lower areas below these terraces are the mundance world. These two worlds are connected by two beautiful bridges known as Cheongun/ Baegun (Bridge of Blue Clouds/ Bridge of White Clouds), and Yeonhwa/ Chilbo (Bridge of Lotus Flowers/ Bridge of Seven Treasures). The stone terraces and bridges, Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni), and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) in front of the Daeungjeon attest the fine masonry of Silla. Like Seokguram, Bulguksa is built of granite, which is very hard and difficult to fashion. It is said that there originally was a lotus pond called Gupumyeonji, which was fed by waters from Mt. Toham. Although the pond no longer exists, traces of the water channel from Mt. Toham remain on the stone terrace.

During the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, Bulguksa suffered extensive damage. The wooden buildings were all destroyed by fire, but the stone terraces and stairs, stone pagodas, lanterns, and gilt bronze statues of Buddha survived. The buildings were later partially restored and Bulguksa as we see today is a modern restoration done from 1969 to 1973. At this time, the site of Bulguksa Temple was excavated and studied, before construction began. However the complex is not nearly of such great scale as during the Silla period.

In the main courtyard in front of Daeungjeon, the center of Bulguksa, are two pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap, standing on an east-west axis. Since the Unified Silla period, it was standard practice to erect a pair of pagodas of the same appearance in front of the main building of a temple, but in this case each of these pagodas are different.

The two pagodas reflect a story in the Lotus sutra. When Sakyamuni was giving sermons on Vulture Peak, the Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures rose from the ground, and Dabo, a Buddha who had already achieved enlightenment, appeared riding the Pagoda to attest to the validity of Sakyamuni's sermons. Dabo and Sakyamuni then sat side-by-side within the tower. Dabotap represents the Dabo Buddha, and the other represents Sakyamuni.

Also noteworthy is Mugu jeonggwang dae darani-gyeong (Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure Light) in a paper scroll 6.7 centimeters wide and 6.2 meters long. It was discovered in the second level of Seokgatap in 1966. Dated to the 8th century, this is the oldest known sutra printed from carved wooden blocks in the world.