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Saturday, 11 January 2014

Namo Palbeon Daebosal, Part VII: Bulguksa, Gyeongju, Northern Gyeongsang


Bulguksa (Hanja: 佛國寺) is located on the slopes of Mount Toham (Jinhyeon-dong, Gyeongju City, Northern Gyeongsang Province, South Korea). It is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and encompasses seven National treasures of South Korea, including Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas, Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge), and two gilt-bronze statues of Buddha. The temple is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government. In 1995, Bulguksa was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Seokguram Grotto, which lies four kilometers to the east. It is currently the head temple of the 11th district of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

Among the earliest woodblock prints in world, a version of the Dharani sutra dated between 704 and 751 was found there in 1966. Its Buddhist text was printed on a 8 cm × 630 cm (3.1 in × 250 in) mulberry paper scroll.

The temple's records state that a small temple was built on this site under King Beopheung in 528. The Samguk Yusa records that the current temple was constructed under King Gyeongdeok in 751, begun by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong to pacify the spirits of his parents. The building was completed in 774 by the Silla royal court, after Kim's death, and given its current name Bulguksa (Temple of the Buddha Land).

The temple was renovated during the Goryeo Dynasty and the early Joseon Dynasty. During the Imjin wars, the wooden buildings were burned to the ground. After 1604, reconstruction and expansion of Bulguksa started, followed by about 40 renovations until 1805. During the Colonial Korea of 1910-1945, the Japanese conducted a restoration, but there are no records of the work done, and known treasures disappeared during this time.

After World War II and the Korean War, a partial restoration was conducted in 1966. Upon an extensive archeological investigation, major restoration was conducted between 1969 and 1973 by the order of President Park Chung Hee, bringing Bulguksa to its current form. The famous stone structures are preserved from the original Silla construction.

The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge (National Treasure No. 23) that leads to the inside of the temple compound. The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment. The lower portion, Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) is 6.3 meters long and has 17 steps. The upper portion, Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge) is 5.4 meters and has 16 steps. The stairway leads to Jahamun (Mauve Mist Gate).

There are two pagodas on the temple site, which is unusual. The three-story Seokgatap (Sakyamuni Pagoda) which stands at 8.2 meters is a traditional Korean-style stone pagoda with simple lines and minimal detailing. Seokgatap is over 13 centuries old. Dabotap (Many Treasure Pagoda) is 10.4 meters tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha mentioned in the Lotus Sutra. In contrast to Seokgatap, Dabotap is known for its highly ornate structure. Its image is reproduced on the South Korean 10 won coin. Dabotap and Seokgatap are Korean National Treasures nos. 20 and 21, respectively.

The terrestrial and the two celestial abodes are manifested in Bulguksa: the terrestrial with a Shakyamuni Buddha Lotus Sutra, the celestial with Amitabha Buddha Avatamska Sutra. The large temple site is centred on two courts. One of the courts is centred on Daeungjeon, the hall which houses the Shakyamuni Buddha. The other is centred on Geungnakjeon, the hall of paradise where the Seven Treasure Bridge Chilbogyo is housed.

Daeungjeon (대웅전,大雄展), the Hall of Great Enlightenment, is the main hall. Dabotap and Seokgatap stand before this hall. The hall enshrines the Sakyamuni Buddha and was first built in 681. Behind the main hall stands Museoljeon (무설전,無說展), the Hall of No Words. This hall gets its name from the belief that Buddha's teachings could not be taught by mere words alone. It is one of the oldest buildings in the complex and was probably first built in 670. The Gwaneumjeon (Avalokitesvara's Shrine, 관음전,觀音展) houses an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex. The Birojeon (Vairocana Buddha Hall, 비로전,毘盧展), which sits below the Gwaneumjeon, houses national treasure No.26 while the Geungnakjeon (Hall of Supreme Bliss, 극락전), standing near the main compound, houses the gilt-bronze buddha that is the national treasure No.27.