Posted : 2010-02-25 20:28
Updated : 2010-02-25 20:28

Seokguram: Koreas Supreme Grotto

The main Buddha statue of Seokguram Grotto near Bulguk Temple in North Gyeongsang Province. The grotto, South Korean National Treasure No. 24, is also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
/ Courtesy of Korea Buddhism Promotion

>By David Mason
Contributing Writer

I first became enraptured by the serene yet vibrant spiritual energy of Seokguram in 1982. Over the nearly four decades since then, my fascination with Korea’s supreme grotto-temple has only intensified as I wonder why it hasn’t become one of the most famous Buddhist heritages in the world.

Seokguram Grotto is listed as the 24th National Treasure of the Republic of Korea, but many scholars and travelers such as myself consider this elegant monument near Bulguk Temple in North Gyeongsang Province to be the single most precious tangible cultural legacy of this country, and its best artistically.

This relatively small grotto-temple is regrettably less known than some of the world's other great ancient holy sites, but many of those who study and experience it declare that it is one of the best-made and most-profound remaining Buddhist artworks on earth.

The practice of carving the images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other deities into the stone walls of natural caves and dug-out grottos to actualize grand icon-sanctuaries started in India at least 2,300 years ago, and then spread across the Silk Road deserts into China.

As Buddhism flowed into the early Korean kingdoms, however, they only carved the holy images on cliffs and boulders on their craggy granite mountains, but generally not in caves or grottos because those were already being used for indigenous mountain-worship customs. It was only the Silla Kingdom that created a few full-sized grotto-temples, often by building a structure outside of depressions or cracks in cliffs with a few Buddhist carved images to make them seem like caves.

Remarkably, all of ancient Korea created only one fully-enclosed artificial subterrane out of stone blocks (and then covered with earth) to rival the great caves of India and China. It is known simply as Seokguram or “Stone-Cave Hermitage.” They only made one, but in philosophical design and architectural technique they achieved perhaps the greatest one that had ever been made anywhere. Its contemporary comparative value is greatly enhanced by excellent preservation efforts with its major features fully intact and in excellent condition. Those in the other regions have suffered tragic extents of erosion and theft.

The Seokguram Grotto was built on a remote but geomantically-favorable site near the summit of Mt. Toham, the eastern sacred peak of the Silla Kingdom.

Its main chamber is a rounded dome over a monumental statue of the Buddha that stands at 3.5 meters high and sits on a tall lotus pedestal, itself a highly regarded Buddhist artwork. Unlike other Buddhas that have a halo attached to the back of the head, this one has a carving of a lotus flower behind it on the upper wall of the rotunda, ingeniously creating the illusion of a halo for those who kneel in front of the statue. He is sitting in the common ``mudra” position of Sakyamuni just after his enlightenment, with a very powerful appearance yet a serene expression of deep meditation, a combination that amazes and inspires those who view it.

This grand Buddha is gazing out the doorway of the complex, straight down a long valley to the East Coast directly to the spot where the sun rises on the winter solstice, and where the underwater tomb of Great King Munmu is located just off-shore. This profound configuration leads scholars to think that he is facing southeast (Sakyamuni Buddhas usually face south) in order to defend the nation against Japanese pirates that raided from the southeast.

He is surrounded by relief-carvings of Bodhisattvas, Arhant disciples and other deities, all realistically and delicately sculpted in high relief. The arched entranceway, rectangular antechamber and narrow corridor contain more of them, so that there are a total of forty different figures representing Buddhist teachings in the whole grotto, making it a kind of ``mandala” in stone, a holistic symbolization of Dharma principles.

Hidden directly behind the main statue is one of the most spectacular features, a detailed relief carving of the eleven-faced ``Gwanseeum bosal” (Avalokitesvara the Bodhisattva of Compassion), 2.18 meters tall, dressed in robes, a crown and jewelry, and holding a vase containing a lotus blossom. This figure is regarded as one of the finest ancient carvings in all of Korea if not all of Asia, second only to the Buddha in front of it. It's unfortunate that very few modern visitors get to see it due to the restrictions on tourists entering the chamber.

Silla architects used advanced symmetrical designs incorporating higher mathematics and the classical “golden mean” proportions. They employed a unique and ingenious technique of building it over a cooling flowing stream of water with minute gaps in the floor. This caused all the moisture that condensed on the inner stone works to drain out, leaving them dry without any corrupting buildup of mold or moss. This perfectly preserved the carvings inside until a few misguided reconstructions by government authorities in the 20th century destroyed the original configuration and necessitated alterations for the humidification and preservation, such as the present glass wall that visitors must stay behind.

The carving and construction techniques of the Baekje-region artisans in making the rotunda-dome was so advanced that the curved and slanted granite blocks fit together so closely as to make it watertight without using any mortar, an incredible technological achievement for the 8th century.

The establishment of this great sanctuary from 751-774 CE during the cultural peak of Unified Silla is attributed to its Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong, about whom several colorful legends are recorded. It is said that he was reincarnated to a noble house for his pious and filial acts in his previous life as a poor boy, and then built the Bulguk Temple to honor his present parents, while the Seokguram was dedicated to his parents from the previous life.

It was probably used exclusively by Silla royalty and the highest nobles at first, but later became a pilgrimage destination for those who started hiking four kilometers down at Bulguk Temple. When that great temple was burned down during the tragic Mongol invasions of the 13th Century, the grotto above it became virtually lost deep in the forest. It remained so to all but the local monks and farmers until 1910, when it was rediscovered by an adventurous postal worker and reported to the authorities.

It is now one of the best-known cultural tourism and pilgrimage destinations in Korea. Watching the sun rise over the sea from its front is an especially popular activity for visitors to the ancient capital Gyeongju.

A modern paved road and large parking lot have been constructed at its trailhead high up on the slopes of Mt. Toham to accommodate the many visitors, some of whom still trek to experience the symbolic spiritual journey from the teachings of the Buddha up to Nirvana itself.

The refurbishment and preservation of this primary National Treasure allowed it to be designated by UNESCO as this nation's first World Cultural Heritage Site in 1995, bringing great pride to all Koreans. UNESCO noted that “Seokguram Grotto is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East” and that with Bulguk Temple, they together “form an outstanding religious architectural complex and example of the material expression of Buddhist belief, of exceptional significance.”

About six years ago I was a tour-guide in Gyeongju for a group of elite wealthy Americans, one of whom has long been a Buddhist believer and had traveled all over the world to experience the greatest artworks of that religion.

However, this was his first time in Korea even though he had already traveled all the rest of Asia, even obscure sites in the Himalayas. This was not really surprising to me because our tourism treasures are far less-known than those of our neighbors, far less than they deserve to be. I stood beside him in front of Seokguram, and felt that he was gazing enraptured by its vibrant spiritual energy just as I had when I first encountered it.

We walked away from this grandest of shrines in appreciative silence, until he turned to me asking in wonderment, “Why haven't I heard of this place before? Why isn't it one of the most famous Buddhist sites in the world?” I could only smile wistfully in response, from having wondered the same thing myself many times over the decades.

Bulguk Temple is among the most frequently visited Buddhist monasteries in Korea, a favorite of tourists and aficionados of ancient religious art.

Its name means ``Buddha Kingdom Temple,” which can be interpreted in two ways: that its elaborate landscape architecture represents a pilgrim’s journey to the idealized spiritual realm of the Buddha; and that by its magnificence it validated the Unified Silla Kingdom’s claim to being an authentic Buddhist nation.

It was constructed under the direction of Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong between 751 and 774 CE, and its monumental architecture is still regarded as one of Korea's finest creations.

Burned down by Mongol invaders in the late 13th century and then left in tragic ruins for 600 years, it was painstakingly restored to grandeur during the 20th century by governmental authorities. It has now returned to being a major functioning monastery of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, and contains seven official National Treasures, more than any other single site in Korea.
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