Sunday, January 3, 2010

Korea Road Trip: Part 2

Gyeongju Exploration: A Little History First

There were so many choices to be had when visiting Gyeongju and we were essentially able to see anything since we weren't hindered by lack of transportation.

However, I think we stuck to the main attractions one of which is Bulguksa.

First a little background about this area in South Korea and why it is historically interesting to visit. Also let me show you a map of where it is and kind of how we got there.

For 992 years the Silla dynasty established their kingdom in this area. Silla were a kingdom that reigned during the Three Kingdoms Period but then become successful and took in the other two (Koguryo and Paekche) where they established the Unified Silla. Therefore what you have in result is a kingdom with a mix of many cultural arts and traditions.

Another interesting aspect is that they took in the culture of the Tang Dynasty in China, and Buddhism was adopted and flourished taking form within their religious and cultural practices.

Because Silla never changed their capital after the unification the geographical background of Gyeongju benefits from this advantage. Despite destruction from the Japanese many relics either survived or were rebuilt so there is still a lot to see.

The Silla Period is often referred to as Korea's Golden Age. It was Korea’s artistic zenith in painting and sculptural arts. The myriad of Buddha statues that survive today bespeak a distinctive Korean aesthetic and spirit, rather than being re-workings of Chinese and Japanese influences.
I hope these historical findings give you some interest in what I am going to show you through my posts. I think if you live in Korea or are thinking of visiting here consider how each part of Korea was influenced by a different kind of kingdom that once lived there. Each kingdom had their own set of values, arts and ideals on what to build and believe in. Such is the result you can see in the architecture and religious artifacts left behind.

Exploration: Bulguksa

We arrived at Bulguksa in the morning. The air was fresh and very cold, but we nonetheless wanted to take a look.

Near the entrance to the Temple grounds was a very large image and explanatory listing in English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. It basically summed up who made it, why, who destroyed it (The Japanese) and when it was rebuilt.

Note that this is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Entering the Palace grounds we were greeted by a frozen pond. Do you see that bridge in the distance? It has arches which are unique to the Silla style. 
The large arch underneath the staircase testifies to the use of arches in Silla-style bridges and the remains of a pond and once flowed underneath the bridge.
Crossing the bridge~

A gate: It was fun when JH asked me if I could read the letters, which I was able to pretty much do... 

Under the gate and on the sides stand the guardians.
Leaving the gate you walk along a path approaching the main entrance.

Beomyeongnu Pavillion:

This building is famous for it's stairway bridges, which you can see there in the center.
An old path up the hillside leads the visitor to a broad stairway (image 5) known as the Sokgyemun--the traditional entrance to the grounds. The first stairway is thirty-three steps high and ends at Jahamun (Mauve Mist Gate). The lower portion is called Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and the upper is Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge). An interesting detail is the continuous slab of granite dividing each stairway in half. Both stairways have been reconstructed with the original stones.

 The wall was constructed with granite, and you can see the original foundation stones.

Nearby was a water purification area, where JH and I both agreed that it was too cold to purify ourselves. However, other folks found that to be not a problem. Hmm now that I think about it people were drinking from those cups. I guess the water is powerful enough to purify H1N1 and other such no-no's.

We walked up a hillside to enter into the Taeungjori area where there were several treasures. Or in other words one of the main hall areas.

View of one of the arcades around the main hall grounds which connect the temples. 

Taeungjon Hall: Home of the Sakyamuni Buddha

*Note that I did not take any pictures of the Buddha statues housed in these structures since there was a big sign in English saying not to. Plus I checked and the other visitors weren't taking pictures either.

Architectural detail:

(대웅전), the Hall of Great Enlightenment, is the main hall. The hall enshrines the Sakyamuni Buddha and was built in 681. In front of the main hall are the two pagodas of the temple complex.
Turning around we were greeted by two pagodas, one of which was under refurbishment. These two are the Tabotap (shrouded) and the Sokkatap.

Sokkatap pagoda:  3 storied and structured like a square shaped house. There are suppose to be four stone lions on this pagoda, one of which remains, another one is in a British museum but the other two are lost.

Dabotap Pagoda

Actually, folks, if you are in Korea take out your 10 (ship) won coin. Look closely. See something familiar?
Yep the Dabotap pagoda is on there. ;)

 Let's look around~

 It almost looks like the top of the pagoda is growing out of the tea can...almost...

Shoes at the foot of the Buddha shrine entrance...
Behind the Taeunjon hall is the Musolijon Lecture Hall, which is famous for lectures held by different monks. While we were there you could here a monk talking inside. JH informed me that he was talking about Christianity and the differences. I took a picture of the monk's shoes, which were outside.

Kwanumjon: houses an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex.
To get there you had to climb up very steep stairs.

It might be just me, but I noticed that temple stairs tend be very highly spaced. Making it that you really need to concentrate on each step.

Once up there you can view the shrine where the Avalokitesvara sits.
Around the side of the shrine was an open space with a wall and trees nearby. You could hear the wind rustling through the trees as it passed through the mountain side.

A view of the side of the shrine~

After taking a relaxing moment we moved on to another shrine complex the Pirojon, which houses the seated Vairocana Buddha.

Note the hand gesture, which this explanation allows us to understand.
This is called the "knowledge fist," and is made up of the right-hand "diamond fist" and the left-hand "diamond finger." The diamond represents the supreme strength and durability of Buddhist knowledge. This mudra is a divine representation of the passions, and a comment on the intensity with which one aspiring to wisdom pursues this goal. Thus, the left index finger represents the world of sentient beings, and the surrounding right hand is the protection of the world of Buddhas.
 In my days of studying Buddhist art in history class I do not recall seeing this gesture, and so am now somewhat fascinated.

Around the temple was another interesting artifact, the Sarira Stupa.

The information display plaque noted that it was taken by the Japanese, but later retrieved by Korean people. What a journey this stupa went on!
Behind the stupa I was fascinated by the tiles on top of the wall.

Going past this area we came to the Nahanjon where there is another shrine. Yet what was most interesting were the handmade stone stupas or pillars made by visitors to the site.

In the Korean language, he words suhk tahp or dol tahp mean "stone tower," often translated as "stone pagoda" in Buddhist contexts. Suhk tahp are usually made by stacking and balancing unaltered tones into various size towers in a rather spontaneous and intuitive manner. They probably have a pre-Buddhist animistic origin involved with the honoring of nature.
In building the stone pagodas, one is thankful for the place and the beings that live there, The stones to be used are honored. As the towers are built, each stone is placed with loving attention to the stone, the tower taking shape, and the environment all around.
This simple ritual seems to be an almost human instinct. For I recall staking stones in a similar fashion at the river I use to visit as a child in California.

I made one~

Yet another good luck attraction in this area was a tree where folks had put coins into the bark.

We moved on making our way to a part of the temple grounds where only the pillar stones were left from the fire that the Japanese wreaked.

We were getting hungry and so decided to head out, on our way we passed the souvineer shop.

And a large Bronze bell.

I really enjoyed visiting this sight not only due to the cultural heritage but also walking around the grounds. Going through the small gates to other walled-in shrines felt like I was walking through time. All the while hearing the rustling in the trees from the wind gave me a great satisfactory feeling. I suppose it could be said that visiting any temple in Korea can feel repetitive, but Bulguska offered plenty of new sights for me.

I highly recommend checking this site off your list of places to visit in South Korea.

I will finish Part 2 of my road trip with images of the lunch we found, which was bulgolgi with a mix of mushrooms.


  1. Wow, great photos! I really want to go to Gyeongju sometime when I'm in Korea! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Two other notable stories about Bulguksa:

    1. The legend behind the construction of Dabotap, Seokgatap, and the nearby Shadow Pond.

    2. The world's oldest extant woodblock comes from Bulguksa, marked by its use of Zetian characters. (則天文字)

    Self-plug here. ;)

  3. Joy,

    LOL - I saw your post on my blog.. I did steal that text directly from you AND cut and pasted it to TWO different sites!

    Only because your picture of the red columns along the empty walkway in Bulguksa is EXACTLY the same as the one I took a couple of weeks ago and I have the proof in 10 Magazine!!

    Or, it's coincidence... well, your photo anyway, cause I surely ripped of your formatting for the 2S2 thing.

    Next time I'll change a font color and it will be INDETECTABLE!

  4. It's okay's for a good cause...2S2...which I hope takes off. ;)

  5. This was the most interesting post visually!
    The photo of the elaborate colorful architectural detail w/the fish in the mouth of some creature on a pole.....was amazing!
    Was that the detail of the ceiling of the structure?

  6. That is the detail from the eave of the overhanging roof.


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