Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Korea Road Trip: Part 4

Seokguram Grotto:
This is the site where there is a stone temple made of granite housing the Sakyamuni Buddha. To get there we had to drive up a winding cliffside road on Mt. Tohamsan.

Construction took place around 750 and was built by the Silla Prime Minister Kim Taesong. It was built at the same time as the Bulgulksa Temple and is the only intact surviving structure.

Because historical records are few the actual written history of how and why it was built remains more of a legend. This site gives one tale:
written by the monk Iryon in the 14th century, relates the following legend: the architect of Seokguram was carving the central ceiling stone when it cracked before his eyes. He wept bitterly at his blunder and fell into a trance. In a dream, he saw celestial beings descend from heaven and repair the critical ceiling stone. When he awoke, he found the stone healed but for the faint traces of cracks on the surface. Small cracks in the ceiling stone can still be seen today.
It is also said that for a long time the site was left undiscovered or abandoned but others feel this is impossible. Some say a Japanese postman discovered it, but I feel that because the Chosun dynasty did not favor Buddhism heavily that someone took care of it in secret. Really who knows...though?

During the Choson period, or at least during portions of it, Buddhism was officially discouraged and both Bulguksa and Seokguram fell into disrepair. The story is ... that Seokguram was rediscovered by a Japanese postman taking shelter on T'oham Mountain in 1909. It is, however, probably something of an overstatement to say that it had been ... forgotten by local people up until that point. "Rediscovery" might be more accurately described as "discovery for the Japanese authorities," who at that moment just prior to formal annexation had a great interest in Korean antiquities, ...
 Either way the site seems very sacred and meaningful which is why I was excited to see it.

Approaching the Sokkuram:
To get to the site you had to walk through a path along the mountainside and up some steps.

Perhaps this same path was used by ancient Koreans on their pilgrimage to the temple site.
 The grotto symbolizes a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla kingdom. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represent the earth while the rotunda represents heaven.

 The temple faces East out towards the East Sea, particularly for the purpose of allowing the rising sun's rays to touch the Buddha, when the doors are opened.
However, some details, particularly the placement of the central Buddha statue such that it gazes precisely in the direction of the underwater tomb of King Munmu located just off the coast in the East Sea, suggest that the carvings may have been executed to glorify the king or the royal lineage instead. 
The temple site with the Buddha inside. *I did not take any pictures inside for respect of the "No Pictures" sign.

 I can relate to you, however, the experience of going inside. When you enter you are crammed into a small space with other visitors. Before you is a glass barrier where behind that is the Buddha and surrounding cave wall with carvings. In front of the Buddha was a monk chanting with practitioners behind him bowing over and over.

In the spring they open up the Buddha to be viewed much more closely. In this case I was only able to see everything from an onlookers perspective and not up close. However, it still felt mystical and again fun because I had studied this relic in Korean Art History class. But I think because I saw the very huge Buddha in Nara when I was in Japan, that I could feel the difference in design.

However, I admired at how well it was preserved and that the muted colors of the cave gave it a very cleansing feeling.

For a 360' view of the temple check out this link. Now we will move onward....

Going down the path away from the temple you are greeted by a tile writing workshop and a souvenir shop on the left.

Writing on roof tiles is a tradition in Korea. Why would one want to write on their roof tiles? Well if you think about it when houses were traditionally made with clay roof tiles these were the "keystones" that held up and protected ones home or temple.

A roof completes the covering of a house, standing above our heads and representing the overall style of the house. Traditional roofs with tiles were decisive elements that completed houses. First of all they protected houses from rain and bad weather.

And on our way to take the path back to the parking lot we passed the cleansing fountain, which was partially frozen.

And so I finish up Part 4 with a view of the shadows made by the forest trees on our path back to the car. In part 5, I will show you treasures we found at the Gyeongju National Museum and stay tuned as I will also recap our trip to Busan, where a spectacular New Year's Day sunrise was witnessed.


  1. I didn't even recognize this place because when I went there it was sooo cloudy... Looks beautiful with the blue sky!

  2. I find it interesting that you:

    "*I did not take any pictures inside for respect of the "No Pictures" sign. "

    and yet have no problems taking pictures inside museums and art houses - same policies apply.

  3. I am sorry you seem to be bothered by this.

    My personal policy on taking pictures is to check before walking in. If there is a sign with a camera and a flash I assume they allow pictures but no flash. If others are taking pictures I go along with it. If there is a BIG sign that says NO PICTURES I respect that.

    Yes at times I violate my own rules.

    What do you seek to accomplish by writing that comment? Would you like me to give myself stricter photo taking rules?


  4. *Note...sign with a camera and a flash but in a circle and crossed out.

  5. Just as a note, oftentimes if you read the HANGUL, the "flash" doesn't actually mean "only no flash photography." It simply means "no photography."

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