Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bulguksa and Seokguram

I finally got outside Busan this weekend for a daytrip to Gyeonju. Gyeonju is a southeastern Korean city famous for its temples and historical ruins. A very rough sketch of Korean history might help.
Creation-57 CE: there are many competing tribes/groups
57-668: 3 kingdoms--Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje-- rule different parts of the Korean peninsula
668-935: Silla conquers the other two, unifies korea
935-1392: Goryeo overthrow Silla
1392-1897: Joseon overthrow Goryeo
1897-1948: Korea under Japanese control until WWII
1948- present: US and USSR split Korea in two, Korean war, stalemate.

Anyway, the place I went, Gyeonju, was the capital of the Shilla group. That made it Korea's governmental and cultural center from 668-935CE. Near the city center, there are ruins of the old palace, royal tombs, an astrological observatory, and touristy shops. Pretty cool, but really more for history buffs.

What I came for, though, is Bulguksa, and that required another 25 minute bus ride outside the city. Bulguksa is Korea's biggest, most famous, and most badass Buddhist temple. It is also Korea's official Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 (Korea ranks historical places and artifacts). The fact that the best Buddhist temple and the Silla capital are so close is no coincidence. Silla money was used to build the temple in 528CE and it has remained an active temple ever since. The Silla dynasty was in many ways the apex of Buddhist influence in Korea. Especially during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), Buddhism was replaced by neo-confucianism as the state sponsored religion. Buddhist monks became second class citizens and were sometimes persecuted. Buddism never disappeared, but it also never regained the influence and popularity of its Shilla/Geoyeo days.

So what did I see at this temple? What are buddhist temples like? I won't bore you with an essay, I'll just post some pictures and make a few comments.

Temple on the outskirts of Busan

Like Bulgoksa, temples are usually hidden away in the mountains or along the coastline (cp. European cathedrals). They can be huge, but more often it is just an couple unassuming prayer halls along a hiking trail. The exact location of the temple depends on a geomancy-- magical geological forces.

At Beomosa, Busan's largest temple

Even today, the temple's natural surroundings are important and very well kept. Notice the huge bamboo shoots in the picture above. I've only seen that at a temple.

One thing at every temple is this huge bell. These are usually outside the temple proper. This one was at Seokguram, which I will get to in a minute. This bell, which is not unusually large, is about 8 feet tall. It is struck only on important holidays, like the lunar new year and the Buddha's birthday.

Now let's visit Bulguksa:

Pay 4 dollars at the temple entrace. Remember to use side doors, side staircases, and side entrences. The middle is just for monks.

At Beomosa

Actually sometime the middle staircases are not even open to monks. Only spiritual beings, Buddhas and Bodotsivas, up these stairs.

The first gate you see is called the iljumun (일주문), which literally means one pillar door. This is because, from the side, the massive roof appears magically supported by a single small pillar. It symbolically represents the paradox of... something.

rock out.
Then you go through another gate that has four huge wooden statues. Bow to them before proceeding. These guys are supposed to scare away evil spirits trying to enter the temple. Like Buddhism itself, these gods were originally from India (Hindu). You can still see evidence of their journey: Indian faces, Chinese crowns, and a Korean sword.

Then you pass through a pleasant garden with a winding path that follows a stream. Practice your walking meditation.
Korean pines hide the main temple building until you are standing right in front of it.

Before going further, drink some fresh spring water.

Walk around the main staircase to a side entrance. Here's the main courtyard with two large stone pagodas. One is covered in scaffolding-- damn. The other is quite a sight though. Together, these are the most invaluable treasures at the Bulguksa. Pagodas like this are used to house relics of of the historic buddha and other important bones.

In the courtyard, notice the drum, gong, and fish-shaped wooden knocker. The sounds of these instruments voice compassion for land, air, and sea creatures respectively.
Another thing you will notice, at big temples and tiny ones, are little stacks of rocks, pebbles, and coins. There are also areas covered with little toys. When you offer a toy or stack a rock, you can make a wish for good luck. I have heard temples are packed with anxious mothers on the day of the all-important university entrance exams (a day so important commercial airlines reschedule to reduce distracting noise).

So that your tour of Bulguksa. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed of the prayer halls, where the great statues can be seen.

About 4 km away is another treasure of Buddhism, Seokguram. Seokguram is a cave carved out of solid granite which houses what some call the finest statue of the Buddha in the world. This site was lost for hundreds of years before being discovered by the Japanese about 100 years ago. Unfortunately, a pane of glass separates visitors from the main chamber and pictures are not allowed.

I took one anyway.

Here is a better picture.

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