Bulguksa Temple

One of Korea's true must-see Buddhist temples, Bulguksa Temple is considered by many to be the country's most important. It's officially Historic and Scenic Site Number One as classified by the government. The temple is home to seven of the country's national treasures, sacred pagodas, and statues of the Buddha.

The temple is on the slopes of Mount Toham in Gyeongju, the ancient capital city of Korea. It's a city so historic, it's called a "museum without walls" due to all the historic sites and temples. Gyeongju is about two and half hours from Seoul via the new KTX high-speed train.

Dabotap Pagoda

Dabotap is located on the right side, opposing Seokgatap on the left side. The pagoda is supposed to have been built in 751, the 10th year of the Shilla king Gyeongdeok. It is currently designated as National Treasure no. 20.

The 3 story pagoda stands 10.29 meters tall and was built in an ornate style not seen in other Buddhist countries. The sculpture techniques used are unique for their time and include delicate features.

It has a staircase on each of the four sides. Four stone square pillars support the pagoda's first roof, where is built a square stone railing. Inside the railing is the body of the pagoda, and above it, standing on the second octagonal-shaped roof surrounded by an octagonal stone railing, are eight bamboo-shaped stone pillars supporting the octagonal-shaped lotus stone carved with sixteen petals. Above it, eight stone pillars support the third octagonal-shaped roof. Of the four stone lions guarding the top of the staircases, only one remains. A second one is located at the British Museum in London. As for the whereabouts of the other two, they are still unknown. The pagoda was dismantled by the Japanese in the 1920s but there is no evidence of any relics found in the pagoda.

Seokgatap of Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju, South Korea) | Flickr
Seokgatap pagoda

The Seokgatap pagoda is in distinct contrast with its more elaborate brother the Dabotap. The pagoda is of a very simple and basic design and the three stories have a pleasing 4:3:2 ratio which gives the pagoda a sense of balance, stability, and symmetry. The contrast between the simplicity of the Seokgatap and the complexity of the Dabotap is designed to represent the dual nature of the Buddha's contemplation and detachment from the world or perhaps it symbolizes the celestial versus the terrestrial. The pagoda's three stories rest on a two-tiered base. The simplicity of the pagoda is reinforced by the fact that there are no carvings or reliefs on the faces of the pagoda. Although, the pagoda is surrounded by eight lotus flower stones. The top of the pagoda, which is rather elaborate, was added in 1973 to match a pagoda that was built one hundred years after Seokgatap.

National Treasure No.26 Gyeongju Bulguksa geumdong birojana buljwasang

The Buddha of Enlightenment is enshrined in the Birojeon. It is 1.77 meters in height and made from gilt-bronze. The head of the Buddha has an usnisa, a symbol of supreme wisdom.

The head of the Buddha was made by fusing two shells to each other and the face is elongated and soft. The robes of the Buddha are highly detailed and the simulation of folded cloth rippling down from the shoulder to the lap is done with high skill.

The hands of the Buddha are in a position, the right index finger covered by the left hand, which often is used to symbolize the Buddha of Enlightenment. The figure is estimated to be from the 9th century due to stylistic evidence, including the overly wide lap and the lack of tension in the depiction of the robes and face of the Buddha.

National Treasure No.27. Gyeongju Bulguksa geumdong amita yeoraejwasang

The Amitabha Buddha statue is 1.66 meters in height and enshrined in Geuknakjeon. This gilt-bronze statue was probably cast in the late 8th or early part of the 9th century and it shares the style of National Treasure No.26. The head of the statue is made by fixing two shell-like pieces together.

The face has a distinctively aquiline nose. The Buddha has broad shoulders and a strong chest while the large lap gives the figure a sense of proportional harmony and stability. The style of the robe seems to be more stylized and haphazard.

The position of the left hand is raised at shoulder-level palm forward and the right hand is placed at the lap. The style of the Buddha seems to follow an abstract and stylized tradition rather than a representation of realism.