Korea's Religious Places - 1.1.1 Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|1) Characteristics: A Who's Who at a Buddhist Temple||* Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)||* Seokguram Grotto (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)|
Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)
Bulguksa Temple is a beautiful temple in an exquisite setting. The temple complex has five major halls, ancillary buildings, and gates. Bulguksa Temple is reached by passing through the main gate on the south side of the complex. Along the path of several hundred meters there is a gatehouse for the guardians of the four directions.
As we proceed into the temple compound, we see two beautiful sets of staircases. The main hall in this temple is reached up the stairs to the right, to the east. The smaller staircase to the west leads to the hall of Amitabha (Amita). Behind these two halls are halls dedicated to the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara (Gwanseeum), the cosmic Buddha Vairocana, and a hall for the Buddha’s disciples. Let us look at each of these five archetypal halls at Bulguksa Temple, for similar halls are found at other temples.
At Bulguksa Temple, there are two pagodas in the courtyard in front of the main hall. The more attractive one is the Pagoda of Many Treasures (Dabotap Pagoda, National Treasure no. 20). There are several levels of treasures designated by the government (National Treasure is highest, Treasure is second, and third are local area designated treasures). The pagoda is made of stone cut to resemble wood. There are handrails crafted as long, thin cylinders resembling natural wooden poles used in a handrail or balustrade. The rooflines sweep up as if made of wood like those of the temple buildings in the compound. The beauty of this pagoda is captured on the KRW 10 coin in circulation today.
The other pagoda, Shakyamuni Pagoda (Three-story Stone Pagoda, National Treasure no. 21) is a three-story stone pagoda in classic Korean style. On the inside, however, is something unique. Inside each pagoda is a box or container preserving the relics of the Buddha and other treasures to empower the pagoda. In 1966, after thieves attempted to break into the pagoda, the monks discovered a dharani-sutra, what was then the oldest printed paper in the world. Printed sometime before the dedication of the temple complex in 751, the dharani-sutra is a long scroll 6.5 meters long, but only about 6.5 centimeters wide, printed from a set of wooden printing blocks.
These two magnificent pagodas are in the courtyard of the main hall dedicated to Shakyamuni. The hall is titled “Hall of the Great Hero” (Daeungjeon Hall). The smaller staircase, to the west, leads to a secondary courtyard and hall titled the “Hall of Extreme Bliss” (Geungnakjeon Hall). This is the hall of Amitabha (Amita), the Buddha of the Pure Land in the West.
Amitabha is the most popular Buddha in East Asia. A scripture says that when he was a bodhisattva, he vowed that he would not become a Buddha unless he succeeded in keeping forty-eight vows. One of his vows was to save anyone who called on his name for ten moments of thought. What an easy practice! This led to a widespread practice of fervently chanting Amitabha’s name to assure deliverance in his Pure Land in the West.
There is a third Buddha who is also found at Korean temples, Vairocana. His role in the Buddhist pantheon is that of the central cosmic Buddha. There are innumerable Buddhas, and this Buddha is the source of them all.
In the back row, then, the Vairocana Hall is in the center and to its right, behind the main hall, is a hall to Avalokiteshvara, the most popular of all bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas, by definition, make vows not to enter Nirvana until all living beings—including humans, animals, and hungry ghosts—are liberated from the cycle of rebirth and death. A bodhisattva is an approachable figure to whom people can pray and have some assurance of assistance. Avalokiteshvara, “he who hears the cries of the world,” is often called the “Goddess of Mercy” in East Asia. The hall dedicated to Avalokiteshvara is one of the most visited at the temple complex. Behind the statue of Avalokiteshvara at Bulguksa Temple is a painting showing the bodhisattva in thousand-hand form with eleven faces. Each hand has an eye in its palm, and the hands on the outer circle also hold an implement of one kind or another—each showing that the bodhisattva has power and ability. If a parent is praying that a child will pass an exam, there is a hand with a brush, offering help on the test. If the prayer is for something that can be helped with money, there is a hand with money. If the prayer is to repair something broken, there is a hammer. Each hand has an implement that shows different ways that the bodhisattva can answer prayers. The symbolism of the eleven faces is that the bodhisattva observes the cries of living beings coming from all directions.
In the back row of the temple complex to the left there is one more important hall for prayers. Currently it is a hall of disciples, depicting a dozen or so people from the time of Shakyamuni wearing different clothes to show that they are people from varying walks of life. But before 1984, it was the hall of the mountain god (sansin). The mountain god is the most popular folk deity in Korea. Most large temple complexes have a hall for the mountain god located to the rear of the compound and to the left. Buddhism tends to adopt and adapt native religious beliefs wherever it spreads.