Korea's Religious Places - 1.1.2 Seokguram Grotto (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|* Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)||* Seokguram Grotto (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)||* Haeinsa Temple (Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do)|
Seokguram Grotto (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)
The highlight of the visit to Bulguksa Temple is nearly three kilometers away, up the hill, and on the far side of the ridge that will lead you to where you can see the East Sea in the distance. Near the crest of the hill looking eastward, inside a man-made cave, sits a ten-foot-tall Buddha carved from a single piece of granite. It would have been impossible to carve the Buddha and move him into the cave; rather, the cave was built around the Buddha.
Buddhist images are associated with caves for a good reason. Buddhism began in India and spread to China via the Silk Road where, amid dangers of thieves and the terrain itself, Buddhas and bodhisattvas functioned as great protective spirits. Along the Silk Road, caves were associated with places of safety for staying overnight, and to increase the safety of such caves they often featured a local deity, or a protective deity. Over the centuries, the appeal and power of Buddhism won out over the local gods. It was cosmopolitan and appealed to people from West Asia to East Asia, from Central Asia to China, to Korea, to Japan. Thus, a Buddha in a cave was one of the first images that came to Korea, and Seokguram Grotto is the finest expression of that sentiment. In effect, Seokguram Grotto is the last stop on the Silk Road as it looks out to the East Sea from the southeastern part of Korea before it ends in the ocean.
The Buddha in Seokguram Grotto is a classic image that shows several of the bodily marks of a true Buddha in the Tang Dynasty style that became widely popular in East Asia. These include the tuft of white hair between the eyebrows, an extended lump on the top of the head, knots of hair on the head, extended earlobes, three rings on his neck, a robe hung over the left shoulder, androgynous breasts, his hands in the position of one of the prescribed mudras, a lotus imprint on the palms of his hands and on the bottoms of his feet, as he sits in a cross-legged lotus position on a lotus pedestal. The Buddha is a classic image, but there is some degree of confusion about who he is. His mudra with his right hand on his knee and his fingers almost touching the earth is the mudra of calling on earth to witness that he is the Buddha. This mudra suggests that he is Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha. However, the perfectly mathematical structure of the grotto suggests that the main Buddha is the Vairocana of the Hwaeom Order, which was popular in the Silla court. The fact that an image of Avalokiteshvara is prominent among the carvings on the wall surrounding the Buddha would indicate that the image is Amitabha. It might be that the artisan, Kim Dae-seong, intentionally blended symbols together, a characteristic of the Hwaeom Order. Work on the grotto-temple ended with the death of the architect Kim Dae-seong in 774.
The remodeling in the 1960s brought new access to Seokguram Grotto. Whereas traditionally a believer had to hike the 2.2 kilometers up the hill to appreciate the cave, now there is a road switching back and forth up the hill for tour buses to make the trip easily. From the parking lot, the last half-mile hike to the cave is on a level path wide enough to accommodate hundreds of tourists and schoolchildren on their field trips. Only the last segment requires hiking now, and that is up a set of stone steps the equivalent of maybe a three- or four-story building. Once, the pilgrimage was part of the experience. Now, it is the great number of visitors that marks the visit to Seokguram Grotto.
Before the construction of the new road and trail, pilgrims could enter the cave, circumnavigate the beautiful stone image, and even reach up and touch him. Now, the cave is closed off from visitors by a glass window; visitors stand outside the actual cave, in an antechamber, where they can view the Buddha only from a distance.