Posted by: rbbadger | October 4, 2008

The trip to Gyeongju

Seeing as we had a three day weekend, I thought it would be good to head down to Gyeongju, a small city in North Gyeongsang Province (Gyeongsangbuk-do) that is a major tourist destination.  It is a city of only about 200,000 people.  Why it is a major tourist destination is because of what it has.  Gyeongju has some of the greatest treasures in the whole country.  It was the capital city of the Shilla Kingdom.  During the period of the Unified Shilla kingdom, it was Korea’s capital city.

The things that the city possesses are truly impressive.  In the downtown area of the city, you will see what look like small hills.  These aren’t just hills.  They are tombs of the Shilla monarchs.  You can go inside one of them.  Not far away, there is the fantastic Gyeongju National Museum with the famous Anapji Pond across the street, home of a former palace, now long since gone.  In the 1970s, when the Korean government was doing archeological work in the Anapji pond, they came across such a treasure trove of material that an addition to the museum was required just to contain it.  The Shilla people were particularly talented at metal work, owing the existence of impressive crowns worn by the Shilla kings and queens.  Excavation of one of the tombs yielded some highly impressive examples of crowns, jewelry, and so forth.

Unlike the Joseon Dynasty, which during much of its reign was positively hostile to Buddhism, the Shilla Kingdom was greatly supportive of it.  Thus, it is really no surprise that one of the most splendid temples in the whole country would be located in Gyeongju.  Bulguksa (佛國寺), or the Buddha Land Temple, was built by the Prime Minister Kim Dae-seong in honour of his parents in the 8th century.  One of the most iconic of all of Korea’s architectural structures is housed inside the temple, namely the Dabotap Pagoda.  The pagoda currently graces the 10 won coin (worth less than 1 cent).  It is an impressive structure, but when I saw it, it was considerably less impressive owing to restoration work being done on it.  It was completely engulfed in scaffolding.  Like with most Buddhist temples in Korea and China, there are a series of different halls devoted to different Buddhas or Boddhisattvas.  In addition to the main hall, which houses images of the historical Buddha (the Buddha Sakyamuni), there are separate halls devoted to Buddha Vairocana (the cosmic Buddha), the Buddha Amitabha (the Buddha of infinite light who is particularly revered in the Japanese Jodo Shinshu sect), Kwan Eum Bosal (the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (known in Chinese as Guan Yin) and one of the most favourite of all Buddhist figures in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhism), and others.  In each one of these halls, there was a monk chanting various sutras.  Perhaps this was to help drive home to the visitors that this is not just a tourist attraction, but that it is a functioning temple and that its religious duties are its main purpose.  It is one of the head temples of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest of the Korean Buddhist sects.  Picture taking is forbidden in the interior of all of the halls.  The monks did not seem to be distracted by the many visitors going in and out of the buildings.  Rather, they kept looking straight ahead and kept chanting. 

During the Joseon Kingdom, Buddhist monks were not well treated and forbidden entry into the city of Seoul.  Many of the temples are located in remote places, as this one is.  But it seemed busier that even Jogyesa in central Seoul.  Jogyesa is a busy, busy place owing to the fact that it is the headquarters of the main order of Korean Buddhism and is conveniently located downtown.

Above Bulguksa is one of the most famous of all Shilla-era architecture, namely the Seokguram Grotto.  Built by Kim Dae-seong, allegedly in honour of his parents in a previous life, it is a grotto carved into the side of a mountain.  It contains a granite statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni with representations of Kwan Eum Bosal, some of the first disciples of the Buddha, and the Four Heavenly Kings.  It is a remarkable piece of architecture, being carved out of stone at a time when most buildings were made of wood.  Like the foundations of nearby Bulguksa, it dates back to the eighth century.  It is a domed structure, something not really associated with Korean architecture.  No mortar was used in its construction.

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