Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple in the North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is home to seven National treasures of South Korea, including Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas, Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge), and two gilt-bronze statues of Buddha. The temple is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government. The temple is considered as a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Shilla kingdom. It is currently the head temple of the 11th district of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

History of Bulguksa

Given its important status today, it is interesting that Bulguksa was never intended to be a major temple. It was originally founded in 535 by King Pob-hung, for the use of his queen to pray for the welfare of the kingdom. The Samguk Yusa records that the current temple was constructed under King Gyeongdeok in 751, begun by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong to pacify the spirits of his parents. The building was completed in 774 by the Shilla royal court, after Kim's death, and given its current name Bulguksa (Temple of the Buddha Land). The temple was renovated during the Goryeo Dynasty and the early Joseon Dynasty. During the Japanese invasions between 1592 and 1598, the wooden buildings were burned to the ground. After 1604, reconstruction and expansion of Bulguksa started, followed by about 40 renovations until 1805. During the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945, the Japanese conducted a restoration, but there are no records of the work done, and known treasures disappeared during this time. After World War II and the Korean War, a partial restoration was conducted in 1966. Upon an extensive archeological investigation, major restoration was conducted between 1969 and 1973 by the order of President Park Chung Hee, bringing Bulguksa to its current form. The famous stone structures are preserved from the original Shilla construction. Bulguksa Temple was added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1995, together with the nearby Seokguram Grotto.

Structure of Bulguksa

The temple is located on the slopes of Tohamsan, in Jinheon-dong, Gyeongju. The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge (National Treasure No. 23) that leads to the inside of the temple compound. The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment. The lower portion, Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) is 6.3 meters long and has 17 steps. The upper portion, Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge) is 5.4 meters and has 16 steps. The stairway leads to Jahamun (Mauve Mist Gate). There are two pagodas on the temple site, which is unusual. The three-story Seokgatap (Sakyamuni Pagoda) which stands at 8.2 meters is a traditional Korean-style stone pagoda with simple lines and minimal detailing. Seokgatap is over 13 centuries old. Dabotap (Many Treasure Pagoda) is 10.4 meters tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha mentioned in the Lotus Sutra. In contrast to Seokgatap, Dabotap is known for its highly ornate structure. Its image is reproduced on the South Korean 10 won coin. Dabotap and Seokgatap are Korean National Treasures nos. 20 and 21, respectively. The terrestrial and the two celestial abodes are manifested in Bulguksa: the terrestrial with a Shakyamuni Buddha Lotus Sutra, the celestial with Amitabha Buddha Avatamska Sutra. The large temple site is centred around two courts. One of the courts is centred on Daeungjeon, the hall which houses the Shakyamuni Buddha. The other is centred on Geuknakjeon, the hall of paradise where the Seven Treasure Bridge Chilbogyo is housed. Daeungjeon (대웅전), the Hall of Great Enlightenment, is the main hall. Dabotap and Seokgatap stand before this hall. The hall enshrines the Sakyamuni Buddha and was built in 681 CE. Behind the main hall stands Museoljeon (무설전), the Hall of No Words. This hall gets its name from the belief that Buddha's teachings could not be taught by mere words alone. It is one of the oldest buildings in the complex and was probably built in 670 CE. The Gwaneumjeon (Avalokitesvara's Shrine, 관음전) houses an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex. The Birojeon (Vairocana Buddha Hall, 비로전), which sits below the Gwaneumjeon, houses national treasure No.26 while the Geuknakjeon (Hall of Supreme Bliss, 극락전), standing near the main compound, houses the gilt-bronze buddha that is the national treasure No.27.

Official treasures at Bulguksa

The two famous stone pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgatap reside in the main courtyard of the Bulguksa Temple complex. They are, respectively, the twentieth and twenty-first national treasures of Korea and were designated on December 20, 1962. National Treasure No.22 The Blue Cloud and White Cloud Bridges are in the foreground while the Lotus Flower and Seven Treasures Bridges are in the background. The Yeonhwagyo (Lotus Flower Bridge, 연화교) and Chilbogyo (Seven Treasures Bridge, 칠보교) are a pair of bridges at Bulguksa. This bridge was designated as the 22nd national treasure on December 20, 1962. The bridge lead to Anyangmun (Peace Enhancing Gate, 안양문) leading to Geuknakjeon (the Hall of the Pure Land). This pair were built at the same time as their brother bridges, National Treasure No.23. These pair of bridges share the 45 degree incline, arch underneath, and the combination bridge/staircase design of their brother bridges. However, one noticeable difference is that this bridge is smaller. The lower Lotus Flower Bridge has 10 steps while the upper Seven Treasures Bridge contains 8 steps. This bridge is on the west in relation to the Blue Cloud and White Cloud Bridges. The Lotus Flower Bridge is known for its delicate carvings of Lotus Flowers on each step but these have faded with the weight of many pilgrims. Today, visitors are restricted from walking on the bridge. National Treasure No.23 the Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge, 청운교) and Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge, 백운교) Bridges of Bulguksa Temple are two bridges that are a part of a stairway that leads to the temple. The bridges were probably built in 750 CE during the reign of King Gyeongdeok. Although built separately, they are designated together as one single national treasure. They were designated as the 23rd national treasure on December 20, 1962. The Blue Cloud Bridge makes up the lower span of the stair while the White Cloud Bridge is the upper part. The bridges lead to the Jahamun (Golden Purple Gate, 자하문) which leads to Sakyamuni Hall. There are 33 steps on the stairway, which slopes at a 45 degree angle, and each step corresponds to one of the 33 heavens of Buddhism. The lower Blue Cloud Bridge has seventeen steps while the upper White Cloud Bridge has sixteen. The large arch underneath the stairwell testifies to the use of arches in Shilla-style bridges and the remains of a pond and once flowed underneath the bridge. National Treasure No.26 (Bulguksa geumdong birojana buljwasang), designated on December 20, 1962, is a seated gilt-bronze Vairocana Buddha statue at Bulguksa Temple. 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 CE 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. The seated gilt-bronze Amitabha Buddha statue of Bulguksa Temple is National Treasure No.27. (Bulguksa geumdong amita yeoraejwasang) and was designated on December 20, 1962. The Amitabha Buddha statute is 1.66 meters in height and enshrined in Geuknakjeon. This gilt-bronze statue was probably cast in the late eighth or early part of the ninth 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 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 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.