Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto were listed as Korea’s first UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1995.
Representing Buddhist philosophy and the artistic spirit of people from the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, the two masterpieces have a mysterious foundation myth.
Mother, mother, where are you?
I’m here, Dae-seong. What’s wrong?
I heard a Buddhist priest chanting in front of our house. He said if people make an offering to Buddha, they will be blessed with all kinds of good luck.
But we have nothing to offer.
We have a small plot of land, if we offer that with all our love, I believe something good will happen.
During the reign of King Hyoso, in the early part of the Unified Silla era in 692, a 17-year-old boy named Dae-seong lived in the Moryang-ri area.
Although he lived in poverty, he offered his hard-earned field to a Buddhist temple.
Unfortunately, Dae-seong died soon after the offering.
Ten months later something strange happened…
Honey, it’s been a week since the baby was born. But he still can’t open his left hand?
Well, he opened his hand today. But the thing is… letters are written on his palm.
Letters? Hmm do these letters indicate “Dae-seong”?
How on earth did you know that?
Ten months ago, I heard a sound from the sky, saying “Dae-seong who lived in Moryang-ri shall be born to your family.” Clearly, that man has been reborn into our family. So, why don’t we name our baby Dae-seong? We can also bring the mother of that man to live here with us.
From then on, Kim Dae-seong lived with his mother from his previous life and his parents in his present life. He grew up well and become a minister. In 751, the tenth year of King Gyeongdeok, Kim began to build Bulguksa Temple for his present parents and Seokguram Grotto for his mother from his previous life.
The Buddhist temple and the stone cave were completed in 774, the tenth year of King Hyegong.
The structures contain the wishes of Silla people.
Silla waged fierce war with its two neighboring kingdoms, Goguryeo and Baekje, before it finally unified the three kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula in 668. The Unified Silla made an effort to build a peaceful land of Buddha. The name of Bulguksa means “Temple of the Buddhist Nation.”
Two bridge-like stairways called Cheongungyo and Baekungyo, meaning “Bridge of Blue Cloud” and “Bridge of White Cloud,” consist of 33 stairs that are believed to lead people from their world to the land of Buddha.
The temple’s two most famous features are the Dabotap Pagoda and the Seokgatap Pagoda. The two pagodas imply that Dabo Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha are staying there to teach Buddhist philosophy.
There are four main halls. The first two halls represent the Buddha’s world from the past, while the third hall symbolizes the present world and the fourth one, the future world.
A temple featuring so many Buddhas indicates Silla people’s wish to heal the scars of war and build an ideal world.
While Bulguksa Temple embodied the land of Buddha in this world, Seokguram Grotto describes the moment of nirvana and enlightenment when Sakyamuni was reborn as Buddha.
With darkness gone, enlightenment is full of brightness. To express this, a man-made stone cave was built on a site 565 meters above sea level in the eastern part of Tohamsan Mountain overlooking the East Sea. This area offers the perfect view of the sun rising. At the center of the cave lies the main statue of a 3.5-meter-high seated Sakyamuni Buddha with closed eyes and a faint smile.
39 images of Bodhisattvas and disciples spreading Buddhism are engraved on the walls of the entrance, the corridor and the main chamber.
The carving process was a challenging job. Silla craftsmen engraved all the images on the hard granite with chisel. The 360 heavy stone blocks were assembled to create a perfectly domed ceiling.
Seokguram Grotto is more than just the result of Kim Dae-seong’s individual efforts but marks the culmination of Silla’s religion, art, architecture and science.
Bulguksa Temple is a perfect architectural description of Buddhist teachings, and Seokguram Grotto is a scientific and artistic stone sanctuary that is hard to find in any part of the world
As the fruit of culture, the two valuable masterpieces embody a beautiful world that Silla people dreamed of 1,200 years ago.