Gyeongju

Bulguksa Temple – 불국사 (Gyeongju)

The famous Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and Baegun-gyo (White Cloud Bridge) at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju.

Temple History

Without a doubt, Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju is the most famous Korean Buddhist temple both in Korea and internationally. Bulguksa Temple is located at the western foot of Mt. Tohamsan (745 m) in eastern Gyeongju (the former capital of the Silla Kingdom). Bulguksa Temple means “Buddha Kingdom Temple” in English. The name of Bulguksa Temple can have two possible meanings. The first is that traveling through the architectural landscape is like taking a journey through the spiritual realm of the Buddhas. So in a way, it’s an architectural manifestation of the celestial realm of the Buddhas on earth. And the second meaning is in reference to the Unified Silla Kingdom (668-935 A.D.). More specifically, it’s a reference to the Unified Silla Kingdom building itself as a “Kingdom of Buddha.” In turn, this would help validate the Unified Silla Kingdom claim that it was a legitimate Buddhist nation.

Bulguksa Temple was first constructed in 528 A.D., which was also the first year that Buddhism was officially accepted by the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C – 935 A.D.) during the reign of King Beopheung of Silla (r. 514-540 A.D.). The temple was built to appease the wishes of King Beopheung’s mother, Queen Yeongje, and his wife, Queen Kim. Originally, the temple was named Beopryusa Temple or Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple. Later, the temple was rebuilt by King Jinheung of Silla’s mother, Queen Jiso (?-574 A.D.).

Then nearly two hundred years later, the construction of the Bulguksa Temple that we know today was started in 742 A.D. The design and financing backing of the newly built Bulguksa Temple came from Prime Minster Kim Daeseong (700-774 A.D.). However, before the temple could be completed, Kim Daeseong died in 774 A.D., and Bulguksa Temple was completed during the reign of King Hyegong of Silla (r. 765 – 780 A.D.). It was at this time that Bulguksa Temple was given its current name.

Throughout its long history, and prominent location in the former capital of Silla, Bulguksa Temple was destroyed several times; the first of which, occurred in the late 13th century by the invading Mongols. During the temple’s destruction at this time, monks were also killed; however, the great temple artwork was hidden to save it, and the stonework also survived this sacking. Later, the temple was reconstructed and renovated several times during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). However, Bulguksa Temple was again destroyed; this time, however, by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598). All of the wooden structures, including temple shrine halls and pavilions, were destroyed at Bulguksa Temple at this time.

After the destruction of the temple in 1593, another major reconstruction and expansion took place at Bulguksa Temple in 1604. And in 1700, the original layout of the temple was completely restored. In about a 200 year period, over 40 renovations took place up until 1805 at Bulguksa Temple. It was in 1805 that the temple started to fall into disrepair and was looted by robbers.

Bulguksa Temple was then initially repaired during the early part of Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945) from 1918 to 1925. And it was further renovated between 1934 and 1935. Then after the Japanese Colonial Rule came to an end, an extensive restoration took place from 1963 to 1973 under President Park Chung-hee (1917-1979). In total, some 24 buildings were renovated and rebuilt. During the 1980s and 1990s, Bulguksa Temple simply acted as a major tourist attraction. However, in the year 2000, the management of Bulguksa Temple was transferred over to the Jogye-jong Order, and the temple resumed its central role in Korean Buddhism, once more.

Bulguksa Temple, along with the neighbouring Seokguram Hermitage, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Also, Bulguksa Temple is home to 7 National Treasures (the most at any Korean Buddhist temple), and an additional 6 Korean Treasures. It’s unique for a temple to have more National Treasures than Korean Treasures. Also, Bulguksa Temple is a Historic Site. And more recently, Bulguksa Temple started to conduct the popular Templestay program at the temple.

Admission for adults is 6,000 won, teenagers 4,000 won, and children (ages 8 to 12) 3,000 won. In addition to the entry fee, parking at Bulguksa Temple is 1,000 won.

Again, I would like to thank Prof. David Mason for all the wonderful information that he provides on his website. If you haven’t already, please check out his amazing website!

Dabo-tap Pagoda (The Pagoda of Many Treasures) in 1916. (Picture courtesy of the Joseon Gojeok Dobo, 1916).
Seokga-tap Pagoda (Seokgamoni-bul [Historical Buddha] Pagoda) in 1916. (Picture courtesy of the Joseon Gojeok Dobo, 1916).

Temple Myth

According to the Samguk Yusa, or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms in English, a child named Kim Daeseong overheard a monk from Heungnyunsa Temple asking a wealthy landowner for a donation to help the temple. The landowner gave 50 rolls of cotton cloth, and the grateful monk said, “You are loving and giving. The great Buddha is pleased with your donation, such that he will give you 10,000 times what you have donated, and bless you with a long life and happiness.”

The young Kim Daeseong ran back to his home and told his mom, “Now we are poor, and if we do not give something to the temple, we will be poorer. Why not give our little rice field for the ceremony so that we may have a great reward in our afterlives?” His mother agreed, and they donated their rice field to Heungnyunsa Temple.

A few months later, the child passed away. On the night of his death, a voice was heard in the sky above the house of Kim Munryang, who was the chief minister. This voice told Kim Munryang, “Daeseong, the good boy of Moryang-ri, will be reborn in your family.”

In disbelief, Kim Munryang sent his servants to Moryang-ri to confirm that Kim Daeseong had in fact died. Rather miraculously, Kim Munryang’s wife conceived within the same hour of finding out this tragic news. When the child was born, he kept his left fist clenched tightly. After seven days, he finally opened his hand, revealing that the characters for Daeseong’s name were written in gold on his palm. As a result, they gave this baby boy his former name of Daeseong, and Daeseong’s mom from his previous life was allowed to take care of him.

And so, Seokguram Hermitage was built in honor of the parents of his former life, and Bulguksa Temple was built in honor of the parents of his present life. And this filial piety is noted in the Samguk Yusa. But sadly, Bulguksa Temple would not be completed until after the passing of Kim Daeseong in 774 A.D.

The Daeung-jeon Hall at Bulguksa Temple in 1932. (Picture courtesy of the Joseon Gojeok Dobo, 1932).
Inside the Daeung-jeon Hall in 1932. (Picture courtesy of the Joseon Gojeok Dobo, 1932).

Temple Layout

Gates and Front Facade

Architecturally, Bulguksa Temple is meant to represent the Buddhist mandala that integrates the various worlds of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that inhabit them. In total, there are five areas at Bulguksa Temple. They are the Daeung-jeon Hall, the Geukrak-jeon Hall, the Biro-jeon Hall, the Gwaneum-jeon Hall, and the Nahan-jeon Hall. Each temple shrine hall is isolated in its own segregated part of the temple grounds either with walls or corridors. These barriers are meant to symbolize the separate worlds that each Buddha or Bodhisattva inhabits.

The first structure to greet you to this multi-world religious site is the Iljumun Gate. This stately entry gate is joined a little further along the pathway by the Cheonwangmun Gate, which houses four masterful statues of the Four Heavenly Kings.

Having passed by the Cheonwangmun Gate and the picturesque temple pond, you’ll next come to a clearing with one of the most recognizable components to any Buddhist temple in Korea: the temple’s front facade. The elevated courtyard has two beautiful sets of bridges in front of it. The bridges to the right are known as Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and Baegun-gyo (White Cloud Bridge), both of which have National Treasure status, and they lead through the Jahamun Gate (Golden Purple Gate) towards the Daeung-jeon Hall courtyard. The bridges are meant symbolically to connect the world of people with the world of the Buddha. It’s believed that these two structures were built in 751 A.D., and they’re National Treasure #23.

To the left of these two bridges, are two additional bridges known as Yeonhwa-gyo (Lotus Flower Bridge) and the Chilbo-gyo (Seven Treasures Bridge). These bridges are classified as National Treasure #22. These bridges were also constructed in 751 A.D. There is a lot of symbolism packed into these bridges. According to the Gwanmuryang-sugyeong sutra, when we are reborn in the next life, humans will be reborn in the nine levels of birth through a pond into the Western Pure Land. Coincidentally, it’s believed that there once was a pond underneath the reinforced stone wall at Bulguksa Temple. The pair of bridges leading into the Geukrak-jeon Hall reinforce this belief. These bridges are known as the Yeonghwa-gyo and the Chilbo-gyo. It’s believed that the Western Pure Land is decorated with seven treasures, and when someone is reborn into the Western Pure Land, they are reborn on a lotus flower. Finally, the name, “Anyang,” from the Anyangmun Gate that leads into the Geukrak-jeon Hall area of Bulguksa Temple, is another name for the Western Pure Land.

Dabo-tap Pagoda and Seokga-tap Pagoda

However, it’s through neither of these sets of bridges that you can now gain entry into the main temple grounds. Instead, there’s a forested pathway to the right of the Cheongun-gyo and Baegun-gyo that leads into the Daeung-jeon Hall courtyard from an eastern entrance-way. Right away, you’ll be welcomed by the amazing Dabo-tap Pagoda and Seokga-tap Pagoda. The first of the two, and the one closer to you on the right, is Dabo-tap Pagoda, or “The Pagoda of Many Treasures” in English. Probably the most famous pagoda in all of Korea was first built in 751 A.D. during the construction of the temple, and it’s wonderfully ornate. Dabo-tap Pagoda is National Treasure #20. Dabo-tap Pagoda stands 10.29 metres in height, and it has an intricate, yet delicate, design for a stone pagoda. There are differing opinions as to how the pagoda should be interpreted. In fact, there is disagreement among scholars as to just how many stories the pagoda has, whether it’s three or four. At the square base of the structure, you’ll find four sets of stairs. Originally, these stairs had railings, but now only the lower posts still remain. Each of the four stairways has ten stairs, which is meant to represent the ten Perfections, or “Bara-mil” in Korean. And the four sets of stairs, which appear in the four cardinal directions, are meant to represent access to the Dharma from all four directions. These four sets of stairs then lead up to four sitting lions on the main part of the pagoda’s platform. This is meant to symbolize the guardians of wisdom found in Buddhism. Unfortunately, now only one of these four lions remains. The other three disappeared from 1925-1927, during a Japanese Colonial restoration of the pagoda. The four pillars of the base that support the weight of the body are meant to represent the Four Noble Truths. And above the lions, you’ll find an octagonal pagoda body section with eight stone joint pillars that are meant to represent the Noble Eightfold Path. Above that is a round, stone lotus flower platform. This section is guarded by square, stone guard rails. And topping the pagoda is a curved octagonal roof with an elaborate rounded lotus flower finial. This pagoda is a masterpiece of Silla Buddhist artwork.

To the left of Dabo-tap Pagoda is Seokga-tap Pagoda, which also dates back to 751 A.D., and it means “Seokgamoni-bul [Historical Buddha] Pagoda” in English. Seokga-tap Pagoda is National Treasure #21. Seokga-tap Pagoda is the kind of pagoda we think about, with its long and austere lines, when we think about traditional Korean pagodas. It stands 10.75 metres in height. The three stories of the pagoda are meant to symbolize the Sambo, or the “Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” The pagoda is meant to represent Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), which is where the pagoda gets its name. While the undecorated and austere exterior of Seokga-tap Pagoda is meant to represent the human spirit’s ascension towards the heavens through simplicity, Dabo-tap Pagoda, in contrast, with all of its complexity, is meant to represent the difficulties of life.

During repair work conducted on Seokga-tap Pagoda in October, 1966, the Reliquaries from the Three-story Stone Pagoda of Bulguksa Temple were discovered. They became National Treasure #126. These objects were found inside an outer casket. More specifically, these objects were a sarira reliquary, a set of egg-shaped, silver plated sarira bowls, a gilt-bronze sarira bowl, and the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, and several beads. The Pure Land Dharani Sutra dates back to the mid-8th century. This makes it the oldest extant woodblock print copy in the world.

Additionally, Seokga-tap Pagoda is known as the Muyeong-tap Pagoda, as well, which means “Casting No Shadow Pagoda” in English. This alternative name for the historic pagoda is related to a sad tale from the Samguk Yusa, or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms in English. In this legend, Asadal, a mason from the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.) built Seokga-tap Pagoda; however, his wife, Asanyeo, came to Gyeongju (then known as Seorabeol) to meet her husband. Waiting near a pond on the south end of Gyeongju near Mt. Namsan (494 m), she waited for the image of the pagoda to appear above the temple walls in the reflection of the pond. When the top of the pagoda failed to appear when it was scheduled to, and unable to see her husband because it was restricted during the construction of the pagoda, Asanyeo drowned herself in the pond.

Now, as to why Dabo-tap Pagoda and Seokga-tap Pagoda are located facing in on each other, there are several interpretations. One is that they are meant to represent opposite concepts, like form vs. freedom and the abstract vs. the concrete. It is by juxtaposing these two pagodas that an attempt is being made to unify the contradictory nature of existence.

As for its scriptural context, the positioning of these two pagodas in front of the Daeung-jeon Hall can be found in the Lotus Sutra, or the Beophwa-gyeong in Korean. Dabo-tap Pagoda is a reference to Dabo-bul (The Many Treasures Buddha). In the 11th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and as Seokgamoni-bul is teaching upon Vulture Peak to those in attendance, a pagoda appears. Those in attendance believe that it will be filled with relics. Instead, the pagoda contains Dabo-bul, who verifies the truth of the Buddha’s, Seokgamoni-bul’s, teachings. So these two pagodas commemorate this scene from the Lotus Sutra in stone. And visitors to Bulguksa Temple can attend, in a roundabout way, this historic moment in time that is essential to the history of Buddhism.

Dabo-tap Pagoda (foreground) and Seokga-tap Pagoda (background) from 2006.
Temple Shrine Hall at Bulguksa Temple

Behind these two historic pagodas is the temple’s Daeung-jeon Hall, which is Korean Treasure #1744. According to the Bulguksa Gogeumchanggi, the Daeung-jeon Hall was repaired three different times. The first was in 1436 followed by further work in 1490 and 1564. However, this Daeung-jeon Hall was destroyed in 1593 during the Imjin War (1592-1598). The Daeung-jeon Hall was then reconstructed 1659. After this, the present Daeung-jeon Hall was reconstructed in 1765, while the dancheong paintwork was completed in 1767. As for the main altar triad inside the Daeung-jeon Hall, it was added in 1769. The Daeung-jeon Hall would also be repaired during Japanese Colonization (1910-1945). The main hall was restored between 1918 and 1925. Further work would be conducted by the Japanese between 1934 and 1935. And finally, during the 1970s, the Daeung-jeon Hall was refurbished, yet again, under the orders of then president Park Chung-hee (1917-1979).

To the rear of the Daeung-jeon Hall is the Museol-jeon Hall. The word “museol” means “non-lecturing” in English. The name of this temple shrine hall is meant to highlight how language sometimes fails and the Buddha’s teachings are beyond/outside words. The Museol-jeon Hall was rebuilt in 1910, and it was later restored in 1973. Inside the long, rectangular Museol-jeon Hall, you’ll find a beautifully crowned image of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) inside to the right with a staff in his hand.

To the rear of the Museol-jeon Hall, and up a steep set of stairs, is the Gwaneum-jeon Hall. Where the Gwaneum-jeon Hall resides on the temple grounds is the tallest point of the temple. This is meant to symbolize the mountain, Mt. Potalaka, or Botarakgasan in Korean. Inside the Gwaneum-jeon Hall is a slender statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion with a mural of herself backing the statue. This mural is the thousand-armed incarnation of Gwanseeum-bosal. These arms are symbolic of Gwanseeum-bosal reaching out to those in need. It’s also from this vantage point, where the Gwaneum-jeon Hall is located, that you get an amazing view of the lower temple courtyard that houses the Daeung-jeon Hall.

Through a doorway to the left, and down an equally steep set of stairs, you’ll gain entry to the courtyard that houses the Biro-jeon Hall. Housed inside this temple shrine hall is an image of Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). This statue dates back to the 9th century, and it’s National Treasure #26. Officially, this statue is known as the Gilt-Bronze Seated Vairocana Buddha of Bulguksa Temple, and it stands 1.77 metres in height. The statue is striking the mudra, or suin in Korean, of the Diamond Fist, and it’s truly a feat of Silla artistry.

Still in the same Biro-jeon Hall courtyard, but to the left of the shrine hall, is the Sari-tap Pagoda. Officially, it’s known as the Stupa of Bulguksa Temple, and it’s Korean Treasure #61. The beautiful stone structure is believed to date back to the early Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The stupa is believed to either house the sari (crystalized remains) of eight Buddhist monks or the sari of the Queen of King Heongang of Silla (r. 875-886 A.D.), who became a nun upon the death of her husband. The stupa is housed behind a protective wooden barrier. The pedestal of the stupa is comprised of two semi-circular stones. Each area is carved with a lotus flower design around its octagonal base stone. They are then connected with a drum-shaped pillar which bears the design of a cloud. The body of the stupa is cylindrical in shape. Each side is carved with four pillar-like patterns. And they’re then decorated with flower designs. As for each of the four sides, they have niches with images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. The roof of the stupa has twelve angles, and it’s topped by a hexagonal roof. Unfortunately, only half of the finial still remains. The reason for this is that in 1905, the stupa was taken out of Korea and brought to Ueno Onshi Park in Tokyo by the Japanese. And it was owned by Nagao Kinya. However, this is only part of the story. According to the Korean newspaper, the Maeil Sinbo, someone from Kaesong (Gaeseong), convinced a monk at Bulguksa Temple to sell the stupa, which he did. The stupa was then transported to Tokyo by boat at night. The “Stupa of Bulguksa Temple” would eventually be returned to Korea in June, 1933.

Eventually, the stupa was returned to Korean in 1933, but it was now damaged. Often overlooked, the Stupa of Bulguksa Temple near the Biro-jeon Hall definitely deserves a bit of your time during your travels around the temple.

To the left of the Biro-jeon Hall and the Stupa of Bulguksa Temple, you’ll find another walled off enclosure down another flight of stairs. This area in the upper courtyard houses the Nahan-jeon Hall. Housed inside this temple shrine hall are sixteen wooden statues dedicated to the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). And surrounding the Nahan-jeon Hall are hundreds of stone cairns of all sizes piled by visitors that have stacked them for good luck.

Descending down a less steep set of stairs, and past the Beophwa-jeon Hall site, you’ll enter through a back entrance into the temple courtyard that houses the Geukrak-jeon Hall. This temple shrine hall runs parallel to the Daeung-jeon Hall, but it’s situated a little lower in elevation. And if you can picture being back at the front facade of the temple grounds, before entering, you’ll remember the Yeonhwa-gyo (Lotus Flower Bridge), the Chilbo-gyo (Seven Treasures Bridge) and the Anyangmun Gate that once allowed you entry into the Geukrak-jeon Hall courtyard. This area is symbolically meant to represent the Western Pure Land, where Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) resides. Out in front of the Geukrak-jeon Hall, you’ll find a golden pig. You can rub this golden pig to receive some good luck. And housed inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall, you’ll find a statue of Amita-bul. This statue dates back to late 8th or early part of the 9th century. Officially, the statue is known as Gilt-Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha of Bulguksa Temple, and it’s National Treasure #27. While a little bit smaller than the Gilt-Bronze Seated Vairocana Buddha of Bulguksa Temple, this gilt-bronze statue of Amita-bul stands 1.66 metres in height. And if you look close enough inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall, you’ll see an older image of the Banya Yongseon-do (Dragon Ship of Wisdom Mural), as well as a wooden relief of a golden pig.

How To Get There

From the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal, you can take either Bus #10 or #11 that goes directly to Bulguksa Temple. The ride takes about one hour in length to get to the temple.

Overall Rating: 10/10

Bulguksa Temple, alongside Tongdosa Temple and Haeinsa Temple, are the top three temples in all of Korea to visit. Like the two former temples, Bulguksa Temple is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. It has an amazing seven national treasures like Dabo-tap Pagoda, Seokga-tap Pagoda, the pair of bridges along the front facade of the temple, and shrine hall statues dedicated to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) and Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy). There is so much to see and enjoy at this amazing temple in Gyeongju, so take your time and soak it all in. Enjoy all this majestic temple has to offer. It truly is a one-off.

Damun Cheonwang, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, inside the Cheonwangmun Gate.
The front facade to Bulguksa Temple with the Yeonhwa-gyo (Lotus Flower Bridge) and the Chilbo-gyo (Seven Treasures Bridge) in the foreground and the Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge) and the Baegun-gyo (White Cloud Bridge) in the background.
Outside the Daeung-jeon Hall courtyard.
Dabo-tap Pagoda.
Seokga-tap Pagoda.
The Daeung-jeon Hall.
A look inside the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The steep stairs that lead up to the Gwaneum-jeon Hall.
The Gwaneum-jeon Hall at Bulguksa Temple.
The amazing view from the Gwaneum-jeon Hall courtyard.
A look at Birojana-bul, which is National Treasure #26, inside the Biro-jeon Hall.
The Stupa of Bulguksa Temple, which is Korean Treasure #61.
Just in front of the Nahan-jeon Hall during Buddha’s Birthday celebrations.
The Geukrak-jeon Hall at Bulguksa Temple.
And a look inside the Geukrak-jeon Hall at Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise), which is National Treasure #27.

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