Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site – 굴불사지 (Gyeongju)
Temple Site History
Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site is located in the centre of Gyeongju at the base of Mt. Sogeumgangsan (176.7 m). According to the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), a 13th century text, King Gyeongdeok of Silla (r. 742-765 A.D.) was making the short trek to the neighbouring Baeknyulsa Temple. Baeknyulsa Temple is located a little further up Mt. Sogeumgangsan. However, as King Gyeongdeok of Silla was making his way towards Baeknyulsa Temple, he inextricably heard Buddhist invocations coming from the ground around his feet. King Gyeongdeok of Silla believed that these invocations were the sound of a Buddhist monk reading Buddhist sutras, so he immediately ordered his servants to dig up the spot where he heard these sounds. As his servants dug up the ground, the image of a four-sided Buddhist statue appeared. King Gyeongdeok of Silla was so moved by this experience, and the resulting statue, that he decided to build Gulbulsa Temple. Unfortunately, the temple no longer remains; instead, all that remains of the former temple is the object of the story: the Stone Buddhas in Four Directions at Gulbulsa Temple Site, Gyeongju. Gulbulsa Temple means “To Dig Up an Image of the Buddha” in English. The statue dates back to the early part of Later Silla (668-935 A.D.), and the statue is Korean Treasure #121.
Temple Site Layout
The Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site, and the famed four-sided statue that’s all that remains of the Silla-era temple, is a few metres away from the Baeknyulsa Temple parking lot and up a bit of an incline along a path. It’s along this pathway, and in a clearing, that you’ll find the Stone Buddhas in Four Directions at Gulbulsa Temple Site, Gyeongju. At its highest point, this large rock measures 3.9 metres in height. And the large rock is meant to symbolize the Buddhist Paradise in all four directions. In the four cardinal directions, you’ll find Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) to the west, Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of the Eastern Paradise, and the Buddha of Medicine) to the east, Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) to the north, and Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) to the south.
The first of the four cardinal directions you’ll encounter as you cross over a bridge, and the nearest to you past the protective fencing, is the west side of the stone statue. On the west side of the large stone, you’ll find three stone statues. Two of the three stone statues stand separate from the central image. The central image is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). This statue is joined by a large, crowned statue of Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to the right and a rather mangled image of Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Power for Amita-bul) to the left. The reason I say mangled when describing the statue of Daesaeji-bosal is because very little of the face of the statue still remains intact. In fact, all that remains of the face and head is a gnarled stump at the end of his neck. Amita-bul is the largest figure in the triad and also of the entire four-sided statue. Amita-bul stands 3.9 metres in height. Interestingly, the head of Amita-bul was carved separately from the rest of his body and then later attached to the rest of the statue. And just as interesting is the statue of Gwanseeum-bosal. The statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion appears to be placing all her weight on her right leg. This posture is called Sam-gul, where all the weight of one’s body becomes balanced. This type of posture was popularized during Later Silla (668-935 A.D.).
To the left, as you move clockwise around the large stone structure, you’ll appear on the north side. Here, you’ll find two images. The first, to the right, in high relief, is an image dedicated to Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha). The right hand of the high relief of Mireuk-bul has its hand raised upwards towards the sky. And to the left, and very faintly, is an image of Gwanseeum-bosal with eleven faces and six hands.
Continuing counter clockwise around the large stone, you’ll now be facing the eastern portion of the statue. Looking back at you is a high relief of Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of the Eastern Paradise, and the Buddha of Medicine). The legs of Yaksayeorae-bul are crossed underneath him, and his body is tilted forward. A medicine bowl is held in Yaksayeorae-bul’s left hand, while the right hand appears to be striking the gesture of fearlessness mudra (ritualized hand gesture).
The final side of the Stone Buddhas in Four Directions at Gulbulsa Temple Site, Gyeongju is the southern side, which was once home to a triad. In the centre of this triad is Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha). The central image of Seokgamoni-bul stands 1.6 metres in height. However, Seokgamoni-bul’s head is missing. The Bodhisattva to the left is completely missing and the Bodhisattva to the right is the only relief in the triad that’s still intact. This extensive damage took place during Japanese Colonization (1910-1945). Both the face of Seokgamoni-bul and the Bodhisattva to the left were taken by the Japanese.
How To Get There
The easiest way to get to Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site is to take a taxi from the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. It’ll take thirteen minutes, and it’ll cost you around 5,000 won. The cheaper way to get there is to take Bus #70 from out in front of the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. However, the bus ride will take you about forty minutes to get to Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
It’s usually pretty hard to rate a temple site like the neighbouring Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site. However, unlike Hwangnyongsa-ji Temple Site, Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site still has something occupying the former religious site. And the Stone Buddhas in Four Directions at Gulbulsa Temple Site, Gyeongju certainly is impressive. The diversity of artistic approaches are beautiful, including the statues of Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) triad, the high reliefs of Yaksayeorae-bul (The Buddha of the Eastern Paradise), Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha), and Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha), as well as the light relief of Gwanseeum-bosal on the north side of the historic stone. The only other time I’ve seen artwork like this is at Chilbulam Hermitage on Mt. Namsan also in Gyeongju.