We see Buddha figures in the lotus position or even close-ups of their visages.  What often strikes me is the visages, always serene, are seldom weak.  The art of achieving this has evolved over many centuries.

So it was with the Buddha of Seokguram in the region of Bulguksa in the south-east of the Korean peninsula.  We took a two-hour trip on the highway from Daeso, where I was teaching, to reach this place of pilgrimage and history amongst hills and mountains.  Here, in the Three Kingdoms period (circa 500 c.e. to 1000 c.e.), the Korean culture went through a remarkable renaissance.  There is, for example, one of the world’s oldest observatories, amongst other things.

At Bulguksa itself there are temples and places of learning.  At the entrance of these temples there is, as with many sites in South Korea, the information board telling visitors that Bulguksa, established in 800 c.e., was razed to the ground by the invading Japanese in the 1590s and it was rebuilt in the 1700s.

Bulguksa entrance gate (Note Chinese, rather than Korean, inscription) 


Temple entrance with visiting students


Artwork in temple

Away from the tourists and the pilgrims, in a quiet hillside some kilometres further, we visited Seokguram.  It is an undramatic enclosure partly underground, having been strategically buried to hide the Buddha figure from the plundering invaders.

Unimposing entrance to Seokguram

The figure itself — the Buddha in a lotus position — is said to have been carved in the 600s c.e., the more remarkable as Buddhism had only reached Korea from India some three hundred years before.  Today it is one of the most revered in Asia, not least for its classic simplicity.

Sakyamuni Buddha, Seokguram

It is necessary, they said, to keep pilgrims and visitors away from the figure itself with glass panels.  The viewing walkway from which we could see the figure under the brick cupola was tightly packed with people.  The figure itself, three and a half metres of white granite, struck me as being simply conceived, unadorned and majestically pure.   On the lap lies the open hand of healing.

Buddha, the healer

I was moved seeing an old woman, wizened and bent, in the glow of her reverence for the imposing figure.  Tears fell over her smile.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

Late-2007.  Written Dec, 2017



Ancient History encyclopedia online.



Entrance, temples, artwork – my photos

Seokguram images  –  sources lost


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