Overlooking the East Sea far ahead beyond the mountain ridges from
the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Seokguram stands as a
proud testimony to Korea's brilliant tradition of classical Buddhist
sculpture. A small but noble pantheon of divinities symbolizing
Buddhist philosophy and aestheticism, the eighth-century cave
temple is a structure of sublime beauty culminating religious belief,
science and fine arts which flowered in the golden age of Asian art.
Seokguram is located near the tummit of Mt. Tohamsan, east of the
historic city of Gyeongju, capital of the Silla dynasty
It is reached after an hour-long walk up a steep, winding mountain
path over some 4km from Bulguksa, another famous temple dating to the eighth century when
Silla was at the peak of its strength. The capital of Silla rivalled in splendor the Dang capital of
Jangan and its culture shared in the international character of Dang at this time when all of
East Asia enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Buddhism first reached Korea in the fourth century through China but it truly flowered only
after the court of Silla officially recognized it as the state religion.
After Silla unified the peninsula in the mid-seventh century by conquering the
rival states of Goguryeo and Baekje, Buddhism not only served a religious function but was
looked upon as a protective force. Temples of magnificent scale were erected in and around
Gyeongju as they were regarded as a supernatural defense against external threats and
bastions of national consciousness. According to the scant historical records available today,
both Seokguram and Bulguksa, the two supreme accomplishments of Silla Buddhist
architecture, were built under the supervision of Kim Dae-seong, who came from the royal
family and served as prime minister under the reign of King Gyeongdeok.
The construction began in 742, the year after Kim resigned from his top
position in court. He died in 774 without seeing the completion of the historic projects several
years later under the reign of King Hyegong. As a complement to Bulguksa, which was
dedicated to the present generation, the granite temple of Seokguram is said to have been
intended to honor those who had been Kim's parents in his previous life. Whoever the patron
or whatever the motivation, Seokguram was apparently designed as a private chapel for royalty
considering its scale, philosophical depth and aesthetic standard, whereas Bulguksa, a grand
complex of various worship halls and pagodas, was intended as a state monastery to serve the
Too small and cozy to have been conceived as a place for congregation in spite of the
enormous resources required for its construction, the grotto shrine represents a pinnacle of
religious sculpture not only in Korea but in all of East Asia.
One of Korea's most popular tourist destinations drawing
thousands of visitors from home and abroad daily, Seokguram recalls the long journey
Buddhism made from its homeland of India through central Asia and China to Korea. A gem of
ancient Buddhist architecture punctuating the eastern terminal of the Silk Road, the shrine
testifies to the enthusiasm and sacrifice of early Korean monk pilgrims who risked their lives
to experience firsthand the exotic traditions of their faith in the faroff land of India. Buddhist
grottos are generally believed to have originated in ancient India.
They are divided largely into two Kinds according to form and
purpose: caitya, literally a "sanctuary" or a hall containing a sacred object to be worshipped
such as a small stupa or a Buddha image; and vihara, a monastery or shelter for monks, often
with chapels for images or a stupa placed in the central court which also served as a place for
instruction. Grottos in th caitya style were later adopted by the chinese in the hundreds of
caves stretching over a mile along the cliffs of Dunhuang and the sandstone hills of Yungang.
Seokguram, with a rectangular antechamber leading to a circular domed main chamber,
resembles ancient Indian cave temples.
Though inspired by the cave temples of ancient India and China, Seokguram differs in
construction to its prototypes which were mostly built by digging into hillsides and carving on
natural rocks. korea's topographical features comprising solid rock beds probably made it
impossible to import the idea of the sculptors of Karle or Ajanta, who carved thousands of
figures, stupas and apse ends out of the soft conglomerate rock and clay. Instead, an incredible
artificial cave was assembled with granite on the heights of a mountain some 750meters above
sea level, an architectural technique without precedent the world over.
Apex of Korean Buddhist Sculpture
Highlighted by the majestic seated Buddha with a serene, all-knowing expression as the
primary object of worship, Seokguram enshrines an impressive assembly of 40 different
divinities embodying various aspects of Buddhist teaching. The grotto chapel, in spite of the
diversity of the icons ensconced, has a unique feeling of peace and unity resulting in an intense
spiritual impression. The prominent skill for handling solid granite aside, modern scientists
investigating the source of this rare sensation of sacred harmony discovered that the Silla
architects employed the geometric theories of the golden rectangle and symmetry.
Seokguram is meticulously designed to guide the faithful into the holy and of the Buddha, a
mysterious spiritual journey to the realm of nirvana in a limited span of time and space. In
ancient times when there was no transportation, everybody was supposed to walk up the
rugged, serpentine mountain path. The journey was to begin at the foot of Mt.Tohamsan which
was considered a holy mountain by the people of Silla, or, symbolically, it begin from Bulguksa
which straddles the mountain's western midslope. After climbing up the mountain for an hour
or so, the pilgrim was to quench his thirst with the icy cold water gushing up from a fountain in
front of the shrine
Passing the arched entrance into the rectangular antechamber and proceeding through a
slightly narrower corridor, their walls decorated with a legion of bas-relief images of various
guardian deities, the worshiper would leave the secular world behind and abe prepared to face
to Buddha in the main rotunda. An image of serenity and power, the Buddha is seated
cross-legged on a lotus throne, with his eyes half-closed in meditation and a faint smile on his
The Buddha is surrounded by bodhisattvas, arhats and ancient Indian gods carved in high relief
on the wall of the circular hall. Here the ancient Silla architects probably borrowed the concept
of the early Indian stupas and the mounded graves of Gyeongju but in a reversed form to
create a "hollowed stupa." Inside the shrine, with the dim light making subtle changes to the
texture of the granite carvings as he moves, the worshiper could walk around the Buddha and
possibly face himself and experience nirvana to realize that life and death can be one in the void
The construction method of Seokguram remains a wonder for modern architects. Hundreds of
granite pieces of various shapes and sizes were assembled to form the cave. No mortar was
used; the stones are held together by stone rivets. Natural ventilation was provided to control
the temperature and humidity inside the cave, though the wisdom of ancient architects failed to
be conveyed in the process of its preservation in modern times.
The main rotunda, believed to stand for heave in contrast to the earth which is represented by
the rectangular antechamber, measures 6.84 to 6.58 meters in diameter. It has a drum built of
10 granite slabs, upon which 15 granite panels with sculpted images of bodhisattvas, arhats and
ancient Indian gods form the circular wall. Above these icons and separated by lintel, there are
10 niches, each containing miniature statues of seated bodhisattvas and faithfuls. Slightly tilted
toward the back from the center of the rotunda is a round lotus pedestal, on which th Buddha
sits facing the antechamber across the corridor. The domed ceiling is capped with a round
granite plate decorated with a lotus design.
The Buddha and Other Deities
The elegant and majestic main buddha of Seokguram epitomizes the aestheticism of Korean
Buddhist sculpture. An enigmatic combination of masculine strength and feminine beauty and a
personification of divine and human natures, the Buddha represents Korean Buddhist sculpture
at the zenith of classical realism.
Chiselled out of a single granite block, the 3.5-meter-high Buddha image envisages
Seokgamoni, the Historic Buddha, at the moment of enlightenment. He is seated in a
cross-legged position on a 1.34-meter-high lotus pedestal, with his right foot exposed as it
lays across his left knee. His hands are poised in a mudar touching the earth to call it to
witness his realization of enlightenment.
The Buddha has tightly curled hair and a distinct usnisa, the protuberance on the top of the
head symbolizing his supreme wisdom. Beneath the broad forehead the double eyebrows are
shaped like crescent moons and the eyes are half-shut gazing vaguely ahead in deep
meditation. He wears a faint smile and his body is rounded and voluminous as though inflated
by an inner force.
The robust torso is draped in a flowing robe with gentle folds exposing the right shoulder in
respect of early Indian customs. The drapery is obviously a Korean interpretation of the Indian
prototype of a tightly-clinging robe. The fan-shaped folds about the legs also indicate the
Gupta-period Indian influence. The details of the robe covering the right arm and chest are
The lotus pedestal on which the Buddha sits consists of three sections. The upper and lower
sections are round and decorated with lotus petals, while the narrower central section is
octagonal with eight small pillars supporting the upper section at each point of the octagon.
The pedestal is place on a round foundation. A big granite roundel a adorned with lotus petals
around the rim is set on the wall behind the Buddha, creating the illusion of an aureole around
his head. This is one of the distinct features of Seokguram. The nimbus is normally attached to
the back or the head of most other Buddha images
The Buddha lord it over an assembly of three bodhisattvas, ten disciples and two Hindu gods
carved in relief on the wall of the rotunda as well as the ten miniature statues of bodhisattvas,
saints and faithfuls seated in the niches above, at the level of his eyes. On the two wall of the
corridor leading out to the antechamber are relief figures of the Four Heavenly Kings, two, on
each side, Two powerful bas-relief images of Vajrapanis, the fierce guardians of temples, stand
vigil on either side of the entrance to the passageway and the Eight Guardian Deities decorate
the walls of the antechamber, four on each side.
Aside from the main Buddha, the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, or the Bodhisattva of
Compassion, standing at the center of the back wall of the rotunda, probably draws the
greatest admiration among all the deities in the shrine. This graceful Avalokitesvara, standing
2.18 meters high on an opulent lotus base, wears a crown decorated with the heads of ten
bodhisattvas and a central Amitabha, or the Buddha of Boundless Light. He is dressed in
flowing robes and decked with resplendent jewelry. He holds a vase containing a single lotus
blossom in his left hand and a long beaded necklace in his right hand, Standing right at the
back of the Buddha, this is the only figure facing straight ahead while the faces of all other
images are portrayed obliquely.
Ten arhats, or the disciples of Seokgamoni, are lined up beside the Eleven-faced
Avalokitesvara, five on each side. They have distinctly different countenances with sharp noses
and deep-set eyes and bony bodies that are easily traced to the Indian ascetics depicted under
Greek influence. Wearing ankle-length saris, each of the shaven-headed arhats holds a small
object like a book, a bottle or an alms bowl, or has hands poised in a symbolic gesture.
Two elegant bodhisattvas stand next to the arhats, one on either side. They are the popular
Manjusri, the representation of divine wisdom, who holds a small cup in his hand, and his
companion Samantabhadra holding a book. Next come the two famous Indian devas,
Mahabrahmanah(Brahma) and Sakradevanam Indra(Indra), with their egg-shaped haloes.
Standing to the left of the entrance of the rotunda, Brahma holds a whisk in his right hand and
a small bottle in his left hand. Indra, standing on the opposite side to the right of the entrance,
holds a whisk in his right hand and a ritual thunderbolt in his left hand The corridor leading to
the main hall features the Four Heavenly Kings, the guardians of the four corners of the
heavens who are often found at Korea temple gate. They are presented two on each side of the
corridor. They are clad in armor and flowing robes, each trampling a demon and carrying an
object such as a sword or a small stupa. The demons vary in shape and posture. Traces of
paint remain in the recessed portions of the demons.
Two horrific Vajrapanis guard the rotunda on the outside of the corridor, one on each side of
its entrance. Deriving from Indian mythology, the fierce temple protectors with bulging eyes
and big mouths, look intimidating, each raising one arm with the hand clenched in a tight fist.
The muscular torsos are naked and a skirt is hung at the waist. Exhibiting terrifying strength,
they are carved in deep relief and almost appear to stand apart from the wall.
Legend of a Filial son
In the small village of Moryang-ri on the western outskirts of Gyeongju, there lived a poor
woman named Gyeongjo who had an odd-looking son. The villagers made fun of the child as he
had a big head and a flat forehead, that looked like a wall. They called him Dae-seong, meaning
The boy's mother was too poor to feed him so she gave him to a rich neighbor named Bogan
as a farm hand. Dae-seong worked so hard that his master was moved and gave him a small
piece of a rice paddy. About this time , a virtuous monk named Jeomgae from Heungnyongsa
temple, visited Bogan and asked for a donation for a big ceremony at his temple. As Bogan
handed him fifty rolls of hemp cloth, the monk bowed in appreciation and said that the Buddha
would repay his generosity by blessing him ten thousand times the worth of his donation.
Dae-seong overheard this and ran home and told his mother, "Now we are poor, and if we do
not give something to the temple, we will be poorer in our next lives. Why don't we give our
little rice field for the ceremony so that we may have a great reward in our afterlives?" His
mother readily consented and donated their rice field to the temple.
Dae-seong died a few months later. On the night of his death, a voice from heaven was heard
above the house of Prime Minister Kim Mun-ryang. The voice said that Dae-seong, a good
boy from Moryang-ri, would be born to Kim's family. Kim's wife conceived at the time the
heavenly voice was heard and gave birth to a boy. The child kept his left hand tightly clenched
for seven day after his birth. When he opened his fist at last, they found the two characters for
Dae-seong written in gold on his palm. They gave him his old name and invited his mother of
his previous life to take care of him.
Dae-seong grew up into a strong man who loved hunting. One day he climbed Mt.Tohamsan
and there he killed a big bear. As he was sleeping in a village at the foot of the mountain that
night, the bear's ghost appeared in his dream and threatened to kill and eat him unless he built
a temple for him. Dae-seong built a temple on the spot where he killed the bear and named it
Jangsusa, meaning the Temple of Long Life. From that time he gave up hunting.
Dae-seong was moved by the heavenly grace. He built the beautiful Bulguksa in memory of his
parents of the present life and the wonderful cave temple of Seokguram for his parents of the
previous life. He invited the two distinguished monks Sillim and Byohun to supervise these
temples. He had his fathers and mothers represented among the icons at these temples in
gratitude for bringing him up as a useful man.
After the great stone Buddha for Seokguram was finished, Dae-seong was working on a large
piece of stone for the ceiling of the main hall when it suddenly broke into three pieces. He wept
bitterly over this and fell into sleep. During the night, gods descended from heaven and
restored the stone to its original condition. Dae-seong awoke with joy and climbed the
southern peak of Mt.Tohamsan, where he burned incense and worshiped the deities. People
called the place Hyangnyong, or Incense peak, thereafter.
The erudite monk historian lryeon(1206-1289) had the wondrous skill of interweaving legend
and fact in his book which serves as an invaluable source of information for students of early
Korean history. While most readers of his book today would find it difficult to believe in the
reincarnation of Kim Dae-seong, visitors to Seokguram can see crack dividing the round
capstone on the main rotunda's domed ceiling clearly into three pieces. South of the temple,
there also exists a peak called Hyangnyong.
Another important history book, Samguk Sagi(History of the Three Kingdoms), compiled by
Kim Bu-sik in 1145, identifies the founder of Bulguksa and Seokguram as Kim Dae-seong who
served as prime minister in 745-750 under King Gyeongdeok. He was the son of Kim
Mun-ryang who was also prime minister in 706-711 under King Seongdeok, according to the
oldest extant book on Korean history.
The Unsolved Questions of Preservation
Seokguram has had its share of turmoil in Korea's history over the centuries. It lost much of
its religious and artistic splendor during the Joseon period (1392-1910) when its
Confucianoriented rulers suppressed Buddhism. The remote mountain grotto was left seriously
damaged toward the turn of the century. It underwent repair three times earlier this century
under the japanese colonial government.
The first round of repairs was carried out from 1913 to 1915. Without sufficient study of its
structure, the cave was almost completely dismantled and reassembled and a fatal mistake was
committed in the process. The entire structure was encase with cement about two meters
thick, which resulted in water leaks and erosion of the sculptures because the cave could no
Seokguram went through considerable "torture" in the name of preservation in the following
decades. In 1917, drainage pipes were buried above the dome to channel rainwater out of the
cave. As the leaks continued in spite of the pipes, however, another round of repair was
conducted in 1920 to 1923. Waterproof asphalt was applied to the surface of the concrete mass
this time. But water continued to leak and dew formed, and in 1927 the Japanese
government-general eventually employed the unthinkable method of spraying hot stem on the
granite surface to get rid of moss.
As the preservation of Seokguram continued to pose serious problems with high humidity
inside the shrine, the government of the late President Park Jeong-hui instructed an in-depth
investigation of its structure to be carried out in the early 1960s. Extensive renovation was
undertaken based on the study from 1962 to 1964. The problem of temperature and humidity
control was resolved to a remarkable extent by using mechanical systems.
Nevertheless, the wooden superstructure built over the antechamber remains a mind-boggling
question for many who believe Seokguram originally did not have such a structure blocking the
magnificent sunrise over the East Sea from the view of Seokgamoni, aside from cutting off the
air flow into the cave. A glass wall keeping the visitors from the main chamber is another point
of debate regarding the contradiction concepts of the preservation of the shrine and its
availability for religious worship and aesthetic appreciation.
Two statues in the niches of the wall of the main chamber and a miniature marble pagoda which
is believed to have stood in front of the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara at the back of the Buddha
image remain missing. They disappeared in the early years of Japanese occupation.
geographically removed from China by Goguryeo to the north and Baekje to the west, Silla was
the last of the three ancient Korean Kingdoms to accept Buddhism. But as soon as King
Beopheung recognized it as the state religion in 528, it spread quickly through out the country,
The 13th century historian monk, lryeon, wrote that, by the mid-sixth century in Gyeongju and
its vicinity, "the golden roofs of temples glittered against the sky like the Milky Way and
lotus-crowned pagodas stood in unending lines like flights of wild geese."
All these temples vanished in the turbulent course of history, but the description vividly
conveys how enthusiastically the early Buddhists erected temples and pagodas around the
capital of their thriving kingdom. Today, Bulguksa offers a glimpse of the splendor of Silla's
state temples, although all of its present wooden shrines are in the much later Joseon style and
much of its antique flavor was lost in massive rehabilitation work carried out in the 1970s.