Seokguram and the Holy Grail

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Seokguram and the Holy Grail

Great art inspires mystery. There's the enigma of the Mona Lisa's smile; the riddle of the Sphinx; the authorship of Shakespeare's plays; Elvis's -- no, forget Elvis.

And in Korea, Seokguram. Seokguram is to Eastern art what the Mona Lisa is to European; it's the supreme masterpiece. One visitor calls Seokguram "the most remarkable and unequaled art treasure accomplished by Far Eastern civilization."

Does it, too, conceal a mystery?

Several. It was itself a mystery: built in the 8th century and lost for centuries in a forgotten cave in a remote mountain, just east of Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang province.

Seokguram also was an engineering marvel. Its ceiling was made of granite blocks, resting one on another, without cement to support its massive open dome and the weight of the mountain above. Its optics were so finely tuned that sunlight penetrated the cave the instant dawn broke, illuminating the face of a stone Buddha. A cut crystal in his forehead shone. The glint was caught by two more crystals, in front and above, then shot back to light the head of Gwanseeum, the Bodhisattva (Buddhist saint) of compassion, on the wall behind. Revelation upon revelation; apparition upon apparition. And a lesson in Mahayana Buddhism: enlightenment brings inner wisdom; wisdom brings compassion; compassion reflects wisdom reflecting enlightenment.

To prevent damage from moisture, Seokguram is now visible only under glass. If there are more secrets, mortals may no longer see.

But there is an alternative -- a large replica in Bomunsa, Seoul's largest Buddhist nunnery. Come, for there is one more wonder to discover as you wander through.

Fierce figures line the antechamber as you enter. Note the winged helmet of the first figure to your right. As "Tongjin Posal," he guards most Korean temples even today.

Two more figures glower into the passageway as it narrows, stripped to the waist, with raised fists. These are Inwang. They guard the gates of death.

Beyond are Four Heavenly Kings. They rule the sensible universe. Each owns a direction: North, South, East and West. North holds a pagoda representing the North Pole.

Beyond appears the circular sanctum. Facing Sokkamuni, the Buddha, are two less threatening figures. The Indian gods Brahma (with a tea pot) and Indra, the creator of all things and king of gods (with a thunderbolt).

Mystery beckons. Can you see, as one early Western scholar did, Christian crosses on their helmets?

Christians may have been at the Gyeongju court. We know that Persians were, and we know "Nestorian" Christians were in nearby China in the 8th century. Crosses were found in the foundation of Bulguksa temple close by. Could there have been a parallel Christian significance to Seokguram, these two figures representing God the Father, creator of all, and Jesus, lord of all?

This might explain another mystery. Note, just beyond, two feminine figures. Pohyon and Munsu, Bodhisattvas, are normally found in this position. But not like this. Here, as nowhere else in all Buddhist art, Munsu, the spirit of wisdom, carries a bowl. Why?

One mad theory: This represents the communion chalice. Or even the Holy Grail, the actual wine cup from the Last Supper. Sought over all Europe, sought in America, never lost, but never found, by legend carefully preserved somewhere, in some secret, far location.

Could this signal that it was buried here for safekeeping under Seokguram?

It makes crazy sense: Christianity headed East as well as West, and was in India within a century. The Grail may have trekked eastward at the fall of Jerusalem, might have continued east as persecutions spread, through Persia, China and into Korea; then been buried at land's end, here on the coast of the Eastern Sea.

This is fantastically unlikely. One culture often projects its fondest wishes on another. But it's fun to come decide for yourself: Are those really crosses?

To see this second Seokguram, take subway line No. 6 line to Bomun station, and exit at Bomun temple. Seokguram is up a hill to your right.

Stephen K. Roney now teaches at University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Visit him on the web at

by Stephen K. Roney

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