A new look at the secrets of an ancient temple

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A new look at the secrets of an ancient temple

For those who have never made it down to the Unesco World Cultural Heritage city of Gyeongju to see what is perhaps Korea’s most famous landmark ― Bulguk Temple, a massive temple ― this weekend would be a great time to do so.
The reason: Korea’s most famous Buddhist temple wanted to mark the Buddha ‘s birthday, which falls today, with a couple of special events for its visitors. The trip is also cheaper.? It normally costs 4,000 won ($4) to enter the temple, but on the Buddha’s birthday, admission is free.
The temple also announced it was planning something more, giving visitors a chance to “put their feet on” two of its national treasures: Cheongungyo and Baegungyo, the two staircases that lead to the main gate of the worshipping hall. ?Since being designated national treasures, the stairs have been off-limits to tourists.
But for one day, the very, very steep stairs will open up again.? The temple will push open the cement barricade that blocks the entrance to the first and the last steps and let the visitors heave their way up to the temple gate. Normally, visitors would have to hike up a dirt hill that winds its way up around the staircase and reach the main hall from the temple’s side door.
“This is a very special experience,” said Chung Jin-ok, a Bulguk Temple guide for 5 years and a researcher on Gyeongju.
What makes the stairs special is that they were originally restricted to only the highest-ranking monks; lower-ranked monks would have to use the two staircases, Yeonhwagyo and Chilbogyo, to the temple’s far left.
The irony is that the higher-ranked monks had the harder climb, as the Cheongungyo and Baekungyo staircases are much steeper. Historians believe that the incline was intended to make Buddhist monks feel that they “suffered” and “endured” more to reach the main hall, where they could face the Buddha. The area below the staircases is supposed to symbolize the mundane world, while the area above is supposed to symbolize the world of the Buddha, Ms. Chung said.
The walls around the staircases have their own hidden symbolism. Instead of building the wall in a neat pile, two different kinds of stones were used.
Uncarved stones were first piled up on the ground. On top of these stones, however, were laid a new pile of neatly carved granite blocks. But there are no gaps between the two piles, because the lower ends of the higher pile of stones were carved to fit the natural curves of the stones that were sitting in the bottom.
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“It was a clever way to prevent the building from collapsing during an earthquake,” Ms. Chung said while pointing at the stones. “Historians were amazed when they first discovered it.”
The Gyeongju area has been damaged by big earthquakes before. One record states that in AD 774, an earthquake killed over 100 people around Gyeongju. But the temple survived, thanks to the unique way of constructing its walls.
Once up the stairs and into the main hall, visitors will see the famous Dabotap and the Seokgatap pagodas. Dabotap was originally adorned with four lion sculptures, but only one remains. The other three are assumed to have been stolen.
“According to records from the early 20th century, Japanese occupants found only three lion sculptures at the pagoda,” Ms. Chung said. “But after the Japanese dismantled the pagoda and reassembled it again, the [Koreans] found that two more were gone.”
One of the lions now resides at the British Museum, and the other is supposedly somewhere in Japan, she said.
There is another reason why historians believe the lions were smuggled out of the country during the colonial period. A Japanese official named Kimura, who was stationed in Gyeongju, wrote in his memoirs, “While Growing Old in Joseon,” that “It is my dear wish that the articles, including two lions and two Buddhist miniature statues that were taken out to my country sometime around my arrival here, be returned to where they are supposed to be before I die.”
Even the one remaining lion is in bad shape: Its mouth has been broken off.
“It’ s sad, but people joke that the reason we were able to keep at least one lion was because it was the damaged one,” Ms. Chung said.
Standing across from Dabotap is Seokgatap. In 1966, grave robbers tried unsuccessfully to break into the pagoda, which houses the remains of an ancient monk, but the incident eventually led to the discovery of an ancient wooden scripture.
The case started when a Buddhist monk noticed signs that the Seokgatap stones had been moved. He notified the police and the cultural authorities. Police immediately suspected grave robbers ― there had been a rash of attempted break-ins at old pagodas.
The robbers were soon caught, a Seoul newspaper reported in September 1966. The five men had dug into 13 old temples and pagodas throughout the country. They claimed, however, that they had not stolen anything from Seokgatap.
The Korean government dismantled the stone structure to check ― lo and behold, inside was the Dharani sutra, a wooden scripture on Buddhism from the 8th century. Unfortunately, the dismantling project left a long crack on one side of the pagoda.
“There’s so much more to see and learn, if you take the interest and time,” Ms. Chung said as she bowed in front of a Buddha statue in the main hall. She admitted that she was a Christian, but said she wanted to show respect to the temple.
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Near the end of the three-hour tour, Ms. Chung talked about the Sarira Stupa inside the temple, which was almost taken to Japan before a conscientious Japanese scholar brought the stupa back. Rocks in the garden bore carvings depicting elephants, signs of trade between Korea and Central Asia.? The remains of ancient toilets sat amid the trees behind the temple, sprawled out like ordinary rocks. One bowl was even wet.
“It actually takes several hours to go through all the amazing details of Bulguk Temple,” said Ms. Chung with a sigh. “But people look around briefly once and go home.”
She said that students on field trips often arrive before lunch. Visitors who want to avoid the crowd and enjoy the place in peace should visit the temple earlier in the morning or between 12 and 2 p.m., when most of the tour groups are outside the temple having lunch.
The temple tour may be fascinating, but it’s hardly convenient. There were no tourist brochures inside the temple, and no information on the pagodas and facilities. The temple has also moved its parking lot a 30-minute walk away from the entrance, and there are no shuttle buses.


by Lee Min-a

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