Colonial Korea: Buseoksa Temple – 부석사 (Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

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The flag supports out in front of Buseoksa Temple in 1916.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Buseoksa Temple is located in the southwest portion of Mt. Bonghwangsan in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do. The name of the temple means “Floating Rock Temple,” in English, and relates to the creation myth that surrounds the temple (more on that later). The temple was first established in 676 A.D. by the famed monk Uisang-daesa, who also had the nickname of “Temple Builder” for all the temples he helped construct like Hwaeomsa Temple, Naksansa Temple and Beomeosa Temple.

After living in China for ten years, where he furthered his Buddhist studies, Uisang-daesa returned to the Korean peninsula. Uisang-daesa built Buseoksa Temple under the orders of the Silla king, King Munmu (r. 661-681 A.D.). Uisang-daesa used Buseoksa Temple as a base to help spread the message of Hwaeom Buddhism (Flower Garland Buddhism) for which he is famous.

As for the myth that surrounds Uisang-daesa and Buseoksa Temple, it pertains to a love story that’s recorded in the Samguk-Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). As a teenager in the Silla capital of Gyeongju, Uisang fell in love with Seonmyo (Virtuous Mystery). They fell in love, but Seonmyo was chosen as a part of a tribute mission to Tang China. During her absence, Uisang became a Buddhist monk to help his broken heart. After learning this news, Seonmyo threw herself from the boat that was carrying her up the Yellow River. She was to survive this attempted suicide, and she was adopted by a wealthy merchant.

Uisang also used the Yellow River on his journey towards furthering his studies in China. Briefly, he was reunited with Seonmyo. And while their passion still burned for each other, Uisang refused to betray his monastic vows. Before departing, he promised to see her one more time, which he eventually did seven years later. During that time, Seonmyo had embroidered a beautiful silk monk gown as a gift for him. Not wanting to falsely lead her on, he refused this gift. The next morning, without saying good-bye, Uisang boarded a boat that would bring him back to the Korean peninsula. Heart-broken, Seonmyo threw the silk gift into the river. Following her gift into the river, she drowned herself out of despair. It was from this love story that Seonmyo was reborn as a dragon that would protectively look over Uisang.

As a dragon, Seommyo followed Uisang back to Korea to protect him. And Uisang would need her help when he attempted to build Buseoksa Temple. Instead of being inviting, the locals violently tried to stop Uisang from building the new temple because of their local shamanic belief in Sanshin (The Mountain Spirit). Seonmyo, as a dragon, lifted a boulder in the air three times to make the locals cower submissively. This worked. The boulder came to rest behind the main hall, the Muryangsu-jeon Hall, which is also the second oldest building in Korea (dating back to 1376). After this, Seonmyo the dragon died and her bones were used as the foundation for the creation of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall. So that’s how the temple gets its name: Floating Rock Temple.

With the main hall, the Muryangsu-jeon Hall is the second oldest wooden building in Korea, dating back to 1376, after being destroyed after a rebel army destroyed it in 1358. The expansion and rebuilding of the temple dates back to this period in history. Under the guidance of Woneung, and under the patronage of the Goryeo king, King Gongmin (r. 1351-74), which lasted from 1372-77, Buseoksa Temple was rebuilt. Amazingly, Buseoksa Temple was spared any damage during the destructive Imjin War (1592-98), which saw almost all major temples completely destroyed by the invading Japanese. Next to Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, Buseoksa Temple houses the second most National Treasures at a single temple site. In total, and including the Muryangsu-jeon main hall, Buseoksa Temple houses five National Treasures and five additional Treasures.

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Buseoksa Temple in 1916.

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A closer look at National Treasure #17, the Stone Lantern at Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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A closer look at the Stone Lantern at the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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Treasure #249, the Three Story Stone Pagoda at Buseoksa Temple.

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An auxiliary building at Buseoksa Temple in 1932.

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Buseoksa Temple grounds in 2011.

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From the foundation myth of Buseoksa Temple. This painting is from Naksansa Temple and was taken in 2014.

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A painting from the creation myth that surrounds Buseoksa Temple. Lady Seonmyo is to the right with Uisang riding in his dragon-guided boat. This picture was also taken at Naksansa Temple.

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The beautiful Buseoksa Temple in 2011.

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Muryangsu-jeon Hall that dates back to 1376 and is National Treasure #18.

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The clay seated statue of Amita-bul inside the Muryangsu-jeon Hall. The statue is National Treasure #45.

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The floating rock from the creation myth story that surrounds Buseoksa Temple. It lies to the left rear of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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The shrine dedicated to Lady Seonmyo to the right rear of the Muryangsu-jeon Hall.

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The gift bearing painting of Lady Seonmyo.

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