Colonial Korea: Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site – 굴불사지 (Gyeongju)

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The west side of the four sided sculpture at Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site in Gyeongju from 1917.

Hello Again Everyone!!

Located on the western slopes of Mt. Sogeumgangsan in the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty, Gyeongju, Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site is home to one of the most uniquely crafted four-sided sculptures in all of Korea.

According to the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), the 35th king of the Silla Dynasty, King Gyeongdeok (r. 742 A.D. – 765 A.D.) was making a short trek up to the neighbouring Baeknyulsa Temple, which lays a little further up Mt. Sogeumgangsan. During his walk, he heard a noise coming from beneath the ground. For some reason, King Gyeongdeok believed the noise to be the sound of a Buddhist monk reading Buddhist sutras. Immediately, the king ordered his servants to dig up the spot where he had heard these sounds. As they dug, the stone image of the four-sided sculpture appeared. So moved by this incident, the king decided to call the future temple grounds Gulbulsa Temple. Regrettably, the temple no longer stands; instead, all that remains is the four-sided sculpture that King Gyeongdeok discovered. As for the name of the temple, Gulbulsa Temple, it literally means “To Dig Up an Image of the Buddha Temple,” in English.

Each side of the four-sided statue has a different Buddha or triad. On the west side, you’ll see a triad centred by Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). He’s joined on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to the right and Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power and Wisdom for Amita-bul) to the left. On the east side of the sculpture is Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha), who has his legs crossed. An image of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) is found on the north side, while on the south is an image of Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha).

Surprisingly, this four-sided stone sculpture isn’t a national treasure; instead, it’s Korea’s Treasure #121.

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The stone statue of Gwanseeum-bosal from 1917.

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The severely damaged image of Daesaeji-bosal from 1917, as well.

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The folded legs of Yaksayore-bul (The Medicine Buddha).

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The north side relief of Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha).

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The Gulbulsa-ji in 2013.

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A modern look at Gwanseeum-bosal.

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And a better look at the severely damaged Daesaeji-bosal.

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A fuller look at Yaksayore-bul in 2013.

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As well as Mireuk-bul in 2013.

Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site – 굴불사지 (Gyeongju)

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The west face to the four-sided sculpture at the former temple site at Gulbulsa-ji Temple in Gyeongju.

Hello Again Everyone!!

While this may see a bit strange to be writing about a temple that no longer exists, the temple was left with a stunning, four-sided, piece of Buddhist artwork in the form of a large stone sculpture. Before I explain the significance behind the four-sided Buddhist sculpture, the former site of Gulbulsa Temple has quite the history. As the 35th king of Silla, King Gyeongdeok (r. 742 A.D. to 765 A.D.), was making a short trek to the neighbouring Baeknyulsa Temple, which lies a little higher and further on Mt. Sogeumgangsan, he inextricably heard a noise coming from beneath the ground he was walking on. The king believed that these noises were the sound of a Buddhist monk reading Buddhist sutras. Immediately, he ordered servants to dig up the spot that he had heard these sounds. As the servants dug, the image of a four-sided Buddhist sculpture appeared. The king was so moved by this incident that he constructed Gulbulsa Temple; which, unfortunately, no longer remains. But the object behind this story still does. Incidentally, the name of the temple, Gulbulsa Temple, means “To Dig Up an Image of Buddha,” in English.

Now, back to the four-sided Buddhist sculpture that still stands on Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site. No more than a few metres away from the Baekyangsa Temple parking lot, and up a bit of an inclined pathway, you’ll see the four-sided sculpture off to your left. Immediately, your attention will be drawn to the images that reside on all four sides of the large rock that stands 3.9 metres at its highest point. This large rock is meant to symbolize the Buddhist Paradise in all four directions.

The first side of the large stone that you’ll encounter, as you cross over a bridge and near the barrier that protects the ancient artifact from visitors, is the west side. On the west side stand three large stone statues. Two of the three statues stand separate from the central statue, which is a part of the four-sided stone sculpture. The central figure, rather understandably, is Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise). He is joined by a large crowned Gwanseeum-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Compassion) to the right, and the mangled figure of Daesaeji-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Amita-bul’s Power and Wisdom) to the left. And the only reason I say mangled when referring to Daesaeji-bosal is that very little of his face remains all but for a gnarled stump at the end of his neck. Amita-bul is the largest figure attached to the four-sided sculpture, and he stands 3.9 metres in height. Interestingly, the head of Amita-bul was carved separately from the stone and then later attached to the sculpture. And just as interesting is that the Gwanseeum-bosal statue appears to be placing all of her weight on her right leg. This posture is called Sam-gul, where all of one’s weight becomes balanced. This type of posture was popularized during the Unified Silla Period (668 A.D. to 935 A.D.).

To the left, and as you approach the image that appears north side, you’ll see a set of Bodhisattvas. The one on the right raises his hand to the sky. This sculpture is defined in high relief, while the sculpture to the left is always unrecognizable. However, upon closer inspection, you can see that the image appears to be another Gwanseeum-bosal with eleven faces and six hands. And continuing clockwise around the four-sided stone sculpture, and on the east side of the rock, you’ll next see a beautiful stone sculpture of Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine), who also just so happens to be the Buddha of the Eastern Paradise. Yaksayore-bul appears in a seated position with a medicine bowl in his left hand, while his right hand appears strike the mudra of fearlessness. The final side in the set is the southern side of the stone sculpture. Appearing on the south side are two more Bodhisattvas. The one to the left has suffered from extensive damage, while the one to the right seems to have fared a little better. They are both wearing robes that are finely designed with creases in them. And sculpture to the right, which I assume the one to the left did at one point in history, stands 1.6 metres in height.

HOW TO GET THERE: The easiest way to get to Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site is to take a taxi from the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. It’ll take 13 minutes, but it’ll cost you around 5,000 won. The cheaper way to get there is to take city bus # 70 from out in front of the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. However, the bus ride will take about 40 minutes to get to Gulbulsa-ji Temple Site.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10. It’s sometimes hard to measure a stone sculpture that stands all alone, so the best thing you can do is compare it to other sculptures in the area. And the two that come to mind first are Bucheobawi and Bucheogol Halmae. The Gulbulsa-ji four-sided sculpture is more impressive to Bucheogol Halmae, but a little less than Bucheobawi. And for that reason, I split it up the middle and give the sculpture the rating I do.
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The four-sided sculpture as you approach it from the parking lot trail. Look at the size of the sculpture in comparison to the people to the left.
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An even closer look as you approach.
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The west side of the sculpture with Amita-bul in the centre. He’s flanked on either side by Gwanseeum-bosal to the right and the headless Daesaeji-bosal to the left.
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A closer look at Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise).
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And a closer look at the crowned Gwanseeum-bosal.
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To the left, and on the north side of the sculpture, is this sculpture of a Bodhisattva.
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The Bodhisattva is joined by this hard to find image of Gwanseeum-bosal.
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A look at the north and east side with the image of Yaksayore-bul (The Buddha of Medicine) on the left.
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A good look at the medicine bowl holding Yaksayore-bul.
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And an even closer look at the serene eyes of Yaksayore-bul.
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And the two Bodhisattva sculptures on the south side of the four-sided sculpture.
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And one last look down at the sculpture before I was headed up Mt. Sogeumgangsan.