Seokguram Grotto - Buddhist fervor embodied in masonry art

            Seokguram, the epitome of Buddhist stone sculpture from the Unified Silla Kingdom, was begun under the supervision of Prime Minister Gim  Dae-seong in 751, during the reign of King Gyeongdeok, and completed in 774 in King Hyegong’s reign.

            Seokguram Grotto is tucked away near the summit of Mt.Tohamsan on its secluded eastern slope. This man-made grotto was assembled from hundreds of white granite pieces of diverse sizes and shapes. It conists of rectangular antechamber symbolizing the earth, a corridor acting as a conduit between earth and heaven, and a main rotunda with a domed ceiling representing heaven. Including the seated main Buddha, the grotto enshrines some 39 divinities. It is designed as if to lead all living things on earth to the realm of nirvana.

Entrance to Seokguram Buddha site

            The antechamber of the Seokguram Grotto holds bas-relief images of eight guardian deities and two Vajrapanis. The short corridor is guarded by four fearsome heavenly kings, two on each wall. The rotunda centers on the seated main Buddha, the Sakyamuni Tathagata of Incarnation of Truth.

            The antechamber, which stands for earth, is a perfect golden rectangle. Eight masculine deities guard the room on the left and right walls. A pair of Vajrapanis, one on either side of the entrance to the corridor, are carved in deeprelief. With robust, bare upper torsos above skirts hanging down to their knees, with both hands clenched into fists, one of them raised, and with goggle eyes glaring, they are read to drive away any evil that may approach.

            The Chinese monk Cizhuang wrote in his Daitang Xiyuji (Record of a Journey from China to Central Asia) that the Temple of Enlightment was built on the very site where Sakyamuni had attained divine enlightment. The temple had a seated stone sculpture of Buddha facing due east. The pedestal was 123 cm tall and 75 cm wide. The seated statue was 345 cm tall. The span from knee to knee was 264 cm, and from shoulder to shoulder, 183 cm. The statue that Cizhuang saw is no loger extant in that temple, but interestingly enough, the description almost exactly fits the main Buddha in the Seokguram rotunda.

            Under the vault of the stone ceiling in the rotunda, which stands for heaven, the majestic figure of the main Buddha Sakyamuni Tathagata sits facing the East Sea. A mysterious incarnation of the supreme being, the Buddha is portraed as havingslit eyes, gently curved eyebrows and equally gentle nose, long ears, and full lips. Wearing a smle of serene benevolence, he is sitting with legs crossed and his handare poised in a mudra (hand gesture) touching the earth, while the robe underneath the crossed legs is scalloped. It is as if the Buddha were about to preach to us and awakn the virtuous human nature dromant within us.

            Along the lower part of the circular wall are bas-relief images of one eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, ten disciples, one Manjusri, one Sakradevanam Indra, one Mahabrahmandah, and one Samantabhadra. Above these, at about eye level, are teen niches with ten bodhisattvas. The eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, or Bodhisattva of Compassion, on the curved wall right behind the main Buddha, is arresting in its resplendence. While the surrounding discriples stand sideways, the Bodhisattva stand straight, the silken flow of robes adorned with dazzling jewelry,the graceful face under a crown decorated with heads of ten bodhisattvas and a central Amitabha, or the Buddha of Boundless Light, the left hand holding a vase with a slender lotus flower, and the right hand lightly holding a long necklace. The sculptor must have taken great delight in rendering every detail of this splendid figure. The niches on the wall at about the level of the main Buddha’s eyes are simbolically midway between heaven and earth  andare therefore perfectly appropriate for bodhisattvas, which are interediate between beings and sentient beings.

            Seokguram Grotto gives us a fine portrait of Korea Buddhism in the mid-8th century. This granite sanctuary stands as the zenith of Buddhist faith, architectural aestetics and geometry, advanced science, and meticulous workmanship developed in the golden age of Korean Buddhist art. It represens he very pinnacle of human artistic achievement in the medium stone.

Source: the book Images of Korea, p. 73-81

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