IV: KTLIT on the road in Gyeongju (with Airrang TV in the heart of the Silla Empire): Bulguksa Temple and Pak Mog-wol

(Day one is here, day two here, and day three here)

Day four was to shake off the hangovers from the night before, and pick up the video-shots at Bulguksa (a longish explanation of Bulguksa can be found at the end of this post) that we had missed the day before due to the rain. Bulguksa is one of my favorite temples (if a bit of a cliched choice), and Sanjay was properly awed by its grandeur, which was only slightly dented by the 27-million school children who were there on field trip and who, resolutely and in waves, threw themselves at our knees with benign intent but potentially crippling results.^^

Because we were with Arirang we were afforded a free tour. This was our third tour of this trip that happened to be led by a graduate of Dongguk University – Gyeongju! Regular readers will be aware that I teach at Dongguk University in Seoul, which is the only officially Buddhist University in Korea, and is run by the Jogye Order, the same order that built and maintains Bulguksa. Oh, I must also modestly add that Dongguk has the best students in Korea.^^

In any case, after running around and catching all six of the World Heritage artifacts, we lounged a bit at the base of the main area of the temple:

The "lucky steps" at Bulguksa

The “lucky steps” at Bulguksa


As we did this, I idly read the info sign, which revealed that the stairs there were called the White Clouds Bridge and Blue Clouds Bridge. This triggered something in my mind and I quickly pulled out my collection of Pak Mog-wol poems and thumbing through it, found the poem I was looking for:

The Temple of the Buddha Land

“White Moonbeams,
The Gate of Violet Mist,
moon mist, the sound of water,

The Grand Hall of Buddha,
The Bridge of Blue Cloud,
The sound of wind, the sound of pine trees,

The Pavilion of Floating Shadows,
shadows floating, mist,
softly and around,
suffusing, white moonbeams,

The Gate of Violet Mist,
the sound of wind,
the sound of water.”

This was kind of a bonus and random memory win, as when I looked at the poem it became quite clear that Park Mog-wol had written this poem precisely about Bulguksa, and when I got home I found this illustration, which clearly shows that he had considered many of the major points of the temple:

The Main Area of Bulguksa

The Main Area of Bulguksa


The camera crew filmed me reciting the poem, and I hope that this shows up in the final video!

Once we were done shooting, it was off to one last meal in Gyeongju. Because we had drunk the night before, we headed downtown to where Gyeongju Station had once been, and around which a series of Haejangguk (해강국 also called sulguk (술국)) restaurants had sprung up. Thankfully, this restaurant sold all kinds of Haejangguk, not just the fearful Seonji Haejangguk, which includes a rather large chunk of coagulated cow’s blood floating in it, and about which I have a horrible personal experience which I will be happy to explain in person, for only the price of a beer.^^

With the meal completed we shot up to Seoul, with the driver pedal-to-the-metal all the way. The driver was, amazingly, 66 years old but drove with carefree elan of a chemically augmented 16 year old driving across Kansas to see his girlfriend.^^

And with that, and excellent journey with Sanjay and Arirang, came to near conclusion (There are still some pick-up shots to be taken in Seoul).



Bulguksa, the Temple of the Buddha Land, nestles in the western foothills of Mt. Tohamsan in Gyeongju City, Gyeong–sangbuk–do Province. Construction of Bulguksa was started under the supervision of Prime Minister Gim Dae–seong in 751 in the reign King Gyeongdeok of the Unified Silla Kingdom. Gim Dae-seong sustained the project for 24 years but died before it was completed around 780. Buddhist monks and architects devoted all their energies and ingenuity to the construction of this temple that would embody the bliss of Buddha within the mundane world.

Bulguksa Temple has suffered through many of the nation’s most severe trials. The series of elevated stone terraces and the overall masonry foundation mostly survive intact from the 8th century, but the original wooden buildings were all burned down during the Japanese invasion of 1592 and have been restored about 40 times since the initial reconstruction in the 37th year (1604) of King Seonjo of the Joseon Dynasty.

Situated on elevated stone terraces, the cloistered temple courts are divided into two main areas, the realm of Sakyamuni and the realm of the Buddha Amitabha. The terraces that lead to the entrance of the main court form three distinct tiers. The top level suggests the realm of Buddha and the lower layers the mundane world. The size and shape of the elevated terraces combine the beauty of the symmetrical and the asymmetrical, the bold and the delicate, the artificial and the natural. At the elevated entrance are two flights of stairs with a total of 33 steps, representing the 33 heavens.

The lower stairs are known as Baegungyo, the Bridge of White Clouds, and the upper stairs as Cheongungyo, or the Bridge of Blue Clouds. The area below the wide middle landing between these two bridges symbolizes the river that separates the terrestrial from the celestial. The main court is centered on Daeungjeon, the hall dedicated to Sakyamuni. Outstanding structures here include Jahamun, the Gate of Purple Mist, Beomyeongnu, the Pavilion of Mount Meru, Jwagyeongnu, the Left Sutra Hall, and Museoljeon, the Hall of Discourse.

The most eye–catching structures in the main court are a pair of white–granite pagodas, the 10.4m–tall Dabotap Pagoda and the 8.2m–tall Seokgatap Pagoda, dedicated respectively to the Prabhutaratna or Buddha of Abundant Treasures and the Sakyamuni Buddha. The highly decorative pagoda that stands before the eastern part of the court’s main hall is Dabotap, the Pagoda of Abundant Treasures, which is designated National Treasure No. 20. The relatively modest one to the west is Seokgatap, the Pagoda of Sakyamuni Tathagata. Dabotap displays the awesomely elaborate masonry skills of Unified Silla artisans. Extraordinary decorative stones on a stable square stylobate form a complicated assemblage with a pointed appearance. The finials seem to reach upward to the great virtues of heaven. Seokgatap is admired for the beauty of its subtle yet graceful proportions. Its beauty emanates from the perfect balance of its ascending tiers, from its equilibrium, and from its graceful simplicity of decorative elements in contrast with the dazzling Dabotap. It ascends gradually with an austere air, each roof tier subtly upturned at the eave.

The smaller cloistered court to the west of the Pavilion of Mount Meru is the realm of Amitabha. It consists of Geungnakjeon, the Paradise Hall dedicated to Amitabha Tathagata; Chilbogyo, the Bridge of Seven Treasures; Yeonhwagyo, the Bridge of Lotus Flowers; and Anyangmun, the Paradise Gate. Every feature of Bulguksa Temple manifests the terrestrial paradise of the Buddha land. From cornerstone to eave bracket the design achieves a perfect blend of religion and art. Together with Seokguram Grotto, Bulguksa Temple was registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list in December 1995.