The history of Bulguk-sa can be traced back to 535 when a small temple of unknown name was first
constructed on this site during the reign of King Beopheung (法興王, r. 514–40). The construction of
Bulguk-sa in its current monumental form began in 742 by the design and financing of Prime Minister
Kim Dae-seong (金大城), and it was completed under his supervision during the reign of King
Gyeongdeok (景德王, r. 742-65). Afterwards, a project was immediately begun to expand the temple,
but Kim Dae-seong died in 774 before that was completed under the reign of King Hyegong (惠恭王, r.
765–780). The Samguk Yusa (三國遺事, Supplemental Historic Legends of the Three Kingdoms) says
that Kim Dae-seong built Seokgul-am Hermitage (石窟庵) to honor his impoverished parents from his
former life and Bulguk-sa to honor his parents of his present life (the former Minister and his wife).
Seokgul-am was apparently designed as a private chapel for royalty considering its philosophical
depth, scale, and aesthetic standard, whereas Bulguk-sa, a grand complex of various worship halls
and pagodas, was intended as a state-scale monastery to serve the public and host major Beophoe
(法會, Dharma Assemblies with lectures and veneration ceremonies). Bulguk-sa is said to epitomize
the spirit of Shilla, bearing witness to the great architectural achievements of that period and showing
a highly refined form of aesthetic beauty. Its monumental halls, stairways and courtyards are built on
its series of terraces made of massive stones fitted together without mortar.
|the modern Ilchul-mun Front Gate
very unusually, it reads from left to right: To-ham-san Bul-guk-sa
-- signboard written in 1972 by President Park Chung Hee, after he accomplished its full restoration.
Left: a Bodhisattva carved on the
National-Treasure Budo reliquary
|The painting of the 1000-arm manifestation of Gwanse-eum Bosal (the Bodhisattva of Compassion)
and golden statue of him, in the Gwaneum-jeon Shrine-hall of Toham-san Bulguk-sa Monastery.
Bulguk-sa is probably the most heavily-visited Buddhist monastery in Korea, a favorite of
tourists and aficionados of ancient religious art. Its name 불국사 佛國寺 means “Buddha
Kingdom Temple”, which can be interpreted in two ways of equal validity. The first is that its
elaborate landscape architecture represents a pilgrim’s journey to the idealized spiritual
realm of the Buddhas, implying that it is a replica on earth of a heavenly Buddha-Realm or a
symbolic representation of the Dharma Realm. The second is that the Unified Shilla Kingdom
which built it is itself a ‘Kingdom of Buddha’, and by its magnificence it validated Shilla's claim
and self-image of being an authentic Buddhist nation -- that it is a ‘Kingdom of Buddha’.
It remains Korea’s most internationally famous ancient monastery, considered a masterpiece
of monumental architecture and housing six National Treasures (more than any other site
save the Central National Museum). It is located at the foot of the western slopes of Mt.
Toham-san (吐含山, Earth-Treasure Mountain) on the southeastern outskirts of Gyeongju
City of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, the ancient capital of Shilla. It lies just within the south-
western border of the Toham District of Gyeongju National Park.
It was constructed when the Unified Silla Dynasty (統一新羅, 668-935) was at the peak of
its strength, and its capital rivaled in splendor the Tang Chinese capital of Chang-an (長安,
now Xian), and its culture shared the international character of Tang at this time when all
of East Asia enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Bulguk-sa was sacked and burned by the invading Mongol army in the late 13th century, with all
its monks massacred (some great artworks were saved in hiding, and the stonework all survived).
It was reconstructed and renovated several times during the Goryeo Dynasty and the early Joseon
Dynasty. During the Imjin Waeran (壬辰倭亂, 1592-98 Japanese Invasion), the wooden buildings
and pavilions were again burned to the ground. Another reconstruction and expansion started in
1604, followed by about 40 renovations until 1805. Its Beopdang (法堂, Main Dharma Hall) was
rebuilt in 1805 and remains in authentic condition today.
It was initially repaired during the early part of the Japanese Colonial period (1910-1945), and
then extensive restoration work was carried-out in the 1970s under direction and financing of
President Bak Jeong-hui (朴正熙, Park Chung Hee, r. 1961-79), who was determined to restore,
display and revive Korea’s former cultural glory. All of its present wooden shrines were rebuilt in
the later Joseon Dynasty style, and much of its antique flavor was lost, but it was successfully
restored to functioning magnificence.
The Buddha Nation Temple was simply a major tourist attraction through the 1980s and 90s, with
thousands of visitors every day, but around the year 2000 it was returned to the usage-management
of the Jogye Order, and has since resumed its role as a major sacred site of religious activities, with
the addition of a large monastic dormitory and a Seonbang (禪房, Meditation Hall) to the rear of the
historic complex, and institution of Yebul (禮佛, worship services), a TempleStay program, research
and study projects, Beophoe and so forth. It is now the largest monastery in the area and serves
as the gyogu-bonsa (敎區本寺, district headquarters temple) of the 11th District of the Jogye Order.
It certainly remains a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists.
Bulguk-sa contains a Seated Gilt-bronze Amita-bul (阿彌陀佛, Amitabha the Buddha of Western
Paradise) Statue designated as National Treasure #27, a Seated Gilt-bronze Birojana-bul
(毘盧遮那佛, Vairocana the Buddha of Cosmic Light) Statue designated as National Treasure
#26, the Cheongun-gyo (靑雲橋) and Baegun-gyo (白雲橋) bridges, a double-sectioned staircase
and bridge that leads to the main courtyard entrance designated as National Treasure #23, the
Yeonhwa-gyo (蓮華橋) and Chilbo-gyo (七寶橋) bridges that lead to the Amita-jeon courtyard
entrance designated as National Treasure #22, the Seokga-tap (釋迦塔, 3-story Sakyamuni
Pagoda) designated as National Treasure #21, and the Dabo-tap (多寶塔, Many Treasures
Pagoda) designated as National Treasure #20. These last two rank among the most famous
monuments in the whole of Korea; see the next page here. The relics found inside the Seokga-
tap during its modern repair are designated as National Treasure #126. An elaborate budo
(浮屠, memorial stupa; funerary reliquary) from the Goryeo Dynasty in the rear courtyard, taken
to Japan in 1906 but returned in 1933, is designated as Treasure #61. Bulguk-sa was
designated one of the World Cultural Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1995 (together with
Seokgul-am), and remains the best-known temple in all Korea.