Friday, April 15, 2011

Seokguram Grotto of the unified Silla Kingdom in Gyeongju , Southkorea

Seokguram Grotto, the greatest masterpiece of the golden age of Silla, is a heritage property in which architecture, mathematical principles, geometry, religion, and art are collectively realized through its design and construction. Bulguksa Temple is a prime exemplar depicting Buddhist beliefs through architecture, manifesting an unparalleled architectural beauty difficult to find even in Asia.

The construction of Seokguram Grotto was begun in 751 A.D. by Gim Daeseong, then prime minister under the reign of King Gyeongdeok of Silla. It was completed in 774 A.D. during the reign of King Hyegong. At the time it was completed, it was called Seokbulsa, meaning “Stone Buddha Temple.”

Seokguram Grotto, near the summit of Mt. Tohamsan, is a man-made cave that was assembled from white granite. Inside of Seokguram Grotto are 39 carved divinities, including Bodhisattvas, disciples, heavenly guards, and heavenly kings, all formed around a central principal figure of the Buddha. The rectangular antechamber of the Grotto is connected to the main rotunda by a corridor. The domed ceiling of the main chamber is exquisitely made from over 360 pieces of flat stone. The superb architectural technique employed here is unprecedented in the world in its excellence. Statues of a total of eight heavenly guards stand on either side of the antechamber that serves as the entrance to the Grotto. On each side of the entrance to the corridor are bas-relief carvings of Deva kings, while the narrow corridor is decorated with the Four Heavenly Kings carved in pairs.

Octagonal stone columns stand on either side of the entrance to the main rotunda. The principal Buddha is placed slightly off center and toward the back of the main rotunda. From the entrance, the walls of the chamber are filled with the images of two Devas, two Bodhisattvas, and ten Arahats. Behind the principal Buddha is a carving of the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara (the Goddess of Mercy, Gwan-eum). Every single sculpture found in this place can be considered a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art, including the near-perfect principal image of Buddha, with its masterful carving technique and realistic representation, as well as the ornately-carved face and body of the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara (Goddess of Mercy), the carvings of valiant warriors and the majestic Four Heavenly Kings, and the supple and graceful figures of various monks and various Arahats, each displaying a distinct individualism.

In particular, the serene appearance of the Gupta-style principal Buddha figure is striking, seated in a cross-legged position, the face filled with wisdom, slightly open eyes mounted by gentle eyebrows, a mouth that seems poised to speak, delicate nose and elongated ears. Together, all of these aspects of the seated Buddha combine into a form that embodies a deep and noble spirit, and as such expresses the most ideal beauty in the world. In design and construction, Seokguram Grotto is a sublime integration of architecture, mathematics, geometry, religion, and art.

Since its designation as National Treasure No. 24, Seokguram Grotto has been well cared for, and along with Bulguksa Temple, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in December 1995. Tucked away on the secluded eastern slope of Mt. Tohamsan near the summit, Seokguram has received high accolades internationally for its flawless and exceptional sculpture and ingenious architecture. A total of 39 Buddhist deities centered around the principal Buddha can be found in the interior of the man-made grotto, consisting of an antechamber, a passageway, and the main rotunda.

The walls of the rectangular antechamber are adorned with carvings of two Deva kings, who serve as fierce temple guardians, and the Eight Guardian Deities. The narrow corridor leading to the domed main rotunda features the Four Heavenly Kings, guardians of the four cardinal directions. The principal Buddha statue is seated in the center of the main rotunda, surrounded by symmetrical carved images on the wall featuring Brahma, Indra, Manjusri, Samantabhadra, and the ten disciples.

According to Great Tang Records on the Western Regions  of Xuanzang (A.D. 602-664), a Chinese monk who journeyed on a 17-year pilgrimage to Central Asia and India, Mahabodhi Temple, the Temple of Enlightenment, was built on the very site where Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) had attained divine enlightenment. He reported seeing there a seated stone sculpture of the Buddha facing due east, mounted on a pedestal 123cm tall and 75cm wide. The seated statue was 345cm tall, measuring 264cm from knee to knee and 183cm from shoulder to shoulder. The size of the principal statue of Seokguram Grotto matches this record. Since the statue seen by Xuanzang at Mahabodhi Temple no longer exists, the historical importance of Seokguram is all the more significant.

In the rotunda area, below a domed ceiling representing the celestial heavens, the 350cm high statue depicting the noble and gentle Sakyamuni Buddha sits facing the East Sea. The lifelike gentle folds of his robe, exposing his face and shoulders, add an overall feeling of vitality to the statue. With narrow half-closed eyes, he seems deep in meditation, his lips showing a faint smile and his full, plump face carrying a grave yet compassionate expression. He assumes the bhumisparsha mudra in which the left hand rests palm upward in the lap, while the index finger of the right hand, hanging over the knee with palm inward, points to the earth.

Because it symbolizes the Buddha's moment of victory, attaining enlightenment after overcoming obstructions and the temptations of the demon Mara, another name for the statue is Seongdo-sang, , meaning statue of enlightenment. The position of the niches within the main rotunda, halfway between the ceiling and the floor, is significant, in that they occupy a place between the earthly and heavenly worlds. From the perspective of Buddhist doctrine, this is in keeping with the status of bodhisattvas as median figures, somewhere between enlightened Buddhas  and obscure sentient beings. The right triangle formed by the right shoulder, wrist, and right knee of the carving of the Maitreya Bodhisattva produces a sense of stability and tranquility, while on the other hand, the curve formed by his raised knee, slightly angled left arm resting on one leg, and gently forward-tilted head evoke dynamism and motion. The eight warrior-like heavenly guards on the wall of the antechamber are deities in various guises guarding Buddhist dharma. The pair of Deva kings, wearing skirts and looking valiant and powerful with their well-developed upper body muscles, are also guardians of Buddhist dharma. Another name for the Deva kings is ‘diamond kings,’ since they hold clubs made of diamond. Then, located in the deepest part of the main rotunda, hidden directly behind the principal statue of the Buddha, the eleven-faced Avalokitesvara (Goddess of Mercy) captivates us with her grace and beauty.

Our attention is arrested by ten brilliantly carved faces in stunning detail that appear around the head. The figure faces directly ahead, her facial expression showing a delicate smile and her flowing silken robes adorned with dazzling jewelry (yeongnak, ornaments made from beads or precious metals strung together). The fingers and toes evoke subtle movement, with the left hand holding a vase containing a slender lotus flower and the right hand lightly holding a long necklace. The cumulative effect is one of masterful splendor. Constructed in the mid-eighth century during the golden age of the Unified Silla, Seokguram was created through a high level of architectural technology and superb aesthetic sensibilities based on Buddhist thought and highly sophisticated mathematical principles. The grandeur and sublime beauty inherent in Seokguram derives from the harmonious combination of these foundational sources.

Seokguram is an architectural and sculptural reproduction of the moment when the Sakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) attained enlightenment, the Great Awakening. In a sculptural sense, it is full of vitality, its technique devoid of artifice or unnaturalness, demonstrating masterful workmanship and outstanding artistry. Through the Great Awakening, the ultimate state, the human Sakyamuni becomes the Buddha, a metaphysical figure, and the mundane world becomes a paradise known as beopkye, or dharmadhatu, the realm of truth.

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