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Pagodas of Multiple Jewels, Sakyamuni Buddha

By Kim Jongmyung. The Korea Times, May 13, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- At Bulguk Temple in Gyeongju, southeast of Seoul, the 8th-century twin Pagoda of Multiple Jewels and Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha stand in front of the Hall of Great Hero, the Buddha. The temple is a registered UNESCO world heritage.

However, it is said that the names of Dabotap and Seokkatap (alternate designations) are not their original names, but those designated in the latter period of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

As far as extant sources are concerned, they had no names when they were established. According to a record of the eleventh century, Dabotap was called the ``Stone Pagoda to the East of Buddha Land Monastery,'' or the ``Bulguksa dong seoktap,'' and Seokkatap was named the ``Stone Pagoda to the East of Buddha Land Monastery.''

Another record of the 11th century indicates that Seokkatap was also called the ``Pagoda of Pure and Clean Scripture,'' or the ``Mmugu jeong gyeongtap,'' in the early period of the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). However, this title is not a proper noun, but a common one that means a pagoda inside which copies the ``Scripture of True Words of Pure and Clean Light'' (Mugu jeonggwang tae darani gyeong).

The ``Scripture'' is about gaining merit by establishing pagodas and memorizing dharma (the true word) or the essence of Buddha's teaching. Therefore, the exact names of these twin pagodas are not yet known and we will follow their conventional names, i.e., Dabotap and Seokkatap in this writing.

Pagoda is a changed form of ``stupa.'' Stupa was of pre-Buddhist origin in India and the emblem of great persons and symbolized Buddha's death in Buddhism. Its shape was hemispherical and composed of three parts, which signify the three physical parts of the Buddha: head, middle body, and lower body. These three parts again symbolize the Buddhist paradise, the path to paradise, and earth on which man is undergoing suffering due to evil thoughts represented by the three poisons of craving, hatred and delusion, which are derived from his ignorance of the nature of existence. This tradition was transmitted to East Asia.

However, in East Asia the stupa, its meaning and structure were altered to a pagoda, a symbol of enlightenment and its vertical style. The initial pagoda form emerged as a multi-story wooden structure shaped like a watch tower in third-century China ? the oldest extant pagoda there is dated to 523. The Chinese tradition of pagodas was transmitted to Korea and Japan. However, over time, these wooden pagodas were replaced by brick structures, constituting a model for Chinese pagodas in later periods. Korea is home to more than 1,000 granite pagodas, which include the Pagoda of Multiple Jewels and Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha. In contrast, pagodas of Japan were made of wood.

Including these two, major historic pagodas in Korea include the seven-story Pagoda on the ruins of the Mitreya Buddha Temple (Mireuk Temple), which is located in Iksan, dating from 600, and the oldest of its kind in Korea; the three-story brick-shaped stone pagoda at the Flagrant Emperor Temple (Bunhwang Temple), which is in Gyeongju built in 634 and the oldest of all Silla (57 B.C.-935 C.E.) pagodas; and a product of the seventeenth century and the tallest pagoda in Korea, the Hall of Eight Phases of Buddha's Life (Palsang jeon), which is the five-story wooden structure, at the Temple of Dharma Residence (Beopju Temple) in Boeun.

Among these, the Pagoda of Multiple Jewels and Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha are two of the finest in Korea and none of the some thousand stone pagodas scattered across nationwide excel the two for profound philosophical depth and aesthetic charm.

Pagoda of Multiple Jewels

Constructed in 751 and designated as National Treasure of Korea No. 20, this pagoda is considered one of the finest structures in East Asia. Some 10.4 meters tall, this highly decorative pagoda's fame comes from its extremely complex and delicate structure. At the base are four sets of steps, which lead to four lion guards, symbolizing wisdom in Buddhism. Above the lions are a number of well-fitted granite blocks. The pillars stand on an elevated platform approached by four staircases, each with ten steps signifying the ten perfections (p?ramit?s in Sanskrit), which are the ten virtues in ``Mahayana'' ? literally ``the greater vehicle'' ? Buddhism, to which Korean Buddhism belongs, including precepts, meditation, and wisdom. However, this pagoda had an unfortunate history: It was disassembled by the Japanese for repair in 1924, when Korea was under colonial rule; but, when this grand-scale project was underway the lack of a thorough examination resulted in the sarira ? bead-like relics left by high monks whose bodies were cremated after death ? caskets were lost.

Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha

This three-storied structure represents the finest style of Korean Buddhist pagodas. It is also called the ``Pagoda Without Reflections'' (Muyeongtap), denoting the sad legend of the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C.-A,D.660) mason Asadal, who built the pagoda with his wife Asanyeo. Constructed in 751 and designated as National Treasure of Korea No. 21 as the ``Three-storied Pagoda at the Buddha Land Monastery'' (Bulguksa samcheung seoktap), it is 8.2 meters tall and admired for its proportions and simple but graceful style, symbolizing the teachings of the Buddha. For example, the number three in the pagoda refers to the three jewels of Buddhism, i.e., the Buddha, his teaching, and the Buddhist community.

The Pagoda was dismantled for repair in 1977 and at that time a collection of precious treasures was found inside, including a set of reliquary for sarira and a paper scroll of the ``Scripture of True Words of Pure and Clean Light.'' The ``Japanese Scripture of True Words of One Million Pagodas'' (Hyakuman to darani kyo), which was published in 770, had been regarded as the oldest extant xylographic print in the world. However, the discovery of the ``Scripture of True Words of Pure and Clean Light'' brought forward a refutation against this theory. In particular, Korean scholars have argued that the scripture was printed between 706 and 751, thus being the world's oldest extant xylographic print. However, an objection from Japanese academic circles was brought up on the ground that the actual copies of printed material could be found only after the ninth century. Therefore, the date of the world's oldest such print is still in debate among scholars worldwide.

Underlying Thought

Unlike other artifacts whose esthetic features are valued, Buddhist pagodas are an outer expression of doctrine. The ideological underpinnings of the Pagoda of Multiple Jewels and the Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha are said to be based on the ``Lotus Scripture'' (``Beophwa gyeong'' in Korean) and the ``Flower Garland Scripture'' ``Hwaeom gyeong'' in Korean). For example, conventional scholarship has argued that the complexity of the Pagoda of Multiple Jewels symbolizes the manifestation of Prabhutaratna Buddha who appears to hear Sakyamuni Buddha preach the ``Lotus Scripture.'' However, this argument depended on an eighteenth-century record, and is thus lacking in reliability.

Korean pagodas are composed of three parts: upper, middle, and lower, each symbolizing the heaven, air, and earth. This means that sentient beings on earth undergoing the suffering need to cultivate both spiritually and physically to live an ideal life. However, lack of textual evidence makes it difficult to understand the ideological characteristics behind these holy structures. The ``Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms'' (Samguk yusa, ca. 1280), a treasury of rich Korean Buddhist culture which was published by the monk Ilyeon, serves as the most significant source for research on the Buddha Land Temple, the Pagoda of Multiple Jewels, and the Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha. However, it has very few reliable contents pertaining to the temple and the pagodas.

In conclusion, the Hall of Great Hero and its precinct, including the Pagoda of Multiple Jewels and the Pagoda of Sakyamuni Buddha, occupy the central area of the Buddha Land Temple. This means that 8th-century Korean people valued the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, the teachings of how to live rationally and ethically. Therefore, the significance of the twin pagodas for the betterment of our modern life lies not in their aesthetic beauty, but in their expression of Buddhist teaching.

The writer is a professor of religion at the Academy of Korean Studies.

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