The Hidden Meanings within the Walls of Bulguksa

View of the temple from the left or starting point

The first lecture dealt with one of if not the most famous Buddhist temples in Korea, Bulguksa. When Buddhism was first introduced to Korea in the 4th century BCE, ancient Korea was divided into Three Kingdoms, Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo. Silla was the last kingdom to receive Buddhism (5th century) and was initially fiercely rejected by the ruling aristocrats. However, once the ruling class was converted, Buddhism took a stronghold and the Silla king declared it to be the national religion of his people. During this time, many texts, buildings, poems, and art were devoted to Buddhism. The temple Bulguksa was such an example.

The facade of the temple is of great interest to both mathematicians and architects. From an architectural point of view, the temple is very deceiving at first glance. When looked at head-on, the building looks quite large and flat. However, it’s not actually flat but slightly sloped as the left-hand side is lower than the right. As well, there are parts of the temple that are not easily seen from certain views and therefore looks smaller or more insignificant than it really is. This brings up several questions: why did the builders of Bulguksa go to the trouble of using such a deceptive design and what was the purpose of ‘hiding’ certain aspects of the temple?

First, there are many significant names and symbols that were used in the design and building of the temple. If we approach the temple from the left side, we are faced with the middle structure which is a gate. We approach from the left because the left side is called Anyangmun. Anyang in translation means Buddha’s land, and Mun means gate. So basically, the gate is considered the way to Buddha’s land of nirvana. As a visitor, you are taking the physical journey towards Buddha’s land. You start at the bottom and climb up the ‘bridge.’ Funnily enough, it’s not actually a bridge but two staircases. The first bridge is called Yeonhwagyo (Lotus Flower Bridge). The lotus flower is significant in Buddhism. For many onlookers, the lotus flower is beautiful and for me personally, immediately conjures up images of Claude Monet’s famous paintings. In reality, the pond in which lotus flowers grow is quite dirty because the leaves of the plant are quite large and therefore do not allow for the sun to penetrate beneath the water. Therefore, the water is quite scummy and nasty but on the other hand, provides the lotus plant with a lot of nutrition which in turn allows for the lotus plant to thrive and produce beautiful and pure lotus flowers. Buddhists believe that even though the world we live in is filthy, by purifying yourself and ridding yourself of the rot of the world, your soul will emerge as pure and beautiful as the lotus flower. So for ancient visitors to the temple, as they walk over the Lotus Flower Bridge, they are crossing over from the decay of this world onto the next world. The next bridge is called Chilbogyo, or Seven Treasure Bridge. Thus, the physical walk-over mimics the spiritual transition or reawakening one must make to reach nirvana.

Lotus Flower Bridge and the tower

Each step across the two bridges brings you closer to the tower which is called Beomyeongnu. In Chinese characters, Beom means floating and Yeong means image -not a physical image but rather the image of your mind which should be lifted high. Though the tower is not as high as some towers that we can see in the West, it is much higher than surrounding structures, and therefore as your eyes are drawn upwards, so too should your spirit and mind be elevated to a higher place. At this point, the visitor should be seriously contemplating and purifying their mind/soul as they draw closer to and ultimately pass the tower.

These are just some of the hidden religious and philosophical meanings within the physical structure of Bulguksa. Though I haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, armed with knowledge beforehand, I think my walk across the bridge will be more rewarding and enlightening.