Saturday, April 25, 2015

Unjusa: Temple of 1000 Pagodas & 1000 Buddhas

This historically mysterious temple, Unjusa, is located about 40km from Gwangju and is about 10km from the famous UNESCO dolmen open-air treasure arena in Hwasun county. (Dolmen are densely located in Gocheong and on Ganghwa island as well.) The temple itself of Unjusa has been rebuilt and little history of its significance as a temple is listed on the information boards before entering the temple ground. What is surmised, however, is that it was a thriving area in the Goryeo dynasty (918 - 1392AD) as signified by the structure of a majority of the stone pagodas and stone buddhas scattered somewhat whimsically throughout the temple grounds. Some of the remaining 21 stone pagodas do reflect architecture of the earlier Silla dynasty (57BC - 935AD), but the majority as well as the 91 remaining stone buddhas seem to point to that of the Goryeo dynasty. Because so little is historically known about the construction, when and by whom, Unjusa is often referred to as the mysterious temple.

No founding story exists except that of legend: Monk Doseon (도선국사) is said to have founded the temple on principles of pungsujiri (geomancy) supposedly during the later part of the Silla Dynasty. But four excavations and two academic studies conducted from 1984 - 1991 by Jeonnam National University Museum in Gwangju can verify neither the legend nor the temple's origin. Their excavations did reveal that the site was likely founded during the early 11th century but the civilization as a whole seems to have collapsed in 1597 during the Jungyujaeran War.

Nevertheless, according to the legend, the Korean peninsula was believed to be unbalanced and in danger of capsizing because the southeastern part of the peninsula, the Yeongnam, had more mountains than the Honam or southwestern part of the peninsula. In order to prevent such a disaster, Monk Doseon called stone masons down from heaven for the construction of 1000 buddha statues and 1000 pagodas in the southeastern part, in Unjusa, which means "the place where the clouds stay" but also has the meaning of "driving the ship". The heavenly masons were to construct all of the images within one night; however, the cock crowed signaling the heavenly return of the masons before the final two buddha images were constructed. These two images known as "Wabul" (와블) or "The Stone Statues of the Lying Buddha" supposedly impart the most significance for if they were constructed a new hope or "a new world would come". The length of the longer buddha is 12.73 meters or 41.8 feet, an amazingly long buddha image, while the other is about two meters shorter. It is speculated that these might be male and female figures, but I do wonder how gender was represented in the late Silla, early Goryeo dynasty so as to better judge the veracity of such a supposition.

Of interest, the Lying Buddha represents the North Star (Polaris) and the Rock of the Great Bear (along with six other rocks comprise the big dipper, the chilseong) and pagodas around the temple are placed according to positions of various stars. 
"The Big Dipper is called “Bukdu Chilseong” in Korean, which means the seven stars of the northern sky. Of all the stars in the sky, Koreans paid most attention to Bukdu Chilseong. Perhaps that’s because the seven stars in a shape of a ladle were the most conspicuous ones in the night sky. Bukdu Chilseong can even be found engraved on Korean dolmens from the prehistoric era and painted on the walls of Goguryeo-era tombs. According to Korean legends there are four gods defending the four directions – the east, west, south and north. The word “Bukdu” means the god of the north and Ancient Koreans believed that the northern skies represented the throat and the tongue of heaven, the entryway to the netherworld. This is why ancient people believed that the stars and the sky had the power to determine people’s fates. In particular, the Big Dipper was said to have the power over human lives, longevity, fortunes and disasters. Korean mothers would often pray at night for the health and happiness of their families, with a bowl of clean water in front of them. The entity they prayed to was Bukdu Chilseong, also called Master Chilseong. When shamans performed a ritual or ghut (굿), they did it to appeal to Chilseong god. And even in Buddhist temples you would see a small building named “Chilseong-gak,” where the deified Bukdu Chilseong is worshipped. The presence of a shamanistic vestige in Buddhist temples demonstrates how Buddhism incorporated traditional beliefs in order to take root in Korea."

Another Unjusa legend concerns the Lying Buddhas and the Great Bear.

A long, long time ago, a tall and handsome sculptor and a little beautiful princess fell in love with each other. They met secretly because both of them were married. As their love went deeper, they anguished over their secret love. They finally decided to run away. God was moved by their love and sent a cloud ship to help them flee to another place. 

The rowed the ship day and night but came to disaster as they bumped into the corner of the Great Bear. Ruins of their bodies and the ship were scattered everywhere when they fell to the ground. God felt pity for them being dashed against the Great Bear and got seven stars to weep and rain. In addition, the sculptors in heaven were ordered to build statues and pagodas only at night for 1000 days. Finally, the moment the sculptors erected the statues on the 1001st day, the sun set. The heavenly sculptors climbed back up to heaven leaving behind the unfinished "Wabuls".  

Motif of "ship" at Unjusa

Monk Doseon found the topology of the alley to be suggestive of a great ship, so he thought his temple needed a sail and shipmaster. The square, tall pagodas, erected along a straight line down the center of the valley represent the mast of the ship's sail, where the rounded pagodas and Buddhas found throughout the grounds represent the crew. Some amazing suppositions on symbolism.

Many of the Buddhas are quite quaint and personable; however, my favorite was at the far end of the valley at the base of a rather vertical hill. It was backed by rock and faced the long valley. Here at the knee of antiquity I took a break and enjoyed a good read away from the hustle and bustle of city-madness.

And of course my favorite Buddha! I love this picture because in 20 years there will be a gate around this old treasure and who knows, it might even be a UNESCO treasure. A few years before the Tripitaka wooden sutra carvings became a UNESCO treasure at Haeinsa, a monk gave me a tour (I had no idea what he was saying) and he placed one of the hand-carved Tripitakas in my hand (had no idea it was soooo valuable but my students did say it was historically important). I have no picture of that but I have my deep memories. One day ... when this remote and at present little appreciated Buddha statue is famous ... I'll have more than just my memories of valuing its greatness early on!

A Poem on Unjusa by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, a Nobel Prize in Literature Winner

Unjusa, Autumn Rain
Lying beneath a fine mist of fresh water
meditative sleepers with dreamy eyes
turned toward the sky
They say there used to be three, and one of them got up
walked to the edge of the cliff
The two Buddhas still have their backs joined to the stone
one day they will rise in turn
and a new world will be born
On the streets of Seoul,
young men, young women
disrupt time, grasping at seconds
Buying, selling
Creating, inventing, seeking
Who still thinks of the two Buddhas
dreaming on the mountain [End Page 72]
at Unjusa
Pillar of clouds
rising in the midst of red autumn leaves?
Seeking, running
Seizing, carrying off
The stone Buddhas
with the faces of Loas
with the vision of shamans
do they sometimes dream in their sleeplessness
of the great stores of the Dongdaemun market
of neon letters as numerous
as the branches of the forest?
On the other side of the world
on the other side of the sea
a shattered country
a blind country
clawed by fear
Buying, selling
zigzagging the night
when Seoul is lit up like a ship
And the mornings are so calm
gentle at Insadong
on Gwangju's Rue des Artistes
sweepers are picking up cardboard cartons
in a café still open two lovers are holding hands.
Living, moving
Tasting, letting the senses glide
the aroma of frying silkworms
soup with noodles, seaweed
peppery filaments of jellyfish
this land sprung from the depths of the sea
tasting of the ether
Wanting to dream, living
On the other side of the world
at the end of the desert
phosphorus bombs light up the night that has just begun
Desiring, careening
the letters lighting up
like broken branches in the forest
I think of the wind that writhes
of the wind that lays children grayed by death
on the bitter coffin of the desert
Waiting, laughing, hoping
Loving, loving
in the palace garden in Seoul
children are plump like gods
their eyes painted with the tips of brushes
Waiting, watching, pouring
under the rain which falls gently at Unjusa
slipping over the red leaves of autumn
its fingers merging into arms reaching toward the sea
returning to its native depths
The faces of the two reclining Buddhas are eroded by this rain
their eyes see the sky
each century that passes is a passing cloud
they are dreaming of another time, another place
they are sleeping with their eyes open
the world has begun to tremble. 

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (J. M. G. Le Clézio), a French novelist, poet, and philosopher, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. A world traveler and student of early cultures, he was described by the Swedish Academy as an "author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization." His daring novel Le Procès-Verbal won the 1963 Prix Renaudot, launching his distinguished literary career. A frequent visitor to South Korea, Le Clézio has taught French language and literature at Ewha Womans University in Seoul since 2007.


No comments:

Post a Comment