Just a few blocks down from City Hall in Dongcheon-dong is one of the lesser known historical gems in Gyeongju, the four-sided Buddha of Gulbulsa Temple (굴불사). The original Shilla era structures of Gulbulsa are long gone, but remaining is a striking four-sided Buddha, or samyeonseokbul (사면석불), chiseled out of a large boulder. In fact, it’s the legend behind this carved rock that gave the temple it’s curious moniker: Gulbulsa, or “Digging Buddha Temple.”
The legend of Gulbulsa goes like this: King Gyeongdeok (경덕왕), the 35th ruler of the Shilla Dynasty, was on his way to worship at Baengnyulsa Temple (배귤사) on Mt. Geumgangsan (금강산), when he heard the sound of a monk chanting in the forest. Intrigued, he followed the sound to it’s source and, oddly, it was coming from underneath the ground. He ordered his men to dig at the spot and, low and behold, they uncovered the statue of the four-sided Buddha fully formed! King Gyeongdeok built Gulbulsa Temple around this boulder in commemoration miracle.
Regardless of whether it sprung from the bowels of the earth, the four-sided Buddha of Gulbulsa is a beautiful example of Shilla sculpture. It probably dates to around the 8th century C.E., and just like the four-sided Buddha at Chilbulam (칠불암), it depicts the protectors of the four directions as described Hwaom (화 엄) or “Flower Garland” Sutra. Standing on the west side is of the rock is Amitaba (아미타불), the Buddha of the Western Paradise. He’s flanked on both sides by Guan Yin (관슴보살), the Bodhisattva of Mercy. Unfortunately, one of the Guan Yin statues lost her head during the Japanese occupation, as did a lot of people at the time.
On the eastern side of the boulder, then is an a beautiful relief of Yaksa Yeorae (약사여래) or Medicine Buddha. Likewise, he seems to have lost his nose at one point. The exact perpetrator of this crime has been lost to history, though I have my suspicions. For the long time in Korea it was the practice of barren house wives, desperate to have a child, to steal the nose off a Buddha statue, grind it up and eat as medicine in hopes of becoming pregnant. Freud would probably have a field day analyzing this cultural practice ;->
Gulbulsa is just a stone’s throw off of the Pohang Industrial Road running along the side of Mt. Geumgang in Dongcheon-dong. If you stop by to check it out, don’t miss Baegyulsa Temple (배귤사), just a short ten minute hike up the stairs behind the Four-sided Buddha. Gulbulsa also makes a good starting point for hiking Mt. Geumgangsan (but more on that later).
View Mt. Geumgangsan, Gyeongju in a larger map