Like many things in Gyeongju, I’ve been meaning to write about Mt. Danseoksan for a while, but I’ve been too busy to get around to it. However, celebrating Buddha’s Birthday, or Seokga Tansinil (석가탄신일), yesterday at the ancient stone grotto of Mirukgul (미룩굴) on Mt. Danseokan has given me the best reason I’m probably going to get. Located about 10 km south-west of Gyeongju City, Mt. Danseoksan is officially part of Gyeongju National Park and is famous for its history, legends and natural beauty. Literally meaning “Split Rock Mountain,” Mt. Danseoksan is, in fact, named after one such ancient story involving the famed Silla general Kim Yu-sin.
According to legends, Mt. Danseoksan was one of the training grounds of the Hwarang (화랑), or “flower youth.” The Hwarang were an elite corps of young men from aristocratic families who trained in martial arts as well as music, philosophy, art and Buddhism. Like many famous figures from Silla history, Kim Yu-shin had been a Hwarang in his youth. As this particular story goes, Kim Yu-shin had been doing an extended period of extreme training on Mt. Danseoksan. While he was meditating in a cave, a mysterious old man appeared before the future general and gifted him with a magic sword. The old man also bequeathed secret precepts with which Kim Yu-shin could unite the Korean peninsula. Of course, as any youth would be, Kim was quite eager to try out the magic sword. As the story goes, Kim Yu-sin was riding his horse down the east side of the mountain and sliced in half massive boulder, which can still be seen by hikers today.
At just over 800 meters, Mt. Danseoksan is also one of the highest mountains in the Gyeongju area. Its towering stature, sprawling vistas and ancient history make it a popular destination for hikers from all over Korea. Not to mention, Mt. Danseoksan overlooks Gyeongju’s new KTX station, which means day hikers can catch the trail head for the mountain just minutes from the station without bothering with buses or taxis. However, climbing Mt. Danseoksan is not for the faint of heart nor the out of shape. I’ve hiked the Mt. Danseoksan several times over the years, and each time the experience has left my body a sore and aching wreck.
Yet, the hike up Mt. Danseoksan has always been worth the pain, and one of the reasons why is the mysterious Miruk Grotto (미룩굴) of Sinseonsa Temple (신선사). However, when our friend invited us up to Sinseonsa Temple to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday, I was originally a bit hesitant. Sinseonsa Temple sits at the top of a steep mountain road that winds up through Ujoonggol (우중골) Valley for 2 km. I certainly didn’t relish the thought of spending the morning packing our two year old son up the side of the mountain. Fortunately our friend then mentioned that the temple had organized a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles to transport patrons to the temple and back for the holiday. After parking our car in the village below, we hopped in the back of an SUV for a harrowing, if time saving, 10 minute drive up the mountainside.
After a short hike from the parking lot, we arrived at Sinseonsa Temple. The atmosphere was quite festive as the temple complex was decked out in brightly colored lanterns and was buzzing with hikers and Buddhist faithful, young and old. Dozens of families were enjoying the free, and quite delicious, sanchae bibimbap (비빔밥) at the in the new meditation hall. In fact there had been several new additions built at Sinseonsa in the years since I’d been there last, including a lovely new administrative hall and several traditional-style Korean stoves. Aside from a lovely series of “Ox-Herder” paintings, Sinseonsa Temple itself is fairly small and non-nondescript as far as Korean Buddhist temples. This is understandable however as the central focus of the complex is the ancient Miruk Grotto next door.
Mirukgul (미룩굴), or “Cave of the Maitreya Bodhisattva,” is believed to have been carved in the late 6th century CE, making it the oldest grotto style temple in Korea. As such the Miruk Grotto was a prototype of the famed Seokguram Temple on Mt. Tohamsan, carved several hundred years later (which we’d visited earlier that morning). The roof the Miruk Grotto collapsed long ago, though it has recently been replaced by a large, clear plexiglas enclosure to protect the 14 hundred year old carvings from the elements.
On the walls of the 10 foot wide natural corridor are three large Buddhas carved in relief. To the left of the entrance is the central 22 foot tall relief image of the Maitreya Bodhisattva, or Miruk Bosal (미륵보살) in Korean, for whom the grotto is named. According to Buddhist lore, Maitreya is the Bodhisattva of Loving-Kindness who resides in Tusita Heaven awaiting his time to come to earth as the future Buddha. The cult of Maitreya was quite strong in early Silla Buddhism, as well as within China at the time. In the Silla Dynasty the Hwarang (mentioned earlier) were believed by Silla Buddhists to be the embodiment of Maitreya on earth, reinforcing the connection between Mt. Danseoksan with the Hwarang. In fact, the name of Sinseonsa Temple, translates as “Temple of the Supernatural Being,” referring to Bodhisattva Maitreya.
At the far end of the “U” shaped grotto is striking 18 foot tall relief of one of Maitreya’s attendant Bodhisattvas, which has recently been cleaned. Facing the Maitreya relief then is a third Bodhisattva, which has unfortunately been weather rather badly. Only the face and base of the image have survived the centuries enact. On the boulder to the left of the 22 foot Maitreya is a smaller triad at of Buddhas carved halfway up the stone which are gesturing towards the central Maitreya. Intriguingly, below this triad of Buddhas are two mysterious figures wearing tall, pointing hats, billowing pants and pointy shoes. These figures are facing the Maitreya image and appear to be carrying ritual instruments, indicating that they might represent Silla Buddhist priests performing a ritual. If so, these figures are a valuable and rare record of how Buddhist rituals were actually conducted during the Silla Dynasty.
Both Miruk Grotto and Sinseonsa Temple are worthy hiking destinations any time during the year, though the atmosphere was all the more colorful for Buddha’s Birthday. Those wanting to catch a four wheel drive shuttle up to the Grotto will unfortunately have to wait until next year, or else find a friend with an SUV. However, those wishing to hike to Miruk Grotto can catch the bus # 350 from Gyeongju. After Geoncheon, get off at the stop for Songseon 2-ri (송선 2-리) just after passing the reservoir. From here it’s about a 1 km walk up through the village and another 2 km up through the valley to Sinseonsa Temple. There are in fact many other routes to the top of Mt. Danseokan, which are gentler and more scenic. In fact, personally prefer hiking up Mt. Danseoksan from another route and coming down past Sinseonsa. But I’m afraid talking about other routes will have to wait for another post. In the mean time, here’s a hiking map to Sinseonsa courtesy of Naver Maps: