The most famous landmark of the Gyeongju region is found in the mountains that lie to the east of the city. Seokguram, a grotto containing a white granite image of the Buddha, sits atop a forested mountain and has been a place of pilgrimage for the Korean people for many centuries. The image is the crowning glory of the Silla Kingdom, a work of stunning artistic beauty and deep religious significance that is considered one of Korea’s national treasures.
Built in 751, the grotto is carved into the side of the mountain and for hundreds of years was open to the elements (glass now protects the inner chamber). The Buddha that is its focus rests on a pedestal decorated with carved lotus flowers, with an array of religious figures depicted on the encircling walls. The figure is believed to be one of the guardians of Korea, protecting the land from invasion from across the sea.
Standing before the figure, its beauty seemed almost luminescent, in part because of the whiteness of the stone. I had never been in the presence of anything that exuded such a sense of peace. Though the religious art of Christianity is powerful and varied and beautiful, I couldn’t recall anything that could equal the serenity of the Buddha before me.
While this sacred site high in the mountains of South Korea felt foreign in many ways, two things seemed familiar: the hushed and reverent atmosphere within the grotto and the rapt expressions of the people gathered in prayer. Though the words they were chanting were unknown to me, their attitude of devotion was not.