Essay by Lee Inyeong
In 1936, excavations at a temple site in Gunsu-ri, Buyeo uncovered a stone Buddha and a gilt-bronze bodhisattva, which were found around the buried base stone of a disintegrated wooden pagoda.
In ancient times, wooden pagodas were erected atop large base stones that were buried in the ground. Such base stones have been found with various Buddhist remains of the Baekje Kingdom in Sabi (present-day Buyeo), the former capital of Baekje. The square base stone at the temple site in Gunsu-ri was found 1.8 meters underground. Although the name of the temple is unknown, the excavations (carried out during the Japanese colonial period) revealed that it was a Buddhist temple of the Baekje Kingdom. As such, the Buddha and bodhisattva statues are known to have been produced by Baekje, which makes them important benchmarks for research. Both statues are currently exhibited in the Buddhist Sculpture Gallery of the National Museum of Korea. The temple site in Gunsu-ri (exact address: 19-1 beonji, Gunsu-ri, Buyeo, South Chungcheong Province) is designated as Historic Site 44.
Sabi period (538–660) of Baekje: great flourishing of Buddhism
According to records, Buddhism was first transmitted to the Baekje Kingdom in 384, during the reign of King Chimnyu, by the Serindian monk Mālânanda (摩羅難陀) who came to Baekje from China’s Eastern Jin Dynasty. It is written that King Chimnyu went outside the city walls to greet the monk Mālânanda and welcomed him into the palace with full honors. In February 385, the king had a temple built in Hansan, the capital, and the temple had ten Buddhist monks. As such, it seems that the royal court was very eager to embrace Buddhism. However, there are no records providing further details about the temple or the early years of Buddhism in the Baekje Kingdom.
Then in September 475, the Goguryeo Kingdom conquered Hanseong (present-day Seoul), which was then the Baekje capital, and killed King Gaero. As a result, the Baekje Kingdom was forced to move south, relocating its capital to Ungjin (present-day Gongju). While in Ungjin, King Seong began preparing a planned capital city in Sabi (present-day Buyeo), constructing new city walls and facilities, including a new palace. After moving to Sabi in 538, King Seong reorganized various social systems and structures in order to strengthen the royal authority and stabilize the government. Sabi served as the capital of the Baekje Kingdom for 123 years, until the kingdom fell in 660 to the combined forces of Silla and Tang. As the last Baekje capital, Sabi flourished with vibrant art and culture, representing the peak of the Baekje Kingdom.
In the early stages of Baekje Buddhism, large temples were built, many Buddhist dedications and offerings were held, and excellent artworks were produced. Buddhism particularly flourished during the reign of King Seong, so that in 538 (the year of relocating to Sabi), the king sent both objects (e.g., Buddhist sculptures and sutras) and emissaries (including specialists in making pagodas and roof tiles) to introduce Buddhism to Japan. Chinese historical records assert that “Baekje had a great number of Buddhist monks, temples, and pagodas” (僧尼寺塔甚多), confirming that Buddhism greatly prospered in the Baekje Kingdom.
To date, more than thirty Baekje temple sites have been discovered in Buyeo such as Jeongnimsa Temple, which was constructed in the center of the capital; Neungsa Temple (in the eastern outskirts of the city) that were built in 567 by King Chang for his father King Seong; and Wangheungsa Temple (in the western outskirts of the city), which was built in 577 by King Chang for his deceased son. These temples were promoted by the royal court, and were built as national projects. Among the discovered temple sites, the one in Gunsu-ri is one of the earliest of the Sabi period, estimated to date from the early to mid-sixth century.
While enthusiastically embracing new culture from China, the Baekje Kingdom established its own elaborate culture with distinctive and unique features by the mid-sixth century. Baekje culture had a discernible international flavor, as the kingdom actively communicated with China’s Southern and Northern Dynasties, the Goguryeo Kingdom, the Silla Kingdom, as well as Japan. In particular, Baekje had a profound influence on the establishment of the ancient Asuka culture of Japan.
Stone Buddha with meditation pose: Korea’s early Buddhist sculpture
Both of the sculptures are quite small; the stone Buddha is 13.5 cm in height, while the gilt-bronze bodhisattva is 11.2 cm high. But despite this small stature, the figures showcase the style of early Korean sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas. The stone Buddha is making the dhyana-mudra, with both hands relaxed on the abdomen, symbolizing that the Buddha is in meditation. This meditation gesture was popular in the early Buddhist sculpture of India, as well as in Chinese sculpture of the fourth and early fifth century. In Korea, this gesture was widely used in sixth- and seventh-century Buddhist sculpture.
Made of agalmatolite (also known as pagodite), a soft and smooth stone, this Buddha has a very pliant texture. Being obtainable from nearby sites, agalmatolite was used to produce various Baekje statues, including the Pensive Bodhisattva from Mt. Buso.
Seated in the lotus position on a rectangular pedestal, Buddha is impressively rendered in a state of serene meditation. The thick robe, with U-shaped creases, hangs down to drape across the front of the pedestal, for a highly decorative effect. This detail of the robe covering the pedestal is also seen in a stoneware Buddha pedestal that was excavated from Cheongyang, South Chungcheong Province, a sculptural masterpiece that combines refined techniques with majestic size (2.5 meters in width). This style is also seen in Gandhara Buddhist sculpture of India, in the Longmen Caves of the Northern Wei Dynasty, and in Buddhist sculpture of the Southern Dynasties of China.
Like the stone Buddha, the gilt-bronze bodhisattva statue is also carved only on the front surface. Overall, the gilding has been well preserved. The bodhisattva wears an extravagant crown, with hair and bands from the crown dangling down to the shoulders on both sides of the face. Many details of the statue are characteristic of early Korean bodhisattva statues, such as the protruding tips of the robes on both sides of the body, resembling fins; the thick strips of ornamental cloth intersecting by the knees; and the V-shaped necklace.
Although the stone Buddha can be roughly compared to Chinese Buddhist sculptures of the fourth and fifth century, it definitely shows the unique style of Baekje, exemplified by the soft and gentle facial expression. In the history of Korean Buddhist sculpture, the era from the introduction of Buddhism to the fifth century is known as the “blank period,” because there are currently no extant Buddhist sculptures with an inscribed date from that time. This stone Buddha is estimated to be an early Buddhist sculpture produced in the mid-sixth century, when Buddhist sculptures began to be produced in earnest in Korea. Furthermore, this stone Buddha serves as a benchmark for estimating the production dates of other Buddhist sculptures.
Along with the Goguryeo gilt-bronze Buddha with inscription: “seventh year of yeonga,” which is the oldest Korean Buddhist sculpture with an inscribed date (539), this stone Buddha is crucial for studying the early stages of Korean Buddhist sculpture. Notably, while the Goguryeo gilt-bronze Buddha features bold abridgment and powerful aesthetics, this stone Buddha shows a very different style, based on the soft, round features that became associated with Baekje.
Excavation and research of the temple site of Gunsu-ri, Buyeo-eup
As the site of the Buyeo-gun District Office, Buyeo-eup is now the central area of the city. But various important sites and remains of the Sabi period of Baekje are found around Buyeo-eup, including Gungnamji Pond (宮南池, Historic Site 135), an artificial pond that is believed to have been made under King Mu.
The first excavation in the area (taking place in two installments), which examined remains in Gunsu-ri, Buyeo-eup, took place over about one and half months in 1935 and 1936, and was led by the Japanese Government-General of Korea. These early investigations primarily focused on Baekje tombs, sacred sites, and Buddhist temple sites. A ground survey of Gunsu-ri yielded shards of Baekje roof tiles and the foundation stones for the pillars. Despite the relative brevity of the excavations, the researchers were able to confirm that the layout of the temple had followed the so-called “one pagoda and one main hall” style, in which the inner gate, a wooden pagoda, the main hall, and the lecture hall were arranged in a straight line on a north-south axis. Excavations at the temple site also yielded an array of artifacts, including shards of roof tiles and bricks, a gilt-bronze halo, along with this stone Buddha and gilt-bronze bodhisattva.
Nonetheless, given the haste of this investigation, along with the insufficiency of the excavation report, it could not be considered a formal excavation. Therefore, it was still difficult to grasp the scope and significance of the remains in their entirety. Thus, from the time that Korea regained independence in 1945, researchers continually stressed the need for a more thorough survey and excavation of this area. Finally, starting in 2003, almost seventy years after the first investigation by the Japanese colonial government, the area was formally re-excavated by Korean specialists. Between 2005 and 2007, three excavations by the Buyeo Research Institute of Cultural Heritage confirmed the exact temple arrangement and size, including the site of the main hall and the disintegrated wooden pagoda. In the sixth excavation, conducted in 2011, the site of the west corridor was investigated, leading to the discovery of a new building site in the northwest, along with many artifacts (such as roof-end tiles and inkstones) of the Sabi period of the Baekje Kingdom.
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea’s website.