Essay by Kang Samhye
This bodhisattva statue (National Treasure 124), made from white marble, was taken to Japan in 1912 from the site of Hansongsa Temple in Namhangjin-dong, Gangneung. It was finally returned to Korea thanks to the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty, and is now exhibited at Chuncheon National Museum.
Hansongsa Temple: scenic site revered by Silla’s Hwarang (“Flowering Knights”)
Hansongsa Temple is no longer in existence; its former site in Namhangjin-dong, Gangdong-myeon, Gangneung is now occupied by a military airfield. Surrounded by pine trees near the ocean, with Gyeongpodae and Hansongjeong pavilions close by, the temple site was always included among the most scenic spots of Gwandong (present-day Gangwon Province), along with Mt. Geumgang. As such, Hansongsa Temple was often mentioned in poems and other writings by the people who visited there.
In addition to its beautiful scenery, this area was also a popular excursion because of its ties to the Hwarang (花郞, “Flowering Knights”), a legendary military unit of the Silla Kingdom. In particular, the area was once occupied by a contingent of 3000 Hwarang members led by Yeongrang (永郞), Sullang (述郞), Namrang (南郞), and Ansangrang (安詳郞), who came to be revered as Taoist immortals. This group, which served under Silla’s King Hyoso, was said to be the most powerful among the Hwarang, such that steles about them were erected in Chongseokjeong Pavilion, Lake Samilpo, and Hansongjeong Pavilion. This group of Hwarang was so famous among the people that several of the troop’s training and pilgrimage sites along the East Sea from Gyeongju to Anbyeon became popular tourist attractions, known collectively as the “Eight Views of Gwandong.” According to Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, the stele for Seol Wonrang (薛原郎), the first Hwarang, was erected in Myeongju (溟州, present-day Gangneung), which confirms that the area around Gyeongpodae and Hansongjeong pavilions held great importance for the Hwarang. By the Goryeo period, along with those two pavilions, the nearby Hansongsa Temple was also crowded with visitors, including writers and high-ranking officials who wished to see the historical sites of Silla’s Hwarang. In the same context, during the late Goryeo and early Joseon period, many literati visited here and wrote poetry and other works.
“Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva popped up from underground”
In old documents, Hansongsa Temple was called Munsudang (文殊堂), Munsujae (文殊臺), or Munsusa (文殊寺). In the fifth volume of Collected Writings of Yi Gok (稼亭文集), entitled Trip to the East (東遊記), the Goryeo scholar Yi Gok wrote about visiting Hansongsa Temple:
After staying (in Gyeongpodae Pavilion) for a day, due to the rain, I went out to Gangseong (江城) to see Munsudang (文殊堂). According to people, two stone statues of Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva had popped up from underground. A stele of the four Taoist immortals was once erected on the east side of these statues, but Hu Zongdan (胡宗旦) had thrown it into the water, so that only the turtle-shaped pedestal was extant.
以雨留一日/ 出江城觀文殊堂/ 人言文殊，普賢二石像從地湧出者也/ 東有四仙碑/ 爲胡宗旦所沉/ 唯龜跌在耳
In addition to National Treasure 124, another bodhisattva statue from the site of Hansongsa Temple is currently housed at Ojukheon & Municipal Museum in Gangneung. These two bodhisattva statues are estimated to be the statues of Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva that supposedly “popped up from underground.” Unfortunately, the one in Ojukheon & Municipal Museum is missing its head and one arm, but its casual seated posture, with one leg resting comfortably outside of the lotus position, is symmetrical with the other bodhisattva statue (National Treasure 124). Thus, it would appear that these two sculptures were once the two attendant bodhisattvas on the left and right of a Buddha triad. But in that case, what can be said of the main Buddha?
Incredibly, the pedestals that once supported these two bodhisattva statues are still present at the site of Hansongsa Temple, which is now covered by sand. Although the pedestals are severely damaged, we can see that they are shaped like a lion and an elephant, respectively. According to Buddhist sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, and Dhāraṇī Collection Scripture, Manjushri Bodhisattva (symbolizing wisdom) is seated on a lion pedestal, while Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (symbolizing compassion) is seated on the elephant pedestal. In Korea, extant lion- and elephant-shaped pedestals can be found at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju and in the Vairocana Buddha Triad (estimated to date from the ninth century) of Beopsusa Temple in Seongju. Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva can be attendant bodhisattvas for either Shakyamuni Buddha or Vairocana Buddha. Around the ninth century, the Hwaeom (Ch. Huayan) school and Seon (Ch. Chan) school of Buddhism worshipped Vairocana Buddha. Then, starting in the mid-ninth century, many statues of Mahāvairocana Buddha were produced through the influence of Esoteric Buddhism. As such, it is estimated that the main Buddha of this triad likely depicted Vairocana Buddha.
Introduction of Manjushri Bodhisattva faith
The tall, cylindrical crown worn by this bodhisattva is characteristic of bodhisattva sculptures produced near Gangneung in the early Goryeo period. Statues with this style of crown were transmitted from China’s Tang Dynasty, which had embraced the iconography of Esoteric Buddhism from India. This iconography likely spread through the Tang capital of Chang’an (where Esoteric Buddhism prospered), including the nearby region of Mt. Wutai in Shanxi Province, where Esoteric Buddhist art was introduced. Bodhisattva statues with the cylindrical crown continued to be produced during the Five Dynasties and Song Dynasty, and became especially popular in the Buddhist sculpture of the Liao Dynasty. In Korea, statues with this crown appeared around the tenth century in Woljeongsa Temple, Sinboksa Temple, and Hansongsa Temple, all of which were located near Mt. Odae (五臺山, Ch. Mt. Wutai) of Gangwon Province.
According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, Mt. Odae (Ch. 五臺山, Mt. Wutai) is the holy place where Manjushri Bodhisattva resides. In the seventh century, Monk Jajang introduced the faith of Manjushri Bodhisattva of Mt. Wutai/Odae to Korea. Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (三國遺事) describes how Manjushri Bodhisattva appeared as a manifestation and exercised miraculous power. In the section “Fifty Thousand Manifestations of Mt. Odae” (臺山五萬眞身) from Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, it is written that Crown Prince Hyomyeong and Prince Bocheon, two sons of King Sinmun, led an ascetic life on Mt. Odae where they offered tea to Manjushri Bodhisattva, and that Crown Prince Hyomyeong later ascended to the throne as King Hyoso. As such, it is estimated that the aforementioned “four Taoist immortals” and their contingent from the Silla Kingdom might have been locals from the Mt. Odae area who supported King Hyoso, and who thus became the main agents promoting the Manjushri Bodhisattva faith in this region.
Elegant bodhisattva statue reflecting traditional and local styles
The soft and refined sculptural aesthetics of the bodhisattva statue from Hansongsa Temple can be compared to the Manjushri Bodhisattva relief carving in the upper niche of Seokguram Grotto, which was produced around 751 during the Unified Silla period. In Seokguram Grotto, the Manjushri Bodhisattva carving appears opposite a seated Vimalakirti carving, which together represent the doctrine of “nonduality” (i.e., the unity of all things). The relief carving exemplifies the quintessential characteristics of Unified Silla sculpture, such as the generous face, the smile visualizing a state of wisdom and compassion, the smooth round shoulders, the voluptuous arms and legs, and the relaxed posture. Transcending time, the same characteristics are well rendered in the bodhisattva statue (National Treasure 124) from Hansongsa Temple.
From ancient times, the area of Gangneung and Mt. Odae in Gangwon Province was called “Myeongju.” After failing to become the king, Kim Juwon (金周元), a sixth-generation descendant of Silla’s King Muyeol, retreated to this area (which was his mother’s home) and became the progenitor of the Gangneung Kim clan. King Wonseong named Kim Juwon the “Lord of Myeongju” and gave him the authority to rule over the territory, including Myeongju, Yangyang, Samcheok, and Uljin. Many direct descendants of Kim Juwon advanced to serve in the central government. This strong connection between Myeongju and Gyeongju (the Silla capital) helps to explain why the bodhisattva statue from Hansongsa Temple was carved in the representative style of Unified Silla.
Read the essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.