Essay by Shin Soyeon
Depending on the place and period, Buddhists have held different conceptions of the “Pure Land,” as demonstrated by their attempts to represent this utopia in diverse works of art. Visitors to the National Museum of Korea will find one of the most memorable depictions of the Pure Land when they encounter the magnificent ten-story stone pagoda of Gyeongcheonsa Temple (National Treasure 86), which stands a towering 13.5 meters in height. As a three-dimensional rendering of the Buddhist Pure Land envisioned by the people of Goryeo, every story of the pagoda is decorated with elaborate carvings of Buddhist deities and stories, including images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats, the Four Heavenly Kings, and scenes from the Buddhist canon.
Production of the Ten-story Stone Pagoda of Gyeongcheonsa Temple
This ten-story stone pagoda was originally erected on the site of Gyeongcheonsa Temple (located on Mt. Buso in Jungyeon-ri, Gwangdeok-myeon, Gaepung-gun, Gyeonggi Province) in 1348, the fourth year of the reign of Goryeo’s King Chungmok. According to the History of Goryeo, Gyeongcheonsa Temple was frequented by members of the royal court, who often held memorial services for the deceased there. At an unknown date, Gyeongcheonsa Temple must have been destroyed or demolished, because by the early twentieth century, the pagoda stood alone at the site.
The first tier of the pagoda bears an inscription that provides details about the pagoda’s production, including its patrons and production date. Although parts of the inscription have been damaged or abraded, it has been determined that the pagoda was produced in March 1348 at Gyeongcheonsa Temple by Kang Yung, Ko Ryongbong, Seonggong, and Yugi. According to the inscription, the patrons built the pagoda to wish for the prosperity and stability of China’s Yuan Dynasty, the Goryeo Dynasty, and the Buddhist faith. They further hoped that the virtuous deed of building the pagoda would lead to the enlightenment of all sentient beings through Buddhism.
The pagoda was sponsored by Goryeo people with strong ties to China’s Yuan Dynasty. Both Kang Yung and Ko Ryongbong had direct ties to members of the Yuan court. Kang Yung’s daughter became a concubine of Toktoghan, the prime minister of the Yuan Dynasty. Ko Ryongbong was a Goryeo eunuch who went to the Yuan court and earned the trust of the Yuan emperor. Among his achievements, Ko is credited with introducing Emperor Huizong to his future wife, Empress Gi, who was originally a Goryeo noblewoman who had been sent to the Yuan court.
Likely reflecting this affiliation with Yuan China, the pagoda’s shape is completely different from that of traditional Korean stone pagodas. Most notably, the platform and lower three stories of the pagoda are shaped like a square overlapping a cross, reminiscent of the Chinese character “亞.” Not commonly found in Goryeo culture, this distinct shape can be seen in pagoda platforms and sculpture pedestals from a Tibetan-Mongolian form of Buddhism that was prevalent in the Yuan period. In contrast, the upper seven stories of the pagoda are rectangular in shape, corresponding to the conventional form of Korean stone pagodas. As such, this unique stone pagoda is the result of a harmonious mix of traditional and foreign elements.
Records show that, during the Joseon period, Toktoghan (Yuan’s prime minister) used Gyeongcheonsa Temple as his private shrine for praying. The records also say that Kang Yung brought some Yuan craftspeople to make this pagoda, and that portraits of both Toktoghan and Kang Yung were present at the temple at the time of writing. Although it is difficult to confirm these records, it seems likely that Yuan craftspeople may have had a hand in producing the pagoda, based on the shape and the political affiliations of patrons.
The highlight: delicate carvings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
Interestingly, many elements of this pagoda were modeled after wooden architecture, such as the columns, brackets atop the columns, railings, and hanging boards. Most notably, the pagoda features miniature roofs covered with elaborately sculpted roof tiles, faithfully reflecting the wooden architecture of the time. However, the aesthetic highlights are the delicate carvings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas that can be found all over the pagoda. Starting from the bottom, the platform is carved with various beings that protect Buddhism, such as lions, dragons, lotus flowers, and arhats, along with scenes from Journey to the West. The lower four stories are sculpted with sixteen scenes of Buddha’s Assembly, with various Buddhist deities rendered between the scenes. Finally, the upper six stories are adorned with sculptures of Buddha with both hands clasped or making the dhyana-mudra (hand gesture for meditation). Thus, from bottom to top, this composition visualizes the religious hierarchy of Buddhism.
As noted, the lower part of the pagoda is carved with scenes from Journey to the West, which documents the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang monk Xuanzang. Originally a popular tale of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Journey to the West was later published as a novel during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Interestingly, many of the twenty scenes represented on the pagoda, which was sculpted during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), correspond to scenes that later became popular prints from the Ming period, indicating that they were already part of the tale before the publication of the novel. All of the scenes from Xuanzang’s pilgrimage in Journey to the West are intended to deliver Buddhist lessons about virtuous deeds and enlightenment. Furthermore, the carvings likely symbolize that the characters of Journey to the West are protecting the sarira (Buddhist cremation relics) enshrined inside the pagoda. Meanwhile, the lower four stories are adorned with sixteen scenes from Buddha’s Assembly, each of which is labeled with a small hanging placard.
Various theories have been put forth to explain the iconography of the sixteen relief sculptures depicting scenes from Buddha’s Assembly. Some scholars have speculated that these scenes were based on cherished sutras from traditional Korean Buddhism, while others have suggested that the first story is derived from Korean Buddhism, the second story from Buddhist philosophy, and the third story from esoteric Buddhism. Another possible theory is that these scenes represent the “Assembly of the Four Directional Buddhas” (四方佛會). One of the most interesting scenes is the “Assembly of the Buddhas of the Past, Present, and Future” (三世佛會), carved on the south plane of the first story, which depicts the three Buddhas in an entirely unique way. While most traditional Korean Buddhist statues and pagodas were made from granite, this pagoda is marble, a softer material that made it possible to create such masterful carvings. Notably, about 120 years after this pagoda was built, the Joseon royal court erected another ten-story stone pagoda at Wongaksa Temple in Seoul, which features the same shape and iconography.
Troubled History of the Ten-story Stone Pagoda of Gyeongcheonsa Temple
In addition to its artistic and religious significance, the ten-story stone pagoda of Gyeongcheonsa Temple is an important reminder of the troubled history endured by many pieces of Korean cultural heritage. In 1907, the pagoda was illegally dismantled and smuggled to Japan by Tanaka Mitsuyaki, the Japanese Minister of the Imperial Household, who had come to Korea to attend the wedding ceremony for Emperor Sunjong. Local residents tried to intercede, but they were suppressed by armed military police. The dismantled parts were carried away on carts, which were intercepted by the Gaepung County Magistrate. However, even the magistrate’s efforts were for naught, as the pagoda was eventually smuggled out of the country under the cover of night. The illegal smuggling instantly became headline news, such that the Korea Daily News (대한매일신보), a Korean-English newspaper, published more than ten articles and editorials condemning the theft.
Indeed, the persistent reportage of Homer B. Hulbert, the American publisher of the Korea Review, and Ernest T. Bethell, the British publisher of the Korea Daily News, proved to be essential for the pagoda’s return. In particular, Hulbert also wrote articles about the pagoda’s theft for the New York Post and some of Japan’s English-language newspapers. Then in 1907, when Hulbert accompanied Korea’s special delegates to the second Hague Peace Conference, he told the international media about the smuggling. Eventually, the public outcry could no longer be ignored, and the Japanese government was forced to return the pagoda to Korea on November 15, 1918. The following year, the pagoda entered the collection of the museum.
Because of limited technology at the time, the dismantled pagoda could not be safely reassembled. Thus, it was stored in a hallway of Gyeongbokgung Palace, where it remained until 1960. That year, the National Museum of Korea supervised the repair of some damaged parts and reassembled the pagoda inside Gyeongbokgung Palace. In 1962, the pagoda was designated as National Treasure 86. After years of being kept outdoors, however, the pagoda required more thorough restoration and conservation, so it was dismantled again in 1995. For the next ten years, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage conducted a meticulous conservation treatment. Then in 2005, the pagoda was again reassembled inside the National Museum of Korea’s new building in Yongsan, where it remains today. Thus, after about 100 years of instability, the pagoda can finally be enjoyed in all its glory.
The ten-story stone pagoda of Gyeongcheonsa Temple is one of the true monuments of Korean cultural history, symbolizing the harmonious integration of traditional and foreign elements, while also providing a cautionary tale about Korea’s tumultuous modern and contemporary history. Gazing upon this grand masterpiece, we are reminded to cherish the legacy of Korea’s cultural heritage.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.