On the day the 1,000-year-old stone Buddha is
set upright, we will see the subtle smile of
the Flower Sermon hidden within it
To properly enshrineShin Seong-minthe Rock-Carved Buddha that has lain face
down on the ground for nearly 600 years is our duty
Text by Shin Seong-min Photo by Ha Ji-kwon and The Jogye Order’s Dept. of Public Relations
“In Seorabol (capital of Silla), 178,9365 tiled-roof houses stand in rows.
Temples dot the city, as numerous as the stars in the night sky,
and numerous pagodas line the city streets like lines of wild geese in flight.”
This is how Silla-era Gyeongju was described by Ven. Iryeon in his book Samguk yusa (Legends and History of Korea's Three Kingdoms). His references to the many temples and pagodas are evidence of the robust Buddhist spirit embodied by Gyeongju, then considered a “Buddha realm.”
The most significant mountain in Gyeongju is undoubtedly Mt. Namsan. Having 40 valleys and ridges, it was called “Namsan” (lit. South Mountain) because it lay south of Silla’s royal palace, Banwolseong. In the southern foothills of Mt. Namsan is Najeong Well, connected to the birth legend of Silla’s founder, Bakhyeokgeose, and Poseokjeong Pavilion, connected to the tragic end of the Silla Dynasty. These two sites encapsulate the beginning and end of Silla.
Above all, Mt. Namsan shows why the old city of Gyeongju was regarded a “Buddha realm.” It is because in the numerous ravines and crevices of Mt. Namsan, countless buddhas, bodhisattvas and pagodas can be found. The number of temple ruins alone scattered around Mt. Namsan is 150. In addition, Mt. Namsan is home to 694 cultural properties, including 129 buddha statues, 99 pagodas, and 22 stone lanterns. That is why, with good reason, it is called an “outdoor Buddhist museum.”
Of the 129 buddha statues dotting Mt. Namsan, there is one buddha statue attracting much attention these days: the Rock-Carved Buddha of Yeoram Valley on Mt. Namsan in Gyeongju (hereafter “Yeoram Valley Buddha”).
The Yeoram Valley Buddha created quite a stir when it was first discovered on May 22, 2007 during a project to preserve stone seated Buddha statues in Yeoram Valley. When it was discovered, it was lying face down with its face just 5cm away from the stone beneath it, and it hadn’t sustained any damage, earning it the nickname “the 5cm miracle.”
Subsequent research revealed that the Buddha was crafted in the late 8th century, and had fallen over during a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that hit the Gyeongju area in 1430. It is estimated to weigh about 80 tons and is deeply engraved. At present, its pedestal, left leg, and part of the chest and shoulders are visible between the rocks on the rocky southern slope.
Most rock-carved buddhas endure severe erosion from being exposed to the elements for countless years, but, miraculously, the Yeoram Valley Buddha is well preserved, which gives it higher value. In between the bars of the temporary protective pavilion erected last year, the Buddha’s profile is visible, its high artistic value obvious to even outsiders. Its sharp nose, piercing eyes, and large size naturally elicit exclamations from onlookers.
15 Years Later, the Buddha Still Lies Face Down
It has been 15 years since the discovery of the Yeoram Valley Buddha, but it still lies face down on the ground. There may be various reasons why it has not been righted yet, but a major reason is the inconsistent policies of Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (hereafter “CHA”).
In December 2011, the CHA made it a goal to preserve the Yeoram Valley Buddha as it is, and tried to establish a viewing area below it. But the next year they reevaluated the plan due to possible damage that plan might do to the Buddha. In 2013, the CHA again decided to preserve the Buddha in its current face-down position. Then in 2015, it transferred control of the project to Gyeongju City, the municipality governing the area where the Buddha is located, which then considered ways to erect the Buddha.
Gyeongju City commissioned the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology to research how best to erect the Buddha. That took from 2015 to 2016. Then the Committee of Cultural Properties asked for a simulation of their proposed plan. That put the project back on square one. In a presentation given in 2017, it was indicated that the process of erecting the Buddha might cause damage to the Buddha itself because the surrounding ground is not firm enough. At present, Gyeongju City and CHA have finished the 2020 Surrounding Area Maintenance Project.
Later, the 36th President of the Jogye Order included erection of the Yeoram Valley Buddha in the Order’s “One Million Vows Assembly” and held a prayer assembly in November 2021. This focused greater attention on the issue.
A Decisive Move, Ven. Jinu’s Proposal to Citizens
What set fire to the issue of erecting the Buddha was Ven. Jinu, 37th President of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
At his inauguration ceremony held at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul on Oct. 5, everyone there listened attentively to his inaugural speech. In his 17-minute speech, he stated, “Let me make a proposal to all of my fellow Korean citizens. I strongly believe that we should restore the Yeoram Valley Buddha on Mt. Namsan in Gyeongju to its original standing position. To neglect this beautiful Korean cultural property in its current state is disgraceful, and shows we are delinquent in our duties. When we restore this statue to its original standing position, Korea will prosper for the coming 1,000 years, and our citizens will enjoy peace.”
This proposal by Ven. Jinu got the attention of various communities in Korea. The Buddhist community, local governments, and national government organizations began to mobilize to erect the Yeoram Valley Buddha. The Administrative Headquarters of the Jogye Order made “Proper Enshrinement of the Yeoram Valley Buddha” a major priority and made plans to organize a nationwide steering committee with the slogan “Erect 1,000 Years of History.” They also plan to launch promotional activities and fund-raising events.
It is encouraging that people heading government offices related to policies concerning culture and cultural properties have pledged their support for this project. In his visit with Ven. Jinu, Minister Bak Bo-gyun of the Culture, Sports, and Tourism said, “I agree with your statement that proper enshrinement of the Yeoram Valley Buddha will benefit the prosperity of Korea. Our department will also support the project to erect the Buddha.”
Choe Eung-cheon, Director of the CHA, said in an interview after his visit with Ven. Jinu, “In collaboration with Gyeongju City, the CHA will confirm the Buddha’s original location and make a discreet plan to erect it. We are seriously weighing the idea of moving up the date too.” It has been over 15 years since the Yeoram Valley Buddha was discovered, and broad inter-agency agreements to erect the Buddha are now a reality.
Why Restore the Yeoram Valley Buddha Now?
The project titled “Proper Enshrinement of the Yeoram Valley Buddha in Gyeongju” began just 26 days after Ven. Jinu’s proposal. Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism Headquarters held an “Informing Ceremony” for the project on Oct. 31 in Yeoram Valley and took the first step.
A careful examination of the Informing Ceremony’s statement—which was reported to the Buddha—and Ven. Jinu’s opening speech, revealed the importance and urgency of the project. This project will conclusively lead to the revitalization of Buddhism and national prosperity based on a heightened sense of Buddhist spirit, as seen in the following citation:
“Today on Mt. Namsan, the fourfold Buddhist community has gathered with devout aspirations and vows to properly enshrine the Yeoram Valley Buddha which has lain face down on the ground for the last 1,000 years. Our firm vows are intended to establish a framework for the revitalization of Buddhism by propagating the Buddhadharma with truth. Our minds represent our honest pledge to bring prosperity to Korea for the sake of Korean citizens’ harmony and happiness.”
In addition, the statement also reflects feelings of self-reproach and repentance for the improper maintenance of a beautiful cultural relic inherited from our ancestors. Ven. Jinu’s 108 prostrations before the Yeoram Valley Buddha before holding the Informing Ceremony can be interpreted in the same light. He further said, “Previously, when I served as director of Monastic Training, I visited Yeoram Valley to participate in the One Million Vows Assembly, and there I made a vow to erect the Buddha. In the West, if a statue of Jesus or a cross had fallen over, would people just sit idly by on their hands? It is an issue that hurts our pride as Buddhists, and an issue of national dignity when a cultural property is neglected.”
How to Enshrine the Yeoram Valley Buddha
The hosts of the restoration project—Gyeongju City and North Gyeongsang Province—do not differ greatly on the issue of properly restoring and enshrining the Buddha. Gyeongju City’s second commissioned research on how to erect and preserve the Buddha will be completed the second half of next year. As the mayor of Gyeongju indicated, the first task of the research is to confirm the original location of the Buddha.
At the Oct. 31 Informing Ceremony, Gyeongju’s Mayor Ju Nak-yeong said, “Since the Buddha was found in 2007, Gyeongju City has prepared a preservation/maintenance plan in cooperation with other concerned organizations, including the CHA, and in October 2021, we finished the surrounding area maintenance project which cost 1.6 billion won. At present, through commissioned research, we are trying to decide where to erect the Buddha. I will do my best to plan to properly enshrine the Buddha in close cooperation with the Buddhist and academic communities.”
Lim Yeong-ae, professor of Dept. of Cultural Property Studies at Dongguk University and a member of CHA’s Cultural Property Committee, said in the same vein, “For proper restoration, it is important to find the original location of the Buddha. The research commissioned by Gyeongju City is also discussing this matter.” She further stressed, saying, “The Buddha must have slid downhill when the earthquake hit during the Joseon era. We have to find out its exact, original location. In addition, the direction the Buddha faced needs to be clarified through research.”
Crafted 1,000 years ago, the Buddha probably spent about 600 years looking down on Gyeongju. When we set the 1,000 years of history embodied in the Yeoram Valley Buddha upright, we will be able to see its hidden 1,000-year-old smile. This massive Buddhist project should be a collaboration by Buddhists and Korean citizens alike.
Brief History of the Yeoram Valley Buddha(2007~2022)
May 22, 2007: The Yeoram Valley Buddha was discovered in the process of unearthing stone seated buddhas and surrounding areas in the Yeoram Valley.
Sep. 2007: The site of the fallen Yeoram Valley Buddha was opened to the public, and Ven. Jigwan, then President of the Jogye Order, was invited and an assembly was held.
Mar. 6, 2015 – Nov. 5, 2016: Gyeongju City commissioned research on how best to erect the Buddha.
2017: The Committee of Cultural Properties requested to erect the Buddha after a simulation of the plan was provided.
Apr. 17, 2019: The Jogye Order launched the “One Million Vows Assembly.”
Jun. 2020 – Sep. 2021: “Surrounding Area Maintenance Project” for the Buddha was performed.
Nov. 22, 2021: “Prayer Assembly for Proper Enshrinement of the Yeoram Valley Buddha”was held.
Oct. 5, 2022: Ven. Jinu proposed “erecting the Yeoram Valley Buddha” to citizens in his inaugural speech
Oct. 31, 2022: “Informing Ceremony for Proper Enshrinement of the Yeoram Valley Buddha”
Shin Seong-min specialized in history in college. He began working as a reporter for the Buddhist weekly Jugan bulgyo in 2004, and later moved to the Buddhist Television Network. Currently he works as lead reporter at Hyundai bulgyo sinmun.