Usually, I am on a quest to find old houses or buildings. “Old” in this case means finding buildings or homes from the Japanese colonial era of 1910-1945. I always keep my eyes and ears, ready to discover a new place to explore. Recently, I have found myself on a quest to examine things, even older.
Last month, David A. Mason wrote about some recently discovered sanshin bas reliefs on Inwangsan. According to this article, these particular carvings dated back to the 1900s. The bas reliefs were found after the military handed back a portion of land on the mountain back to the public. I love hiking around Inwangsan and am fascinated by the shamanistic history surrounding the place that I made multiple trips to document the carvings.
Around the same time I came across the sanshin discoveries, I read a Korea Times article written by Robert Neff about some of Korea’s first foreigners’ impressions of the White Buddha bas relief along the Hongjecheon. I had never heard of this White Buddha before. Turns out, it’s pretty close to where I currently reside. After a simple google search of “White Buddha Seoul,” a plethora of old black and white photos dating from the late 19th, early 20th century, appeared and I knew I had to see it for myself. The White Buddha was one of the major tourist destinations for foreigners living in Korea at the time.
The oldest cliff art I went to see was the man and women Mireuk Bosal figures in Paju. They date back to the Koryo Dynasty, which means these statues are around a thousand years old and have survived TWO Japanese invasions, an occupation, and the Korean War. Allen D. Clark and Donald N. Clark 1969 book, Seoul; Past and Present: A Guide to Yi Taejo’s Capital, inspired me to search them out. The Clark Brothers book also provided some information about the White Buddha as well.
White Buddha along the Hongjecheon
I haven’t been able to find a straight forward answer about when this bas relief of a Bodhisattva was completed. In fact, it seems nobody has a definitive answer. There isn’t an inscription on the rock, nor are there any written records that document who and why someone carved it. The White Buddha may date to the late 13th century. I highly recommend reading Samuel Alexander Denny Jr’s informative article to learn what is known and what is the stuff of legend associated with this carving.
Sanshin and Mireuk Buddhas of Inwangsan
As I mentioned before, as soon as I heard about these carvings, I made it my mission to find the four sanshin bas reliefs discovered on Inwangsan in January of this year. It is estimated that these four carvings date back to around the year 1900. A military base was recently decommissioned, and the land returned to the public, now there is a park commemorating the military base along with additional hiking trails to explore Inwangsan. The first two sanshin renderings are easy to find. The third one is located on the way to the Seokgulam hermitage. For those who don’t know, there isn’t an easy hike on Inwangsan. The elevation of Inwangsan might be smaller than other mountains, but a walk on Inwangsan gets steep and rugged quick. I found three of the four on my first time visiting, but the last one I couldn’t see until my third visit. I wasn’t easy to find, let alone access. During the four times I have visited, I have also encountered two Mireuk Bosal carvings as well. Mireuk Bosal is also known as Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. One rendering looked new, the other could have been formed in the early 20th century.
The Male and Female Mireuk Buddhas of Paju
The male (round hat) and female (square hat) are estimated to have been carved during the 11th century. Yongamsa was a small temple built along with side these cliffside Bodhisattvas, the temple was destroyed by the Japanese in 1592 and not rebuilt until 1953 by order of President Syngman Rhee. To honor Rhee, the temple put a smaller Buddha statue along with a miniature pagoda on the rock next to the male Mireuk. The mini-icons were taken down after Rhee was thrown out of office. Today, the small statues are on display near the Buddha of Healing, known in Korea as Yaksa yorae.