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The Sarira Casket

Matthew Jackson describes one of the Buddhist treasures in the Seoul National Museum.

The Sarira casket
The Sarira casket

Of the few people I have asked who have visited the Seoul National Museum, no one has mentioned the Gameunsa Sarira Casket as the high point of their tour. When I visited the museum myself, even though I was specifically looking out for it, it became clear to me why. At a first glance, in room crowded full of exhibits, its initial appearance does not suggest anything special. Yet this masterpiece of gold artwork must surely rank among the greatest cultural exhibits Korea has to offer the world, both for its unique detail, and its profound religious symbolism.

Gold granules on the Sarira Casket
The real deal – gold granules on the Sarira Casket

Sarira reliquaries originated in India, and were made to enshrine the remains of a Buddha or enlightened masters. The Gameunsa sarira reliquary was made 1,300 years ago in the Kingdom of Silla, and it was discovered at the base of a stone pagoda in 1996. Consisting of an inner and outer box, it is delicate and exquisitely beautiful, with depictions and sculptures of guardian deities exhibiting lifelike qualities. A fuller description of the reliquary can be found here. The features of the box which drew greatest attention were those invisible to the human eye, and only became apparent upon a detailed inspection. In particular, minute 0.3 mm golden granule ornaments found soldered to the surface of the reliquary in various places, including the wind chime. Attempts to recreate these ornaments with modern technology, including the use of magnifiers and precision heating, have produced inferior results (below left). The difference in melting point between the gold and the solder was less than 20°C. Despite operating with charcoal-generated heat, and applying a temperature of over 1000°C, the craftsmen were able to melt the solder without melting the gold.

The modern attempt
The modern attempt – today’s techniques cannot reproduce the detail

It remained to me a mystery until recently how craftsmen 1300 years ago were able to achieve better results with charcoal generated heat, and without the aid of magnification devices, in making objects that were too small to see or even feel. The answer, as explained to me by a Korean acquaintance, was the state of mind in which the reliquary was made: the Kingdom of Silla was home to many Buddhist masters who taught those who visited them how to cultivate the mind. The work of the Silla craftsmen reflects the calmness of a cultivated mind, which enabled them to devote themselves to what they were doing, so that 0.3mm appeared to them to be 3cm. A similar example of this is the Tripitaka Koreana, another work of devotion that consists of 50 million characters carved in wood (provide link to video), and contains no recognized errors. The woodblock engravers are said to have bowed to Buddha before carving each letter.

Sarira Casket - detail
Sarira Casket – detail (with rice grain)

If you ever find yourself in Seoul, visit the museum and see if you can find the Sarira reliquary. Or see it on the big screen at the Korean Cultural Centre any Saturday this month or in October. If you are in Brussels at any time from early October to early January, you can see other fine examples of Korean Buddhist Art at the Bozar ‘Smile of Buddha exhibition’. Hopefully, the hidden treasures of Korea will not remain a secret for much longer.

The Reliquaries from the East Three-storey Stone Pagoda at Gameunsa Temple Site are Treasure #1359. The pagoda in which they were found is National Treasure #112

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