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2018 travel diary 3 – The Smile of Baekje

10 – 11 November 2018. My trips to Korea are usually preceded by a hurried piece of research on the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) website trying to find out what notable items of tangible or intangible heritage, or what other historic or scenic sites there might be, to attract an inquisitive traveller to the places I propose to visit. According to the CHA, Taean-gun has five items of interest to nature-lovers and one item of National Heritage, the latter being the Rock-carved Standing Buddha Triad in Dongmun-ri (San 42, Dongmun-ri, Taean-eup, Taean-gun, Chungcheongnam-do, National Treasure #307). For this trip, I would prioritse Taean-gun’s tangible heritage, leaving the county’s four Natural Monuments and one Scenic Site for another visit.

The Buddha Triad was carved onto the rock face in the late 6th century, and is now in the precincts of Taeeulam, a more recently established small temple near the top of Baekhwasan, the highest hill in the county. You can take your car up the hill along a narrow tree-lined road until you get to a small parking area outside the temple. The day we chose, the Autumn colours were past their best, but still quite impressive.

The rock carving, known as 태안 마애 삼존불입상, is easy to find, and has relatively recently been protected by the construction of a traditional-style pavilion that aims to divert the worst of the rainfall from the rock face. The carving is sadly rather eroded, and it is now difficult to discern that the central Bodhisattva in the triad has a “calm smile” on its “oval, plump face” and that the larger outer figures share the same “engaging smile on a voluminous face”: you have to take on trust what the CHA tells you on its website. Judging by colonial era photographs that decorated some nearby construction hoardings the worst part of that erosion has occurred in the last 80 years. Assiduous googling will turn up academic research papers that study the deterioration of this treasure over the years.

태안 마애 삼존불입상
태안 마애 삼존불입상

Photographs of the triad on the Cultural Heritage Administration website were taken before these protective steps were made; one appreciates the unobstructed view of the carving, and it is sad that the protection has become necessary. The website describes the treasure thus, highlighting its importance as the earliest Baekje carving of its kind, and noting the Chinese influences behind it:

Representing the earlier forms of Korean rock-carved images of Buddha, the Standing Rock-Carved Triad Buddha in Taean-gun features a Bodhisattva flanked by two Buddha images in a square niche on a fan-shaped rock in a unique formation, different from a typical triad arrangement of one Buddha image at the centre accompanied by two Bodhisattvas at each side.

The two Buddha images share almost the same details of an engaging smile on a voluminous face, wide shoulders and a sturdy body, U-shaped wrinkles, the way of putting on the robe, and thick but sharp lotus petals of the pedestal.

태안 마애 삼존불입상
태안 마애 삼존불입상

Standing between the two Buddha images, a little smaller in size, is the Bodhisattva statue wearing a coronet, which has no pattern presently but is thought to have had one before…

With its lotus pedestal of the Baekje period, Standing Rock-carved Triad Buddha in Taean-gun is recognized as having exceptional sculptural value.

Located at a key point for cultural exchange with China, this work of art is also essential in studying the mutual relations with Chinese Buddhist statues.

Its formative patterns preceding even those of Rock-carved Buddha Triad in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan (National Treasure No. 84) assure its historic value as a national treasure and the oldest rock-carved Buddha image of the Baekje period.

The triad’s importance was not recognised until relatively recently, perhaps because of its more humble and eroded presentation: it was only included in the national heritage register in 2004, 42 years later than its more famous near-neighbour in Seosan-si that we would visit the next day. But as noted above, the Taean triad is earlier – perhaps because it was closer to the coast and thus to influences from China. The Korean Tourism Organisation website highlights the geographical importance of Taeeulam and Taean-gun, “located on the Western coast, providing opportunities to interact with China and Chinese culture”.

But this proximity to the sea also had its downside in the era of the raids by Japanese pirates. In fact Baekhwasan has a good view of the West Sea (or should have: on the day I was there the atmospheric pollution meant that the sea was obscured in a grey haze), and on the peak is a beacon that would be lit to warn of pirate incursions. There used to be a small fort on the mountain top, but not much remains of it nowadays. Nevertheless, the brief walk to the top of Baekhwasan from the rock carving is recommended for the fine views of the county.

Map of the Taean peninsula
Map of the Taean peninsula showing Chollipo (site of the famous arboretum), Taeeulam (the Taean Buddha Triad), the Seosan Buddha triad and (see next post) the former site of Gayasa

The next day we make our way to the other rock-carved Buddha Triad in the area, situated in the next county, Seosan-si. And while the smiles on the Taean triad are something you have to imagine, you have to make no such creative leap with the Seosan triad: in fact the carving has become known as the Smile of Baekje (백제의 미소, and, less poetically, 마애여래삼존상)

On the way there, we come across a flock of Buddhist faithful gathered at the side of a reservoir, the hills in the background caught perfectly in the reflections of the early morning stillness. A couple of monks are chanting and striking their moktaks. We stop for a moment to enquire what is going on, and are told that it is a ceremony for releasing fish into the lake. The religious practice, which sometimes involves acquiring animals from markets and then releasing them back into the wild, is often done by Buddhists to gain merits from the heavens – though often the release of species into non-native environments can cause problems for the local ecosystem.

The start of the trail leading to the Smile of Baekje
The start of the trail leading to the Smile of Baekje

A short drive South from the reservoir, up a narrow wooded valley with rocky sides that form the foothills of Gayasa, is national treasure number 84: the rock-carved Buddha Triad in Yonghyeon-ri, Seosan. Two comical Jangseung totem poles mark the start of a short trail that leads across a footbridge over a stream and up the hill the other side. Their earth-bound grins are in sharp contrast to the beatific smiles that await on the rockface above. As we approach the site we begin to hear more sounds of Buddhist chant: a group of worshippers are holding a brief open-air ceremony in front of the carving. As they finish, they hand around snacks of fruits and nuts to anyone they can find.

Once the worshippers have gone back down the hill, it is possible to appreciate the serenity of the site. The smiling central Buddha looks strangely familiar; and I realise later I return home that I have seen it before, in the Buyeo National Museum that houses the famous Baekje incense burner: though of course the version in the museum is a reproduction.

The triad, carved in the later years of the Baekje kingdom, depicts Shakyamuni Buddha in the centre, nearly 3 metres tall; on the left is a standing Dipamkara Buddha and on the right is a half-seated Maitreya in meditation. The Buddha triad was a common theme popular in Northeast Asia in the 6th-7th centuries – as evidenced by the earlier tried in Taean-gun – but apparently one containing both a standing and a half-seated Bodhisattva holding a treasure gem is a composition not found in China, Japan or the Goguryo or Silla kingdoms.

The Smile of Baekje

The Seosan Buddha triad is much better preserved than the earlier triad in Taean-gun, and the peaceful, approachable smiles on their faces easily and clearly delineated with a graceful, flowing sculptural skill. According to an information board at the site:

The rich benign smile of the Buddha, the warm gentle smile of the standing bodhisattva, and the innocent smile of the half-seated maitreya evince the compassion and benevolence unique to Baekje. The smiles change subtly depending on the angle of the sunlight. Because the images directly face the rising sun on the morning of the Winter Solstice, they receive ample sunlight but are protected from rain and wind by the steep slope. The aesthetic beauty and fine carving of these images make them touch our hearts.

The Smile of Baekje

Seosan-si was a strategic point on the transmission route of Chinese Buddhist culture to Buyeo, the capital of Baekje, via the Taean Peninsula. It was a place where Buddhist culture was flourishing in the 6th century, and the Seosan Rock-carved Buddha Triad Image is evidence of this. In general, Buddhist statues of Baekje are largely divided into refined ones outstanding in the beauty of balance and giving the feeling of elegance and folksy ones gentle but majestic. The Seosan Rock-carved Buddha Triad Image is a representative case of the second group.

The carving is a pleasure to contemplate in its own right, but the achievements of the sculptors are put into greater context when looking at the whole setting: the triad overlooks the valley with a benign blessing, despite being overhung by the craggy and threatening rocks of the cliff-face above.

The Smile of Baekje


All photos by LKL

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