The Story of Kim Taesong's Establishment of Bulguksa
Kim Taesong was born with a large head and flat forehead. As a child, he was given the name Taesong, meaning "big wall," in reference to these physical features. He lived in poverty with his widowed mother, working the fields of a wealthy man of his village. Eventually, through hard work, was able to build a small hut and acquire a little bit of land. One day, a monk named Chomgae, wanting to hold a large religious gathering at nearby Hungnyunsa, came to the village looking for alms. When he called upon the rich man, he was immediately promised 50 rolls of hemp cloth. In gratitude for such a large donation Chomgae immediately began to preach to the people of the village. He told the assembled villagers that for everything they gave as alms and for every good deed they did they would be repaid ten thousandfold in happiness and longevity.
Hearing this, Taesong ran home to his mother and said, "Despite all the good things we've done in the past we're still poor like this. But today I heard what the monk said. If we don't give something now, we'll be poor forever!" And so Taesong gave his only field to support Chomgae's gathering.
Soon after, Taesong died. But that very night, at his house in Moryangni, Silla's prime minister Kim Munnyang heard a voice from heaven saying that there would be a child born in his home and he would be called Taesong.
That very night Kim Munnyang's wife became pregnant, and seven days later she gave birth to a child who had the two characters "Taesong" inscribed on his palm in golden script. Thus, this child was named Taesong as well.
While growing up, Taesong enjoyed hunting. One day he stalked and killed a bear on T'oham Mountain. When he came down from the mountain, it was already late, so he stayed the night in a village at the mountain's base. While he slept he had a dream in which the angry ghost of the bear returned to confront him. "What did you kill me for? I am going to transform myself, and then I'll kill and eat you!" Taesong was afraid and begged for forgiveness. So the bear's ghost instead demanded that Taesong build a temple for him. Awakening, Taesong reflected on what he had done. From that moment, he gave up hunting and he established a temple called Changsusa on the spot where he had killed the bear. Because of this event, he became more earnest in his devotion to Buddhism, and as a result he erected Bulguksa for his parents in his current life and commissioned Sokkuram for his parents in his past life.
How much of this story is factual is difficult to tell, but what is certain is that by causing Bulguksa to be built during the reign of the Silla King Kyongdok, Kim Taesong has achieved a measure of immortality.
Bulguksa is the most famous Buddhist temple in Korea and the home to a number of important relics from the Silla period, including most obviously the two stone pagodas Tabot'ap and Sokkat'ap. Although it was neither one of the largest Silla temples nor one of the chief temples of the Koryo or Choson periods, Bulguksa has also become an important regional center of the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism. While it has been rebuilt on a number of occasions, much of the present form of the temple can be traced to a major archaeological investigation and reconstruction effort carried out by presidential order between 1969 and 1973. More recently, in December 1995, Bulguksa and Sokkuram were one of three Korean sites to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
528 (Silla King Pophung): A small temple called Hwaom-popnyusa was established on the site.
540-570 (Silla King Chinhung)
661-681 (Silla King Munmu): During this twenty-year period there were lectures on the Hwaom (Flower Garland) Sutra at the Musoljon.
751 (Silla King Kyongdok): Completion of Bulguksa by Prime Minister Kim Tae-song.