Common Sense and the 1000 Buddhas of Unju Temple


In university, I took an introductory philosophy class with Dr. Nick Webb. It was one of the few classes outside of my studio classes that I really enjoyed, and probably influenced my way of thinking better than any other class I’d taken. One class, he briefly brought up the topic of common sense and asked if we thought there really is such a thing. Like most topics he confronted us with, it was one that I’d never considered on my own. That was about six years ago, and I still haven’t thought about it a whole lot, but every once in a while it comes back to me for a time than funnels back down into the depths of my unconscious.

Sorting through some old photos this week, I came across a group of shots from a particular trip that really got me thinking about common sense again. At this point in my thinking, I’m settled on the theory that common sense is quite relative. I wonder if there are factors in common sense, like geography, age, or what age you were born in. Common sense in villages I passed through in India or Nepal is probably different from the common sense of the people from the small village I grew up in. My own sense didn’t seem to be on par with most of the people I grew up around, or the people I met in Nepal and India for that matter. Of all our senses, any that could be deemed universally sensible don’t seem to be very common, or at least  from my point of view.

Over a thousand years ago, in Korea, it was common sense that the larger allotment of mountains in the south-eastern region of the peninsula created such an imbalance that the peninsula was at risk of capsizing. Fortunately, the monk DoSeonGukSa took matters into his own hands and prayed to the heavens to send down a few masons to carve 1000 stone Buddhas and 1000 stone pagodas to balance things out. All night they chiseled and carved until they heard the first sound of a roosters crow, signally their time to return to the heavens. If only roosters had a snooze button, maybe they would have had time to complete their task, but as it was, roosters being of the nature to cock-a-doodle when they do, two large stone Buddhas were left lying in the hills.

“They” say that a better explanation for all the statues and pagodas is that the temple had been opened as a place to train masons in religious carving, but what have “they” ever known? I think “they” have always relied too much on common sense, anyway. In 1432, regardless of their origin, it was documented that the temple ground was occupied by 1000 stone Buddhas and 1000 stone pagodas. After more than a millennium and a Kingdom switching from Buddhist to Neo-Confucius, only 91 Buddhas still scatter the area. Visiting the temple is kind of like visiting an outdoor museum with Buddhas lined up along the paths and tucked it the trees. Most have little left to identify them by, but they have their charm. Their features are simple and a bit awkward, common among themselves but unique to the temple. The pagodas, having to contend with the factor of gravity are even worse off, but a few of the 21 still standing are remarkable. One is designed with seven concave disks, rather than the usually square stones. Just before it, sit a house-like, single storey pagoda with a pair of rather stalky, square looking Buddhas rooted in prayer inside. They look as though they may be long lost relatives  of the folks over at Easter Island, but they’ll never tell… A short hike up the slope, nestled in the pines are the two “Wa-Bul”, Lying Buddhas. They’re big enough that I can see why the poor mason who carved them, heavenly or otherwise, would have booked it back to the clouds rather than try to lift them. There must have been some other heavenly beings better suited for the task, and if they weren’t willing to do it, we can’t very well blame our friend, the mason.

Part of the charm of the temple is that I had to take a bus from Gwangju about 40km to nowhere then transfer there to the bus that dropped me off a couple of km from the temple. The countryside is covered in old buildings, rice fields, and small, pointy, green mountains. Not a single apartment building to be seen in any direction, only the locals tending their gardens. It’s places like these that make me feel happy to be in Korea.

Namo Ji Jang Bosal

Namo Ji Jang Bosal

> photo album <



3 responses »

    • Ya, it took me a while to take the opportunity to get there even after I’d read about it. It’s not close at all to anywhere else you’d ever have a reason to be.
      I always think these places are worth the trip though!

  1. Joseph, I’s so looking forward to resuming our face-to-face dialogues when you’re home again. Few people are as willing as you to peer into the multiple layers of reality beneath the surface of all their sight encounters. You excavate the living essence of a place with your sharp mind but leave it intact as you continue on your way … though perhaps your kind attention leaves a subtle energetic impression.

    Hmmmm, common sense… it’s often said that it is not so common anymore. No wonder, considering the relentless bombardment of our senses with media-generated imagery, artificial stimuli and electronic energy impulses that disrupt our capacity to access our native intelligence.

    To whatever extent it remains intact or is utilized, I believe that common sense is an expression of practical wisdom– both acquired and intuitive knowledge that springs not so much from thought or intellect, as from the cumulative observations and experiential outcomes of daily life. It’s the unification of sensory input that puts two and two together and, without judgement or doubt, gets four.

    Stories and beliefs are, in my understanding, the domain of shared mythology and unique to specific cultural/ethnic groups; though according to Carl Jung, humanity does dip into a common pool of archetypal motifs that appear with uncommon similarity and vigor in our dreams and creative manifestations. Such things are culturally acquired and binding, contribute to the collective consciousness of a people and imbue inexplainable phenomena with larger than life possibilities. Generally, although these phenomena are initially perceived and assimilated via the sensory channels, their acceptance is predicated on a faith that leapfrogs over common sense.

    Haha, I just had one of “those moments” that lifted me out of my English Lit mindset and set me down shaking my head in wonder at how amazing everything is! I clicked on your photo album so I could see more of the statues. The monolithic simplicity of their design made me wonder if local farmers had constructed them, especially when I viewed the vast expanses of rock-free farmland. Then my thoughts ran to you and your curiosity in seeking this and other off-the-beaten path places.

    Suddenly a familiar phrase and its accompanying character from my childhood jumped into play: “Kilroy Was Here!” I smiled as I recalled the simple line drawn cartoon figure of a pair of eyes and large, bulbous nose hanging over a wall, represented by a straight line over which the nose extended. We saw it often back in the 1950s, usually as graffiti on buildings. It was even carved into the wood of the entryway of our house. I mused that you were like Kilroy, traveling and observing with no ulterior motive than to see and share with others, “I was here.”

    As my reverie continued I heard your voice in my head asking where Kilroy originated… and I didn’t know. So, I googled him and, much to my surprise, the first entry said he originated with soldiers serving in WW II and in Korea! As I dug deeper, I found myself launched onto a site showing ancient Irish monolithic stone structures with Celtic symbols cut into their faces, called Oghams. The paragraph closed with this disclosure: “Kilroy, son of Here” seems to be the basic message type carried by the markings.”

    Then, this passage from an Isaac Asimov novel: “This moment must not pass unforgotten into history. …others would know it. They might not know they know it, but someone perhaps would repeat the message to himself. Someone would read it and know that along with all the heroes of the twentieth century was the ‘pure observer’ … He was there!”

    Hmmmm, is it common sense now telling me there’s always more to things than meets the eye!

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