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Tales from the past: The Nine Dragons and 53 Buddhas

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An image of the 53 Buddhas, circa 1892 / Courtesy of Brother Anthony, An Sonjae
An image of the 53 Buddhas, circa 1892 / Courtesy of Brother Anthony, An Sonjae

By Robert Neff

Nine Dragon Waterfall, circa 1930-1940s
Nine Dragon Waterfall, circa 1930-1940s
Images of modern North Korea always generate a fair amount of interest mainly due to the relative inaccessibility of that country. But even before the division of the Korean Peninsula, images of the North were rare for the same reason ― it was generally inaccessible due to the terrain.

One of the early Westerners to travel in the Diamond Mountains (Geumgangsan) was William Scranton, an American missionary, who was there in the mid-1890s.

He visited one of the greatest temple complexes in northern Korea and while he apparently didn't take pictures of it, he did write about the legend surrounding its foundation. It should be noted that there are several variations of this tale but I will confine myself to using only Scranton's.

According to him, some 3000 years ago there were 53 Buddhas residing in India quietly contemplating where they should go and dwell. They sent their spirits in all directions and eventually decided on the Diamond Mountains of Korea.

They set out in a great stone boat. The journey passed quickly without incident until they were about 40 li (20 kilometers) off the Korean coast near Ko-seung village when their boat foundered due to the negligence of its captain.

"Unharmed, the Buddhas walked ashore on the surface of the water, and summoned, judged and condemned the boatman to perpetual imprisonment in a massive rock nearby," Scranton wrote. Of course, an event like this did not go unnoticed and No Chon-si (the magistrate of Ko-seung) and his wife quickly arrived and offered their help to the Buddhas.

One of the many streams and valleys of the Diamond Mountains, circa 1920s
One of the many streams and valleys of the Diamond Mountains, circa 1920s

The Buddhas agreed to allow them to join in the "momentous undertaking of the planting of Buddhism in Korea," only if they "lay aside and leave behind all worldliness and the care for worldly things."

They readily agreed and set out for the peak that the Buddhas had seen in their vision. Despite her eagerness to please not only the Buddhas but her husband, No Chon-si's wife was unable to abide by the terms.

As soon as the party arrived at the base of the mountain, a great thunderstorm began and the falling rain caused her to remember the cotton she had left at home drying in the open.

"Thus, like Lot's wife, her faith in the things before was tried and found wanting" and she was not permitted to accompany her husband, but she was "granted the honor of a way-side shrine" ― known as Chang-go. Scranton observed that her spirit was still worshipped at the shrine.

Forced to leave his wife behind, No Chon-si and the 53 Buddhas continued up the mountain until they reached a great lake. The Buddhas decided that this would be their new home but the lake was already occupied by nine great dragons.

A rustic view of the mountain range, circa 1920s (054b)
A rustic view of the mountain range, circa 1920s (054b)

The Buddhas summoned the dragons and offered what "inducements" they could but the dragons refused to give up their home.

They flew into the heavens and summoned a great storm, and raindrops ― the size of a human's fist ― pelted the Buddhas. The dragons were beseeched to return to their lake and dwell in peace, and for a time the region was calm.

The Buddhas, however, were not content. They had a symbol written "bold and large" and secretly slipped into the lake.

This caused the water to grow warmer and warmer and steam began to arise in dense blinding clouds, "and for the time that lake became one of the 84,000 Buddhistic bells, which even dragons of miraculous power cannot endure. They precipitately fled. Some, in their agonized anger, leaped over the mountain tops" while others went through the mountain. As evidence of their passage, there is a large hole in the mountain's side.

The region was devastated with broken peaks and boulders thrown about. But the dragons were no match for the 53 Buddhas and they were forced to flee to a spot some 30 li (15 kilometers) away that came to be known as the Pool of Nine Dragons.

"Having the lake now at their own pleasure, the Buddhas proceeded, with premeditated zeal, to fill in the beautiful lake; first, with charcoal, and little by little with soil" and upon this was built the large temple complex of Yujeomsa.

"The original Buddhas were all of solid gold, but knowing the avarice of men, and fearing lest their benign intention should be thwarted and they be made into rings, hairpins and vain and valueless ornaments only, they took their abode in the center of the stone pagoda in front of the chief shrine, and you can see only their facsimiles today," Scranton wrote.

"They are of all sizes, from a few inches in height, to a foot, gilt if not golden - and they still sit and contemplate as of yore."

Yujeomsa Temple, circa 1920s-1940s
Yujeomsa Temple, circa 1920s-1940s

After Scranton's visit, for nearly six decades the Buddhas and their temple complex remained relatively unmolested and, in fact, were maintained as a tourist destination under the Japanese occupation.

At some point, 51 of the Buddhas were photographed ― what became of the other two is unclear.

The tranquility of the region was broken during the Korean War and rumors of it being a base for the North Korean army lead to its destruction by American forces. Only the foundations remain.


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