Born-Again Buddhist Monk Express His Faith in Art

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Born-Again Buddhist Monk Express His Faith in Art

Tom clothes, a broken watch, a shirt decorated with ragged patches. This is appropriate attire, perhaps, for a beggar or a lunatic. It is also the outward appearance of one of Korea's most famous-or notorious-monks.

Reverend Jung-gwang, now 65, became a monk at 26. At first he was well received in Buddhist circles, becoming a high-flying member of Korea's main Buddhist sect, the Chogye order. But in 1979 the sect disowned him because of what it considered his increasingly eccentric behavior. For the next 20 years, the man dubbed the "Ragged Monk" swore, drank and smoked, mocking a world he perceived as "stuffy." Along the way, he won fame as an artist.

"Damm" he says, "if no one will listen to what I have to say, I'd better speak up."

Mr. Jung-gwang returned to his faith in 1997 after a meeting with the Reverend Oh-hyun at the Baekdam Temple, where he spent three years. There he received his new Buddhist name, Nong-am.

Although he has given up smoking and drinking, his body trembles slightly.

"I left Baekdam Temple in August," says the born-again monk. He speaks with a slight stutter, but without any of the curse words he was famous for. "Right now," he said, "I'm living in a clay house in Gonjiam, observing nature and the wind."

But Mr. Nong-am has been busy. His exhibition of paintings of Dharma-the figure said to have founded Zen Buddhism in Korea-opened on Oct 25 and will run until Nov. 8 at the Gana Art Center in Pyungchang Dong, Seoul. The 50 paintings of Dharma on display were products of his time at Baekdam Temple.

It is his first private exhibition since 1996.

Each Dharma painting is special in its own way. The 50 paintings reveal as many different aspects of Dharma: a Dharma with a long tobacco pipe and a dangling straw shoe, a Dharma crouching with his back turned from the moon, a Dharma with a large back topped by a small head, a Dharma with a head shaped like an arrow, a humorous Dharma with a head held high and big eyes, a hideous Dharma, a Dharma made of nothing but frightening eyes. All of them look the viewer in the eye.

Strong and simple lines portray the Dharmas in their many forms. The art critic Lee Il described Mr. Nong-am's paintings as childlike and compared them to works by Paul Klee and Henri Matisse. Mr. Nong-am's latest painting is indeed childlike in appearance and even incorporates the squares of colored paper used by Korean children to make origami shapes. He has cut out a nose from the canvas. The paintings have a hue of innocence-almost as if the artist has indeed been "born again" into a second childhood. Spectators at the exhibition commented on the sincerity and emotional accessibility of the works. They take a religious figure as their subject, but they are intimate, warm, human expressions of religious experience.

Mr. Nong-am held his first exhibition in 1983 at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York , where he won an award. In 1992, he was a guest at the Los Angeles Art Fair. His paintings are on display in many galleries including the British Museum. His works have been featured on American, British and Japanese television.

The artist also has plans to show porcelain works he created in the 1980s and oil paintings from the 1990s.

by Cho Hyun-uk

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