[NOTEBOOK]Temple's Giant Statue Raises Eyebrows

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[NOTEBOOK]Temple's Giant Statue Raises Eyebrows

"Haeinsa temple is the center of Korean Buddhism, and yet plans are afoot to create the world's largest statue of Buddha there. This desire to achieve worldly fame by owning 'the largest' or 'the biggest' does not befit a temple that symbolizes the quiet pursuit of spiritual accomplishment. This is not what real Buddhists want."

The above statement was contained in a strongly written appeal by a leading Buddhist priest, Sugyeong, published in a Buddhist newspaper this week. The appeal was titled "Mourning the deaths of Venerable Ja-un and Venerable Seongcheol."

Sugyeong is a Zen priest who has practiced asceticism for about 30 years in meditation centers all over the country, usually deep in the mountains. But last year, upon hearing that the government was planning to build a dam in a valley near Mount Chiri, he emerged from seclusion at Silsangsa temple, itself in the Mount Chiri range, and added his voice to those of environmental groups opposing the project.

It is unusual that such a Zen priest should suddenly criticize Haeinsa temple. Located in South Kyongsang province, it is one of the most prestigious temples in the country.

This time, the reason for the priest's activity is Haeinsa temple's plan, announced last month, to build the biggest bronze Buddhist statue in the world. The statue, a sitting image of Buddha, will loom 43 meters high and 40 meters wide and will cost about 7 billion won ($5.4 million) to build. The statue is set to be completed in 2003, and will stand one kilometer away from the temple entrance.

It is generally understood that one of the best ways to accumulate virtue in Buddhism is to build a statue of Buddha. But the plan to build the biggest such statue in the world at Haeinsa is controversial.

First of all, it does not sit well with the image of the temple. It is about a millennium old and is set at the foot of Mount Gaya. The most famous artifact at the temple is the Tripitaka Koreana. It is a set of over 80,000 wood blocks upon which is carved the Buddhist sutra.

It has been designated as National Treasure No. 32 and is also on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Haeinsa temple is not a tourist attraction that would befit this gargantuan statue, but a temple of tradition, ascetic training and Buddhist teaching.

Instead, some are suggesting that Haeinsa should focus its efforts not on building the statue but on "reviving" the Tripitaka Koreana.

The number of priests who can read and understand the Tripitaka Koreana, which is written in Chinese characters, is dwindling. The translation of the Tripitaka into Korean has for some time been an urgent requirement if the teachings of Buddha are to be broadly accessible.

Lack of funds have meant that it has taken Dongguk University - established by a Buddhist foundation - 37 years to translate the Tripitaka Koreana into Korean. This means that parts of the Tripitaka translated in the 1960s must now be reviewed and reworked into modern Korean. This Korean version of the Tripitaka must also be recorded on computer media and translated into English. This will require talented personnel, education of priests and new software. All this means more money will be needed - money now being spent on the new statue.

It is significant that the priest Sugyeong mentioned the Venerable Seongcheol in his appeal. Haeinsa leaders rebutted criticism of its plans to build the statue by saying that it was the wish of Venerable Seongcheol, but Sugyeong questions this assertion.

We can never know precisely what Venerable Seongcheol would have wanted. But I think Sugyeong has a point when one considers the values Seongcheol emphasized when he was alive: that the most worthy Buddhist work is the practice of Zen meditation and the greatest Buddhist service is to help the poor.


The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang

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