To Create a Buddhist Sculpture, First You Pray

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To Create a Buddhist Sculpture, First You Pray

For centuries, sculpting a Buddhist statue has been compared to treading the long and arduous path to Buddhist enlightenment. It is not a job anybody can do. A Buddhist priest who was able to carve a Buddhist image - "adding a Buddha outside to the one inside" - was called bulmo, the mother of Buddha.

One sculptor continues the tradition of creating Buddhist images. Park Chan-soo is skilled enough to be considered a bulmo by many, including the government, which has designated him an intangible cultural asset. He is also the director of the Mok-A Museum in Kyonggi province, which opened in 1993 in his honor. Mok-A, which literally means "wooden self," is Mr. Park's Buddhist name, given to him by the former chief priest of Jikjisa temple. The name seems perfectly suited to a devoted wood sculptor. "Wood sculpting can be compared to bringing life to a dead tree. It is just like a bud that grows out of a dead log and brings life back to the log. It is also similar to entering nirvana [supreme enlightenment] in Buddhism," Mr. Park said.

Mr. Park's life as a sculptor began by chance. When he was a child he lived in the same neighborhood as a carver who used to make small souvenirs and wood carvings. After teaching the young Park for about a year and a half, the carver saw talent in the boy and recommended that he receive a proper school education. At school, his talent in sculpture was again noticed by an art teacher, who introduced Park to Lee Un-sik, a famous sculptor. Mr. Park learned the basics of sculpting in various materials such as wood, stone and bronze from Mr. Lee.

Mr. Park began to make his name nationally when, at the first Danwon Arts Festival in 1982, he won the Grand Prize for his "Samjonbulsang" ("Maitreya Triad"). He later won many prestigious awards including the President's Prize at the Korea National Crafts Exhibition in 1989 for his beopsang, a chair that a Buddhist priest sits in when preaching.

Carving a Buddhist sculpture begins with a prayer for good materials. After that, Mr. Park selects a good tree, cuts it down and removes the bark. He then leaves the log to dry until it is ready to be used. He makes a rough sketch of what he intends to carve on the piece of lumber and maps out the dimensions of the sculpture.

He begins actual carving with a process called geotmok, the rough shaping of the log. Based on the sketch he has drawn, he trims the log and hollows it out. This prevents the finished sculpture from warping and also leaves room for bokjang, treasures such as gold and silver that are placed inside Buddhist sculptures.

When he carves the face of the sculpture, he considers how it will appear when seen from below. He pays no less attention to the garments worn by the Buddha, delicately carving such details as the hems. When he is done with the main body, he moves on to carve the daejwa, the statue stand, and the gwangbae, a kind of halo that appears behind the statue's head to symbolize Buddha's godliness. He finishes the sculpture by coloring it or gilding it with gold leaf.

Mr. Park is known mostly as a Buddhist sculptor but his works are not limited to the Buddhist theme. He has also produced many folk pieces such as the traditional Korean totem poles and masks.

Mok-A Museum

In the main building of the museum are four exhibition halls containing some precious Buddhist relics as well as many interesting sculptures by Mr. Park. They include his "Obaek-Nahansang," a sculpture of 500 Buddhist priests attaining enlightenment. It took over five years to complete the sculpture, which is made from 16 different kinds of wood.

The museum also has an outdoor sculpture park, a tea house that serves a variety of Korean traditional teas and a gift shop that sells small wooden sculptures. The museum is open between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Admission costs 3,000 won (about $2.30) for adults and 1,000 won for children.

For more information, contact the web site at (English version available) or call 031-885-9952 (Korean service only).

by Chang Hye-soo

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