A brush with fate

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A brush with fate

The Reverend Wonsung is likely one of the few Buddhist monks anywhere who gets fan letters from young women.

A woman in her mid-20s gets right to the point on the monk's Web site: "I know this is wrong to say, but you're so handsome."

The woman says she will show up Wednesday at the art gallery in Baeksang Memorial Hall in central Seoul, where this 29-year-old monk is opening an exhibition. The Reverend Wonsung is an established painter of Buddhist acolytes, who is dedicated to his spiritual life but also achieved worldly success with his temporal pursuits. His latest show of his artwork runs until Oct. 29 at the gallery near the Anguk subway station .

Wonsung's works are known for their delicate, fairy-tale-like and zen-inspired drawings of young monks. Art experts say his paintings in watercolor and ink on mulberry paper approach a sense of the immaculate. Lee Won-bok, a director of art at the National Museum of Korea, says Wonsung's paintings symbolize innocence and display refined painting skills. A local poet, Jeong Ho-seung, says Wonsung is the Buddhist world's Little Prince, the character of great purity and innocence created by the writer and illustrator Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Surprisingly, though, the monk has never had any professional training as a painter.

"I'm happy to work as an amateur forever," he says.

Since his debut as a painter in 1997, the Reverend Wonsung has had 31 exhibitions, including 10 abroad, in cities like New York, Milan and Tokyo. He consistently sells all of his works, as he did at his popular show in New York.

On average, more than 10,000 people come for his exhibitions, and they come from a wide array of backgrounds. Nuns and priests are among his fans. "The Reverend Wonsung has the power to rise above religious boundaries," says a local Catholic nun, Lee Hae-in. "His writings and paintings are candid, friendly and innocent, just like Wonsung himself."

The monk's book collections of paintings and essays aren't up for international prizes yet, but they do have broad appeal with their straightforward, if blunt messages. He elucidates a Buddhist truth in his first book, "Wind Chime," saying, "Excrement does not think it is dirty. There should be no such yardstick to determine what is good and what is bad, for everything in this world is equal."

He recently created 100 new acolyte paintings, under the theme of "Back to Nature," for his exhibition at the Baeksang Gallery. Apart from his prolific painting, Reverend Wonsung finds time for other pursuits. He is an author of three best-selling books, "Punggyeong" (Wind Chime, 1999), "Geoul" (Mirror, 2001) and "Siseon" (Line of Sight, 2002). He has staged piano concerts, and people say he's a good pianist and vocalist. And he's now working on a script for a movie, tentatively titled "The Story of a Mountain Temple."

Maybe he's spreading himself too thin, but the reverend has his reasons, and needs to deliver a message. "As a Hermes for Buddha, I'm just doing my very best to introduce Buddhism in various ways," he says while seated and sipping green tea in his hermit's cell of a room, which is in an apartment building that houses a humble temple in Donam-dong, northeast Seoul.

Tall, with clean-cut features and large, luminous eyes, Wonsung does present a striking appearance. What's more, an engaging smile typically decorates his face. It's little wonder then that his best-selling books feature his photograph.

"Anything can be used to spread the will of the Buddha -- singing, dancing, performing with the circus, not to mention painting -- as long as you do it with pride," he says.

Wonsung's life is not all uninterrupted serenity and creativity, though. One thing that distracts from his works is handling all his fan mail. Scores of letters come every day.

In fact, Wonsung is usually fatigued by his daily routine. He awakes at 4:30 a.m. to pray before the image of Buddha, then proceeds to spend the day in ascetic practices or at worship sessions, allowing little time for repose. He paints at night.

On the Thursday afternoon when this reporter visited, the monk obliged by agreeing to stop and be photographed with his paintings. Through the viewfinder, Wonsung looks like he just stepped out of his works, with his trademark naive visage and heartwarming smile. Actually, he looks more than ready to take pictures of himself. The temple in Donam-dong, in a four-story concrete building, has walls papered over with giant photographs of him. So he is treated as a little prince.

But it wasn't easy becoming a celebrity. About 15 years ago he was Jo Hyeon-il, and just like any other teenage boy, wearing brand-name shoes and the latest hairstyle. He became interested in Buddhism because of his mother, a woman so devoted to the faith that she established the temple, called Daebul Jeongsa, in the gray concrete building. "Mother wanted at least one of her three sons to become a Buddhist monk," he explains. "I originally wanted to be a teacher, so I could take care of the less blessed, but I changed my mind."

At 17, in his second year of high school, he decided to be tonsured, signifying that he would renounce the world. The night before his hair was shorn, his mother threw a big feast, and Wonsung mistakenly thought she was glad he was getting out of her hair. "I was a bit upset that my mom looked so happy," he says. "I felt like I was a bad child being thrown out of the family."

Wonsung first went to Hyangnimsa temple, which is on Surak Mountain in northeastern Seoul. There he underwent a severe discipline course, like the boys in his painting. "The hardest part was winter, when I had to walk an hour and a half from the temple to the school," he recalls. "To wash my face every morning, I had to break the ice in the stream and use the chilly water."

But those hardships were nothing compared with how much he missed his mother. His sorrow is reflected in his early paintings, portraying teary-eyed acolytes. His mother, with all the boys grown up, entered the priesthood in 1998 and took a new name -- the Reverend Geumgang. Now mother and son call each other by their Buddhist names, and are based in the same temple in Donam-dong.

After four years as an acolyte, Wonsung took the Buddhist commandments, which meant he made vows of sobriety, chastity and respect for the sanctity of life. At 21 he entered a college in Seoul for Buddhist monks, majoring in social welfare. Since Wonsung was interested in painting, he joined the painting club. His talent stood out, earning him an offer to have a solo exhibition at the school's fund-raising festival. In May 1997 he held his first exhibition, and all the displayed paintings sold. "It was like a miracle that enlightened my life once again," he says.

In time he found that people particularly liked his paintings of monks, so he decided to focus on them. "The paintings of juvenile Buddhist monks evoke feelings of nostalgia and innocence," Wonsung says. His strategy was successful: He has sold about 1,000 paintings in his short career, to add to about 3 million books sold. "I just consider myself lucky," he says.

Though he has earned a great deal of money, Wonsung refuses to reveal any numbers. He says all the money has been earmarked for an orphanage to be built within 5 years in the Miari area, which is near his temple in Donam-dong.

Does this worldly success compromise the purity of the Buddhist monk? "At first, I was happy that I was successful, but these days it hurts me to think that my boys are selling everywhere," he explains. "I'm not doing this to make it big." He's also worried about his image: "I find myself trying to cement the image more, which makes me feel like a hypocrite."

He can't stop putting on exhibitions, though, when he thinks of the people who like his works. He makes it a principle to show up at the exhibition site every day, for he loves to see people who enter glumly end up leaving touched. "I find people shedding tears in front of my paintings," he says. "That gives me the strength to go on."

His ultimate goal, of course, is to reach nirvana. But his worldly dream is to teach painting at his orphanage: "I'm like a father to the boys in my paintings. I want to make the less blessed know that the world is full of beautiful things, without any standard of good and bad."

For any fan -- male or female -- that's a nice piece of information to know.

To reach the Baeksang Memorial Hall, take subway line No. 3 to Anguk Station and use exit No. 6. For more information, call the gallery at (02) 724-2236, or visit the painter's Web site, www.pungkyung.com.

by Chun Su-jin

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