Pondering this art can help you ‘discover the truth’When she first saw a mandala, Buddhist and Hindu art symbolizing the state of enlightenment, the Venerable Donghwi felt drawn to the mysticism and intense colors. With little information available in Korea on these renderings, she decided to visit the place of the art’s origin.
For 10 years, Ms. Donghwi, who is a female Buddhist monk, or a biguni in Korean, has combed Tibet and Nepal, looking for mandalas, circular tantric diagrams. Her travels have taken her to Mount Everest, where she happened to meet the Hollywood actor, Steven Seagal, on a Buddhist pilgrimage.
Her sense of discovery has led her on a series of hopeful wanderings. She says success is finding a temple or monastery with a good collection of mandalas. She gives a helping hand there, and often the monks give her a mandala.
After a decade of trekking the globe, Ms. Donghwi says she felt the need to share her spiritual treasure; she opened an exhibition called, “Mandala, a Wheel of Eternal Time” at Buril Art Gallery in Samcheong-dong, near Gwanghwamun.
The exhibition, Ms. Donghwi says, is the first of its kind in Korea. Among the various kinds of mandalas, she sorted out more than 100 pieces under the theme kala chakra, which means “wheel of eternal time” in Sanskrit. The word mandala originated from the Sanskrit for “a perfect world” or “a circle that has the ability to heal.”
Mandalas are used in Tibetan Buddhist rituals. Monks create mandalas from colored sand or grains of rice, with the first brush stroke always on a grain of rice, which symbolizes the beginning of all living things. Mandalas are created in the five primary colors -- white, blue, yellow, red and green, which represent the five elements of the world ― earth, water, fire, wind and air. Mandalas are filled with symbols that stand for fortune, devils, Buddha’s penance and enlightenment.
“At first glance, mandalas might be perplexing,” Ms. Donghwi says, “but if you take your time to appreciate the art slowly and steadily, you start to understand the meaning.” She says she uses mandalas when teaching Buddha’s truth to children. “I was amazed at children telling me, ‘this painting is like an eye of the Buddha, seeing the world.’ That is the exact sentence from the Sutras: ‘See the world with Buddha’s eyes.’”
But what can people gain from seeing the world in such a fashion? “Humankind does not know where to go. You may know where to go to work or sleep. But where will life have taken you decades from now? You don’t know,” Ms. Donghwi says. “Mandala is a guidepost, showing the way to the spiritual awakening in the end. Just follow the path inside the mandala.”
By enlightenment, Ms. Donghwi does not mean the truth far away in the universe. “The truth is simple and amazingly close to us,” she says, “because the truth is the realization that you are the Buddha.”
To reach such simple truth is easy,” she says. “As people ask for good food to please their mouth, they need to feed their eyes with good things, which would be a mandala. Your eyes are your windows on the world. You become what you see, eat, hear and do.”
Ms. Donghwi says that if people just look at a mandala, not trying to understand the art, they get a basic understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. “Well, I don’t like reading books and scriptures for myself,” she says jokingly. Then turning serious, she says, “People want to be a king. All you have to do is become mentally ready and just be a king. But what they invariably do is start with the material world, building a castle, which is the beginning of their agony.”
Visitors to the Buril exhibition, which opened earlier this month, have been moved by the mandalas. Bruce James, a tourist from Scotland, who stopped by on a whim on Sunday, says, “I don’t exactly know what they would mean, but somehow I am drawn to the paintings. I especially like the vivid colors.”
With two exhibition rooms filled with spectators immersed in the art, Ms. Donghwi is acting as a guide. Kim Eun-kyung, 20, an art major, expresses his surprise at and gratitude for finding these works of art. “Growing up in a Buddhist family, my dream has been to graft mandala with plastic art. I’ve been thirsty for information about mandala available in Korea and am happy to come across this exhibition.”
“Mandalas may look all the same at first glance, but if you give a good look at each of them, you will realize the differences,” Ms. Donghwi says. “If you happen to come across a mandala to which you are attracted more than any other, that is your mandala.”
Every day, starting at 3 p.m., gallery visitors have the chance to watch five Tibetan monks draw mandalas. Kunsang Doreche Lama, who has been creating mandalas for 33 years, ever since he renounced the material world at age 7, is the leader of the group. “With every single stroke, I remind myself of the teachings of the Buddha,” he says. Because painting a mandala is seen as an acetic exercise in itself, monks recite the Sutra or pay respect to the Buddha after finishing each part of the work. It takes three months on average to finish a mandala. Ms. Donghwi says the Tibetan monks can explain the mandalas in English.
She says she believes that the truth rises above religion, and as such, visiting the exhibition would hold meaning during the Christmas season.
“With this exhibition, I just want to share the road to the truth,” Ms. Donghwi says, “after all, you are the Buddha yourself. All you have to do is to realize it with the help of mandala.”
by Chun Su-jin
The exhibition runs through Dec. 30 at Buril Art Gallery inside Byeopryeon Temple. Admission is free. To reach the gallery, take line No. 3 toAnguk Station and use exit 1. For more information, call (02) 3673-3886.