A student of Korea becomes a teacherAt Bongeunsa temple, amid the bustle of Samseong-dong in southern Seoul, a few people are waiting in the help center near the temple’s entrance. One of them, Kim Choon-ki, looks out a side window, sees Louis Morrison coming and waves brightly.
Mr. Morrison waves back, takes his shoes off and walks into the help center. Sitting on mats on the floor, the group waits for a few more students to gather.
This is a class in Buddhist art and architecture, organized through the Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Center. Mr. Morrison, a doctoral candidate in Buddhist art history at the University of Kansas, is the teacher. For this final class, Mr. Morrison asked Ms. Kim, a volunteer at Bongeunsa, to give them a tour of the temple.
“It’s rare to meet a foreign Buddhist in Korea,” Ms. Kim later says, “especially one who can teach you.”
Mr. Morrison likes to call himself a Renaissance man. He’s a self-described political junkie. He holds an MFA in creative writing. He’s fluent in Korean. He teaches Western art history. At present, he’s studying Joseon Dynasty Buddhist painting for his doctorate, but frankly, he’d like to be known for more than that.
Growing up in Hawaii, Mr. Morrison was accustomed to living among different cultures. As an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, he chose Korean to fulfill his language requirement, because it seemed exotic. So exotic, in fact, that he was the only student in the Korean class. The other two people taking the class were professors.
“Korean studies just was not taking off,” Morrison says. His university “had a good East Asian program, but every student was studying Japanese and Chinese.”
Morrison stuck with Korean; in 1980, he came to Korea (and to Asia) for the first time, for a study-abroad program at Ewha Womans University. “I was the only international student that I knew of,” he recalls.
After college, he returned to Korea a few times, sitting in on Buddhist philosophy classes at Dongguk University and teaching English. He lived at Bongwonsa temple in Seoul’s Seodaemun district from 1984 to 1988.
He returned to the United States to pursue creative writing at Arizona State University. He graduated in 1992, and returned to Korea again in 1996 to teach English. Around that time, his intellectual interest in Buddhism became spiritual.
He was living in Wonju, but felt the need to get out. He began hiking on nearby Mount Chiak. He went to Sangwonsa temple in Gangwon province every weekend, and soon began to feel obligated to participate in the rituals with the monks. He liked the ways of the monks, and their ready answers to his questions.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1998, memories of Korea lingered, and he began exploring different fields he could study. Buddhist art “just occurred to me,” he says. “I was also studying art history, and I’d always been interested in Asia and interested in Buddhism.”
In 2001, he officially began his dissertation on gwaebul, enormous Buddhist paintings that the temples used once a year in rituals to feed the dead. Morrison would come to Korea to do research, and also because his teachers in United States were unable to give him much guidance.
“Nobody else there knew anything about Korea. All the Chinese and Japanese scholars didn’t know what to do with me,” he says.
“Scholarship is about putting together pieces of a puzzle. Korea is only now being fit into the puzzle. And to be a pioneer in a new field is great.”
Mr. Morrison has been tracing not only the influence of China on Korean art, but of Korea on Japanese art. He’s also researching non-religious Joseon Dynasty art. But for Buddhist art, he started getting in touch with people at the Jogye order, and met a Korean graduate student studying a similar subject.
In Korea, the two of them would travel to the countryside, visiting temples and reading. “Research into art history can be dry,” Morrison says wryly. He found himself reading a lot of literature, most of it in Chinese.
His life in Korea now consists mostly of teaching English at Kukdong University in Gyeonggi province, translating literature for the Jogye order, researching and writing for his dissertation, and teaching art classes through the Lotus Lantern Buddhist center and the Jogye order. While his tone when discussing these subjects is often dry, he’s devoted years of his life to studying Buddhist art, and it’s a field he and his students are passionate about.
Most of the students who attended his Buddhist art and architecture course were volunteer guides at the temples in Seoul. They studied stupa, guardians and purgatory images. Morrison brought in slides from his visits to Mongolia, China and Indonesia, and compared their Buddhist architecture to that of Korea.
For the field trip to Bongeunsa, he lets Ms. Kim lead the way. The temple was founded in 794 by the monk Yeon-hoe, who called it Gyeongseongsa (“seeing true nature”).
The temple was rebuilt in 1493 and renamed Bongeunsa (“offering benefit”). It was rebuilt in 1562, about a kilometer away from the original site; since then, like most temples, it has undergone frequent renovations.
When his students walk too quickly up the initial flight of stairs, he slows them down. “Don’t forget to let the experience sink in,” he says. He reminds them that the steps are not only functional, but are meant to be a visual experience, symbolic of entering the Buddha realm. With each step, more of the Buddha and the temple are visible. At the very top, the temple grounds sprawl out.
Mr. Morrison will be teaching another three-month course in Buddhist art and architecture at Jogyesa temple sometime this fall. A follow-up phone call finds him researching in the Dongguk University library. Part of the reason he teaches art, and not just English, is to share. “I hope my classes enhance [my students’] experience of Buddhist environment and Buddhist art. I hope they have a sense of excitement,” he says.
“I learn new things every day. Every time, it makes the art and architecture come alive, so it’s not abstract, but real.”
by Joe Yong-hee