[VIEWPOINT]Restore Buddha to the peopleLeuven, a small medieval city in Belgium, became renowned as a university city after the foundation of the University of Leuven in 1425. Like other traditional cities, Leuven is a mysteriously attractive place where you can experience the feeling and the comfort of meeting an old friend.
Could it be because the city has been permeated with gentleness from the hands of many people for a long time? A great cathedral, situated opposite the huge city hall building, which was reportedly so coveted by Napoleon Bonaparte as for him to want it moved completely, gives the city a friendly, rather than overbearing, nature.
The beauty of Leuven lies in its harmony of tradition and modernity. Residents of the city proudly use its old brick buildings, that are so discolored and worn out that not one of them looks intact.
The fact that young people are provided a modern education in most of the buildings, other than the old cathedral, indicates that this is a place where tradition and modernity met through the medium of learning from the very beginning.
Belgians are thriftily using the old buildings, not just the campus buildings, instead of leaving them idle as they were. Is this the reason the city is so harmonious?
Walking along the streets of Leuven, I got the impression the city was a contrast to Kyoto, a traditional city in Japan. In Kyoto, where tradition and modernity are maintained in parallel, traditional things, particularly treasures, are kept at a distance from the people. Unfortunately, they are kept away from people in the name of protection.
They are then turned into objects just to be looked at and admired. Think of the Kingakuji temple in Kyoto. Built on a lake, Kingakuji temple gives no impression of life, like a stuffed animal that has no vitality. The temple is simply besieged forever by past tradition.
Treasures in Leuven have no “keep off” signs. On the contrary, they are used as public buildings, including the city hall, cathedrals, schools, banks and museums.
Among these treasures, the Begijnhof is registered as an UNESCO World Heritage site. This was where women in Europe gathered for a religious life along the Dijle River from the 12th century. The women led ascetic lives there neither because they were acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church as religious trainers, nor for their family life.
It is said they formed their training community to lead free and spiritual lives, transcending the irrational restrictions the church and society imposed on women. Each of them built a small house and led community lives of labor and training, until about the 17th century.
They left about 200 small houses, known as the “Begijnhof,” or the garden of the Begijns, which refers to the women.
Begijnhof is currently used as guest houses for scholars visiting the University of Leuven.
There could be no better history education than this, because the scholars can naturally feel the spirit of their predecessors in the space where they also lived. Living in the houses of the Begijnhof, small and narrow like pigeon coops, visiting scholars can learn much from the fact that ordinary people like them, not religious trainers, led a frugal ascetic life there.
This is also the way the spirit of the Begijnhof is honored in modern times.
Compared to the Begijnhof, our Seokguram and the Buddha in the grotto, locked behind a glass wall, are overprotected.
Even if people climb Mount Toham, they cannot see the statue of the Buddha with the smile of the Silla Dynasty, much less the interior of the Seokguram grotto.
The Buddha in Seokguram is lonely, isolated from the outside world on the grounds of controlling moisture in the grotto.
The fact that we can see the statue only in pictures or videos at the Silla History and Science Museum makes me wonder whether we are foolishly following the lead of Japan, which tried to move its tradition to museums in a preserved state.
The designation of old things as treasures need not mean handling them like diamonds kept in glass cases. Its purpose should be for the wisdom of our forefathers to shed light on the life of modern people.
If so, we should learn from the wisdom of the great merchant Kim Dae-sung from the Silla Dynasty, and restore the grotto as a religious place where modern-day people can taste the teachings of Buddha and forget all the trouble in our corrupt and evil world by viewing the smile of the Seokguram Buddha.
* The writer is a Buddhist monk. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.