An art curator’s guide to suffering, sin and sculptureBuddhism has been a force in Korean society since the fourth century and it remains important today.
Take the scandal involving disgraced art curator and professor Shin Jeong-Ah and her alleged lover, former presidential Byeon Yang-kyoon.
Shin used her fake Yale doctorate to get herself a job at Dongkuk University, the most important Buddhist academy in Korea.
Byeon, a devout Buddhist, is accused of diverting 1 billion won ($1.12 million) in taxpayer funds to Heungdeok Temple, established and owned by the Venerable Yeongbae, who is the chairman of Dongguk University’s board of directors.
Suspicions have been voiced that Byeon sent the money in Yeongbae’s direction so that he would look favorably on Shin.
Byeon is also alleged to have arranged for Temple Seokwang, owned by the Venerable Yeongdam, another Dongguk board member, to be designated as a cultural heritage site in 2004, making it eligible for state grants. Shin was appointed by Donguk a few months later.
If Byeon is found guilty of involving Korea’s Jogye Buddhist order, the nation’s biggest Buddhist group, in a conspiracy to protect his relationship with Shin, who is 23 years his junior, the reverberations are likely to be of seismic proportions.
These issues contrast sharply with the peaceful countenance found on the statutes of Buddha that decorate scores of Korean temples.
Thousands of statues are also found in museums and each one has a uniqueness determined by the vision of the craftsman involved and the spiritual leanings of the monks who ordered the statue to be made.
This variety is the subject of Kim Lena’s “Buddhist Sculpture of Korea,” the eighth book in a series sponsored by the Korea Foundation. It offers a fascinating guide to the way Buddhist sculpture developed in Korea.
For example, we learn that Buddhist sculptures in the late Joseon dynasty began to have fewer Chinese influences and, in so doing, they moved away from a pursuit of outward perfection and began to embrace a more simple, native style that reflected the lives and religious concerns of ordinary people.
Like 18th century Christianity, which saw an increased simplicity in church building, Buddhist sculpture from the same era tried to reach beyond ritual to implant its message more directly in the hearts and minds of the masses.
This book also reveals that the royal house of Silla (57 B.C. to A.D. 935) prized Buddhist statutes of enormous height.
Only a few fragments of these statues remain, but those who made them emphasized the length of the fingers on the statue’s right hand as a means of trying to ensure the longest possible life for the ruling monarch.
There is a dignity to the statues pictured in this book that encourages contemplation and prayer. Those that have been damaged by violence remind one that suffering is at the core of Buddhism’s four noble truths.
Buddha taught that in life there is dukkha, or suffering, and that it is caused by desire. To end suffering one must take the noble eightfold path, which involves wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline. The Buddhists of Korea may need all of these qualities to survive Shin Jeong-ah.
By Daniel Jeffreys Features Editor
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