Monastic reflections of an artist

by MAJORIE CHIEW, The Star (Malaysia), Oct 20, 2004

Whether it is through his whimsical and pleasing artwork or writings on monkhood, Korean monk Rev Won Sung has opened a window to offer glimpses of what monastic life is like ? or at least what his serene mind?s eye sees. Mesmerised by Rev Won's artwork, MAJORIE CHIEW chats with the charming young monk.

Monks are perceived to live a cloistered, religious life. Within the four walls of their monastery, they are devoted to study the sutras, engage in prayer and meditation.  

What else do they do? How do they spend their leisure? What is happiness to them? 

Rev Won Sung autographing one of his books. Apart from his talent for art, he has written eight books which have sold three million copies worldwide.

Handsome and boyish-looking Korean monk Rev Won Sung, 32, is dubbed Buddhist World?s Little Prince, the character of great purity and innocence created by the writer and illustrator Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Despite the fame he never sought, the internationally renowned artist and writer continues to amaze many with his delightful works. 

In all his paintings, plump, cheru-bic young monks go about their daily chores in the monastery, playing, smiling, enjoying green tea or gazing at the moon or the stars. Some are imaginative works that dwell in fantasy or the realm of dreams. 

Even the monks have their flights of fantasy ? riding on a mythical dragon, a giant tortoise or flying on the back of a crane. A child monk having a romp with a friendly tiger and magpies appear to be an imaginative piece but these days it can be real ? monks have been filmed walking with tigers in a sanctuary in Thailand.  

Rev Won cites three reasons for choosing to depict only child monks: ?They make good subjects because they are innocent and say true things. They open up themselves easily and they are easy to trust.?  

Young monks also make us reflect on childhood, youth and a time of innocence. We reminisce about the past and cherish those good old days. 

Lastly, little monks are cute and funny. As people take to such images kindly, Rev Won thinks that they will easily understand the themes of his art. By painting young monks, he feels the closeness with them, like they are his brothers. 

Beautiful Mind, of a monk standing by a doorway with intricate wood carved motifs, is the most expensive piece at his Beautiful Mind art exhibition which is being held until Oct 30 at Metro Fine Art, the Legend Hotel, Ground Floor Arcade, Kuala Lumpur. 

Metro Fine Art manager Kim Koh had invited Rev Won to exhibit in Kuala Lumpur after being captivated by his paintings of young monks. And she was surprised when the famous monk humbly came to visit her before agreeing to stage his art exhibition here. 

Rev Won implored StarTwo not to reveal the price of his paintings because he wants people to come and view his works for their own merit.  

?I want people to come to my exhibition and enjoy my works. It?s for everybody, not just for the rich,? he says. Other than paintings, which are for sale, he also has prints of original works.  

Even students, he says, can take home pieces of his art work (prints) as they are also available as bookmarks or postcards as well as stationery sets. Prints of his works are indeed very affordable and are almost sold out.  

A plump, cherubic young monk saying a little prayer in Devotion.

Besides little monks with smiling faces, he has incorporated nature in his paintings.  

There are also more serene scenes such as Moon of Prayer depicting a monk with clasped hands by the window, gazing at the full moon. A chubby monk in his robes and a long string of prayer beads in Three Thousand Bow(s). Devotion shows a monk saying a prayer. 

Blissful sleep appears to be a favourite theme. In With Ducks, a boy monk is having a nap over cool waters, oblivious of little ducks swimming nearby.  

?I choose to paint about monks because I am a monk. Some people say, ?Oh, you?re the famous painter or writer.? But I don?t want to be (known as) a famous writer or painter. I want to be a good monk,? says Rev Won, who regards his paintings as a unique medium to spread Buddhism in modern times. 

He is also famous for his writings, most of which are essays of life as a monk. He is author of eight books, which sold three million copies in South Korea. His three best-selling books are Punggyeong (Wind Chime, 1999), Geoul (Mirror, 2001) and Siseon (Line of Sight, 2002).  

His watercolour paintings have themes reflecting happiness and peace. But sometimes, he does capture themes of longing and loneliness. Nevertheless, as interpreted by Rev Won, a monk?s life is one that is full of joy, purity and serenity. 

He says: ?It?s a monk?s work to tell about and explain Buddhism. That?s my mission.? 

Rev Won made his debut as a painter in 1995 and to date has over 31 successful exhibitions including 10 abroad in the United States, Italy, Germany, Japan and Taiwan. In a short time, he has sold over 1,000 paintings. 

It was at university that a professor suggested that he paint for charity after his talent for art was discovered. He held his first solo art exhibition where 100 paintings were showcased. All his works were sold. 

His artistic skills are incredible considering that he has no formal art lessons at all; it was only a hobby. ?If you have a strong desire for something, you can do it,? he says, claiming he ?can play the piano very well? even though he has had neither lessons nor a piano at home. 

Surely there had to be a better explanation for such inexplicable talents. In 2000, he divulged to a journalist that he had eight past lives, one of which was that of a painter in China. That is probably a better explanation for his prowess in art (but only if you believe in reincarnation). 

Spring Sunshine captures an aspect of life as a monk.
As a youngster, his mother told him the virtues of being a monk. He heard that ?it?s better? to be a monk than to be the president or prime minister (of a country) or the general (in the army). 

?A monk can study for life and have more real freedom. You can find out about the real world and yourself. You know what you are and it makes you peaceful,? he says.  

When he was about 14, he read voraciously books on philosophy and about Buddhism. He also went in search of answers and wisdom to life?s perplexing questions like ?Where do I come from? Who am I?? 

Even today, he says, many parents do not want their sons to become monks because they want continuity in the family line; they want grandchildren. 

Perhaps his mother had somewhat been a major influence as she had established a temple called Daebul Jeongsa. She had also wanted at least one of her three sons to be a monk. 

But Won made it clear that it was his ?own choice? to be a monk. He quips: ?My life is my life and my mother never pressured me to be a monk.?  

At 17, barely out of high school, he told his pious mother that he wanted to enter monkhood. His parents were happy for him and threw him ?a big party? to celebrate his noble decision. He was very happy for their ?big blessings?. Unlike him, his two elder brothers did not choose to tread the religious path. 

Afternoon In a Mountain Temple captures an aspect of monastic life within the cloistered walls of a temple.

He studied four years at Hein Temple in Kungnam Hapchun, about eight hours? drive from Seoul. He laughed when asked who his peers were, for who would expect that of 200-odd resident monks there, he was the only teenage monk. 

Like it or not, his friends (or ?brothers?) were mostly senior monks in their 40s to 60s. Generation gap or not, he got along fine and never regretted his decision. ?I?ve not been disappointed for answering my calling,? he says. 

Up until now, Rev Won is happy to be a monk. If he has to make that major decision again, he says: ?I will forever want to be a monk.? 

Some people remarked that he was too young and good-looking to be a monk and persuaded him to just give up his faith. But he stood his ground and would not be swayed.  

Nowadays, it is unusual for teenagers to take vows of celibacy for the sake of religion. Usually, it is more common to find males in their late 20s and 30s becoming monks. 

During the first three years as a monk, Won missed his parents. Whenever he felt homesick, he would creep out of the temple to use the public telephone to call home. For the next five years, he studied at Central Monastic University in Seoul (for monks) where he majored in social welfare. 

Beautiful Mind featuring 56 original works of Rev Won Sung is being held at Metro Fine Art at the Legend Hotel, Ground Floor Arcade, Kuala Lumpur, until Oct 30 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6.30pm; Sat-Sun, 10.30am-7pm). 

Related Links: 

Gallery: Monk's eye view 

Monastic life fraught with challenges