Unique beauty of Buddhist art

By Kim Tong-hyung, The Korea Herald, Jan 12, 2005

Seoul, South Korea -- An immensely influential mode of cultural tradition since the fourth century, Buddhist art has developed a rich aesthetic legacy that extends to today, featuring some of the world?s most sophisticated and technically accomplished works.

However, the admired tradition has faced obstacles in recent decades. The spiritually intense Buddhist works of the past are being replaced with mass production and crude replicas.

Located in the quiet suburban town of Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, the Moka Buddhist Museum is devoted to recapturing the beauty of traditional Buddhist art and exploring its place in modern society. Established in 1993, the country?s only museum exclusively dedicated to Buddhist art holds more than 10,000 artifacts -- many of which date back to the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935) and Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). It was during these two dynasties when Buddhism flourished.

?Buddhism forms the essence of our traditional culture and arts, which gives Korea a unique identity of its own. It?s an identity that is clearly distinctive from the Buddhist arts of India, China and Japan,? said Park Chan-soo, the founder and director of the museum.

?Understanding Korean Buddhist culture and the modernization of its art is integral in finding the aesthetic roots of our traditional culture.?

Maestro?s ambition

The 54-year-old Park, who named the museum after his penname, which means ?new bud on a severed branch,? is one of the most accomplished sculptors in Korea. He is known for his widely imaginative, wood-based works, which have garnered acclaim here as well as in the United States, Europe and Japan. Japan has taken special interest in Park because the country has long used wood for its Buddhist creations. Korea, meanwhile, have predominantly used wood and stone. The government named Park an ?Intangible Cultural Asset? in 1996.

The museum was once used as a storage, where Park kept his ancient artifacts. It was also a place where he did his sculpting. As Park?s reputation grew, he decided to revamp the workshop into a museum in 1989. Park envisioned a space where people could compare Buddhist arts of the past to the conceptual wooden works of today.

After more than a decade, the Moka has established itself as one of the most successful privately owned museums in the country. The museum attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually.

?I hope this museum has contributed to the restoration of the various genres and forms of Buddhist art, and in the passing of them to modern society,? said Park, who plans on building an additional art gallery and an outdoor sculpture exhibit near the museum by next year.

The museum itself more closely resembles a quiet Buddhist monastery than a exhibition building. After entering the front gate made of massive granite, visitors are confronted with towering Maitreya figures that were sculpted by Park. Around a small artificial pond, modern adaptations of Buddhist art are scattered about. One in particular is the white-clad Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva, a colossal three-story pagoda.

The main attraction is located on the second floor. It showcases more than 200 items, such as palanquins, wooden drums and statues, that were recovered from the ruins of Buddhist temples. Many of the artifacts date back to the Silla, Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties. Three designated ?national treasures? are also displayed.

The third floor features a collection of wooden Buddhist sculptures, many of which were created by Park. The basement has an indoor theater that plays the documentary ?The Wood That Wished to Become a Buddha.? The film outlines the history of Korean Buddhist sculpture.

Park is currently focused on passing his artistic skills to the next generation. In December, he established a craft school near the museum, where he teaches seven hours a day, five times a week. Park also plans on taking part in an art exhibition in Japan next month.

Operating hours: 9:30 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m.
(Open every day throughout the year)
Admission: 3,000 won for adults and 1,500 won for students
For more info: (031)885-9952~4.