Q&A with Buddhist Monk Hyon Gak Sunim

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Hyon Gak Sunim (Ven.), the much-respected Buddhist monk who will be at LACMA on Saturday to join in conversation with the head of our Korean art department, Hyonjeong Kim Han. I was especially eager to talk to Hyon Gak since I recently had the very powerful experience of partaking in the Buddhist blessing ceremony for the Pensive Bodhisattva, which will be on view here through Sunday.

Hyon Gak Sunim (Ven.)

Q: Can you tell me about the place art holds within Korean Buddhism?

A: In any religion, art is the communicator of the life of what cannot be seen—the spirit, the soul; our Christ nature, our Buddha nature. Art creates a representation of what we cannot see with our eyes. It performs the same function as in Christianity but in Buddhism the difference, perhaps, is that art tries to convey an enlightened state—the light, bright, clear, compassionate mind. Some religious art shows how sinful or dirty people are but Buddhism is not oppositional in that way. The aim is to show the enlightened state.

Q: I felt privileged to take part in the blessing for Korean National Treasure number 78, the Pensive Bodhisattva, when it arrived here earlier this year. Are prayers like this commonplace in Buddhism?

A: All of these pieces of art were not made for museums, which are a modern construct. The Pensive Bodhisattva, the Sistine Chapel, and other similar, iconic works, were not made as objects to be looked at themselves. These things belonged in ceremony and were always having prayers performed around them.

Q: I suppose it was really a matter of context—of having a religious experience in a secular place.

A: Yes, it was a devotional experience that may have been just as powerful if it were a Catholic blessing.

Q: One line in the prayer really struck me: “It is said that to seek the Buddha through form and sound is not the truest search. However, for us who lack spiritual realization, we have brought these holy statues as a method of spiritual development.” Can you embellish on this idea?

A: The soul, true self, or true nature can’t often be experienced. This statue helps us. Looking at it, do we feel angry, jealous, bitter, or vengeful? No. If you are angry at your friend, you could feel a little calmer. Blood pressure goes down, brain waves calm; it’s been scientifically proven. Looking at the Pensive Bodhisattva, your spirit has developed for a little bit, even for five minutes.

Allison Agsten

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