Courtesy of Han Sang-hee, who kindly agreed to have this article republished, and The Korea Times, for which the article was written:
Understanding a religious faith is difficult — spanning the scope from the history and culture to philosophy and practices, it would be nearly impossible to completely learn a given tradition in a short period of time, although people benefit greatly by using various sources, including books.
The Korea Buddhism Promotion Foundation has been working hard to make Buddhism and its unique culture and teachings accessible to both the local and foreign crowds, and it hopes to facilitate the process with a new book, “The Colors of Korean Buddhism: 30 Icons and Their Stories.”
The book introduces distinctive icons that represent Korean Buddhism, which also have been published in The Korea Times from February to September this year. The series was called “Icons of Korean Buddhism” and introduced 30 of the representative or most typical Korean Buddhist cultural items, personas and symbols.
“Throughout Korean history, the role of Korean Buddhism has not only been confined to religious or ideological aspects but has been part of Korean people’s lives and the backbone of the national culture. (It) has been the core of our traditional culture, as evidenced by the fact that more than 70 percent of government-designated Korean national cultural assets are Buddhist in origin and motif,” Minn Byung-chun, chairman of the Korea Buddhism Promotion Foundation, wrote in the preface.
There are a number of books that deal with Korean Buddhism in major and even small bookstores nowadays, both in English and Korean, but not many offer a colorful and comprehensive, easy-to-understand guide.
The book starts off with “The Culture of Temples,” an overview of some of the most important — both culturally and historically — temples scattered around the country, and introduces symbolic aspects, such as the lotus flower, the three temple gates and pagodas. “Korean Temple Halls,” for instance, explains in detail the various quarters found in most local temples.
The typical temple found around the country has a main hall, called the Dae-ung-jeon, which is considered one of the most important buildings on the temple grounds, but not many may know why this is so. The book gives readers a clear explanation of Dae-ung-jeon’s importance and also introduces other small and big halls that hold their own meaning and purpose.
Ever wondered why Wonhyo Bridge bears the name of one of Korea’s most respected Buddhist masters, or perhaps what the round, wooden “moktak” (gong) signifies in the Buddhist world?
The second chapter, “Great Masters and Monastic Culture,” provides an in-depth view of some of Korea’s most revered and known Buddhist masters, their achievements and also the unique cultures and practices found on temple grounds.
By providing explanations to the most simple curiosities such as monks’ clothing and peeking into the lives of female monks, known as “biguni,” this particular section will help readers understand a little bit more about the customs of the local faith.
The final chapter, “Buddhist Arts,” will guide readers to the aesthetics of Korean Buddhism. Like any other religion, Buddhism has inspired a long and rich history of art, and this section introduces the paintings, national treasures, ancient texts and even a form of dance.
Must-read articles include the “Tripitaka Koreana,” which is an astonishing cultural and religious treasure and also one of the most valuable heritages in the world. It’s difficult to separate Korean traditional culture from the religion, and the art chapter will not only help readers learn more about the religion, but also discern how it intertwines with the local culture as well.
Overall, the book is well written and consistent, in spite of the fact that it includes articles written by different authors, including religion experts, professors, researchers from the Korea Institute of Buddhist English Translation (KIBET) and reporters from The Korea Times.
Moreover, it reads like a story — it depicts the start and finish of each icon, be it a person, treasure or temple, offering a fair amount of background information that will surely help the reader get a firm grasp of the Buddhist world.
After reading the book, readers, having been informed of the meaning behind the prevalent icons that shaped Korean Buddhism into what it is today, may well perceive things a bit differently when next visiting a local temple.