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Tanka artist paints his passion for Korea

Monday 21 December 2009

Langues :

Dec. 21, 2009

Brian Barry, 64, received the Hwagwan Cultural Medal in October for his lifelong efforts to promote Korean art and Buddhism. The medal is the country’s highest honor for culture and arts.

Though his name might sound unfamiliar to many in Korea, the American-born Barry is quite famous in the world of Korean Buddhism. After graduating from Korea’s Daewon Buddhist University in 1987, he founded the Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Center.

As the first foreign monk to be authorized to proselytize from the Joggye Order, the biggest Buddhist sect in Korea, he has done much to attract new devotees of Korean Buddhism from abroad. Two years ago, he also became the first foreigner to receive a permanent resident card for culture and art in Korea.

He has taken part in translation projects to help foreigners understand Korean Buddhist culture. His translated works include “Opening the Eye" and other collections of the late Ven. Seong Chol’s sermons, “Prayer Within Daily Life” by the Ven. ll-ta, and dozens of other books on Korean Buddhism. He also spent a decade adding English explanations to all 40 volumes of the Korean Buddhist Art Collection released by Seongbo Cultural Research Center at Tongdo Temple. He will release the English-language version of “Sound of Water, Sound of Wind” by the Ven. Beopjeong in the U.S. by the end of the year.

Barry, however, is more famous as a tanka artist with his acclaimed paintings of the Buddha, bodhisattvas and other famous Buddhist figures. He was a student for 25 years of the late Ven. Manbong, the great master of Buddhist art at Bongwon Temple and an intangible cultural asset.

“The final stage of tanka is called ‘jeom-an,’ which literally means drawing the final dots for an eye for the painting to come alive according to Buddhist tradition,” he said.

Barry’s name started to spread around late 1999, when CNN first featured him drawing “dancheong,” a traditional Korean colorful roof, at Wat Suthat Temple in Bangkok, Thailand. He was the first foreign Buddhist artist to paint a dancheong in Thailand.

“My brother in the U.S. called me to say he saw me on the program. I kept on saying ‘geoshigi’ so he thought that was the name of the temple,” Barry said. “Geoshigi” means “what do you call it” in Korea, not referring to anything in particular but flowing with the context.

In Barry’s 30 years in Korea, he has grown familiar with other colorful dialects from Jeollabuk-do (North Jeolla Province) that seem to pop out at anytime. He says he likes the dialect there, which sounds rough but is at the same time deep and embracing. This is because his Korean adventure began in the province in the city of Buan.

Barry first came to Korea in 1967 as a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. He said he had a heartwarming experience in his two-year stay at his lodging house in Busan. The couple in his lodging house treated him like their youngest son and Barry considered them his foster parents. He retains photos of his American and Korean parents next to each other.

After completing his volunteer work in Korea, he returned home to the U.S. to work for a consulting company. He quit his job in less than a year, saying he missed the sounds of Korea’s kwaenggari (metallic gong) music, the rice wine makgeolli and other things Korean. In 1970, he volunteered to serve as the vice chairman of the Peace Corps education committee so he could return to Korea, and has lived here since.

He traveled around the country in the 1980s together with a Honamudo-gut troupe. He learned traditional dances like the hwarang dance, mask dance and others. Though he loved pursuing Korean performing arts, he held down a regular job to earn a living. From the 1970s to the 1990s, he worked at the promotional division of the Daewoo Group. Many of Korea’s promotional materials were put under his scrutiny since few people at the time were well-versed in both Western and Korean culture.

Then Barry discovered tanka in 1986. While visiting Bongwon Temple to help with interpretation, he laid his eyes on the paintings of the Ven. Manbong. “I’ve been studying percussion, dance and Buddhism one by one over the past 20 years. Tanka seemed like a combination of all I’ve been working on, exactly what I’ve been looking for all those years,” he said.

In Barry’s eyes, Korean tanka is prettier and more sophisticated than those of other countries. While the tradition began in India and was passed down to China and later to Korea, Korean tanka possess its own unique beauty.

Barry studied tanka under his master for 10 years. For starters, he had to draw 3,000 rough sketches of tanka despite not knowing the correct way to hold the brush at the time.

“At first I could barely draw two pieces a day. When I finally drew 1,000 pieces to show my teacher, he yawned and told me to draw 1,000 more. When I drew another 1,000, he then said I got a grasp of tanka and told me to do another 1,000,” he said.

It took Barry two years to complete 3,000 sketches. Others would start with coloring after just 1,000 sketches, but he had to do three times as many. Looking back, he said the Ven. Manbong unknowingly bestowed him with a precious gift. Barry writes extensively about his late master on his homepage (bbbudart.com).

“The Ven. Manbong was truly a humble man. As an intangible cultural asset, he had his tanka and other paintings displayed at famous temples all over the nation and even received the Eungwan Cultural Medal. Yet he always remained sincere. He’d bow to anyone who bowed to him and was softhearted enough to hold death rites for a dead cat. He donated money he earned from his paintings to the temple,” Barry said.

Korean books on Buddhism translated by Brown Berry

Korean books on Buddhism translated by Brown Berry
It took three months for Barry to complete a tanka that he said he painted with all his heart. The concentration he put into each stroke was itself a form of training, with his elbow on the floor while performing hypogastric breathing.

Barry has been donating his tanka to Buddhist temples overseas, including Munsu Temple in his hometown of Boston and the Cambridge Zen Center, which was founded by the late Korean Buddhist master Seung Sahn. Other Buddhist temples in Detroit, Moscow and Singapore also display Barry’s tanka.

He even did for free his earlier dancheong paintings for the royal family of Thailand, a project which took three months to complete. He is working on another tanka to be donated to a Buddhist temple in the U.S.

“Why should I get paid for something I’m doing for fun? I’m just repaying all the love I received from my teacher,” Barry said playfully. He said he must have been a Korean in his former life, probably an artist of the Baekjae Kingdom (18 B.C. – A.D. 660). Baekje was noted for its high level of art that is known to have had a profound influence on ancient Japan.

*Adapted from Weekly Gonggam Magazine

By Kim Hee-sung

Source : Korea.net

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