Lee Kihyang's Artistic World - As Seen Through Hwa's Journey to Enlightenment
The wise ones say that a new age is coming, when those who seek the most sublime spirituality will transcend the idea of nations and instead guide the entire human race. Ladies and gentlemen, the youth who proudly walk forward on the weary road ahead are the hope for the Mongolian people's future, the bodhisattvas who defend an unblemished world. We are all children of fortune, having been able to encounter Buddhism, an incredible repository of humanity's wealth and wisdom. The reason you have come to hear me speak to you as a kindred spirit is because you share a dream in common with me, my striving to help the world through Buddha's teachings. In the 17 years since I've come into contact with Buddhism, my life has transformed immeasurably. In learning the Buddha dharma, I came to know the need for gratefulness, and I see in myself a more dignified presence. Wanting to repay the Buddha's wisdom in full, I established the determination to spread his teachings widely, and now, I make manifest the Buddha dharma through the work I love most.
The Buddhist sutras serve as the material for my artwork. As I read them, I paint a picture in my mind. When I read "Entry into the Realm of Reality," the final chapter of the Flower Adornment Sutra (Korean: Hwaeom-gyeong), I found myself traveling together with the heroine and was captured with a desire to express the solemnity of this journey through art clothing. As you all well know, it is the visual arts that strike our emotions the most quickly. How appropriate, then, as a means to transmit the message of Buddhism. "Entry into the Realm of Reality," where Sudhana finally achieves his goal after setting out in search of the 53 dharma masters who have devoted their lives to enlightenment, is an incredible means of Dharma transmission, employing a metaphorical story to teach about the the 53 stages of the Bodhisattva path. For me, the fact that 20 of the chosen masters were women was incredibly appealing. This holds great significance in the history of the development of Buddhism. Korean Buddhism was deeply impacted by Confucianism, and the values of a traditional society steeped in its patriarchal thought is reflected in Korean Buddhism to this day. When I looked at the women who have suffered difficult lives, raised under the ideology stating "Revere men, abase women," and looked at myself too, raised in similar circumstances, I found in Buddhism a certainty about the perspective I needed to take towards women and their lives. One of the female Buddhist sages was Maya, the mother who raised the bodhisattva who would become the Buddha. She is a perfect example of the deep minded dharma masters that I've encountered. This is why I've chosen a woman as the main character for my work, using the first character of the Hwaeom-gyeong, "Hwa," as her name. Now I am like Hwa. I'm the one wandering this rough earth, this time in search of Mongolia's Dharma Masters. Though Hwa was nearly brought to death by the loneliness and hopeless fear that grieved her heart, through the nectar of the dharma, she regained her life and consummated her Journey to Enlightenment.
I've expressed in this work the vivid experiences from my spiritual pilgrimages in Tibet, India, Vietnam, the United States and elsewhere, meeting people who have overcome great hardship and suffering. I've vowed that these encounters would be born again through my work, and that they would become a means for other generations to engage in their own pursuit of truth. The Flower Adornment Sutra uses flowers as metaphors for people, and just as flowers bloom and bear fruit, the sutra transmits to us the dharma in the hope that if we are devoted enough, each one of us can bloom the flower of buddha nature and bear the fruit of enlightenment. The anguished result of how to properly transmit this noble message was my decision to choose a scenario that included the audience as participants in part of the show. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, who appears at the climax of the story, holds up a flower, and then guides the assembly into a wide open space adorned with huge flowers. My message is that just as enlightenment's perfect garland of flowers is a harmonization of the various flowers placed on the installation by the audience members, our radiantly blooming Buddha natures will bloom to create a harmonious world.
Through creating my many works of Buddhist expression, I've realized that "Buddhism" is merely another expression of the word "truth." Buddhism is not something found solely within the words of the sutras. It must be found within each and every sound we hear in our daily lives. The call to all artists is to pay close attention to the various modes of life that arise in the world, and to make works that struggle along in resonance with them. Only then can art have any power, only then can it purify society. The Buddhist art that you've poured your sincerest devotion into is not in itself the purpose of your work, the ultimate point is the mental cultivation that this art inspires, a mental cultivate that culminates in the realization of Buddhahood. Buddhist art is the art of awakening, exposing the essential form and color of truth itself. The work your are doing to preserve the disappearing Mongolian ethnic arts, recovering the Buddhist art that was the noblest spirit of Mongolia, these tasks constitute the spiritual practice of each and every one of you. Such work is not simply for Mongolia, but is an effort that contributes to the cultural inheritance of the whole world. By all means, I ask that for not only the Mongolian people, but for the happiness and peace of all peoples on this endlessly suffering earth, that you become cultural warriors, endowed with the power of Buddhist art and intelligence. Let our Buddhist natures blossom so as to bring about the creation of the radiant Flower Garland World,
This essay is a summarized version of contents from talks given at the Mongolian Institute for Buddhist Art (MIBA) at Gandan Monastery and the Dolma Ling Girls' Orphanage on July 22 and 26, 2004.