In Buddhism, the art of sutra copying, or sagyeong, is a pious practice for spiritual discipline. Along with painting, it formed a major genre of Buddhist art during the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), when Buddhism was the state religion. However, with Buddhism being suppressed during the subsequent Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), the traditional art form almost died out over the following six centuries. An officially
designated master of this age-old art, Kim Gyeong-ho has striven to keep the legacy alive.
“Frontispiece to Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Practices and Vows from the Avatamsaka Sutra” (gold paint on indigo paper, 18.3 × 36 cm) is
Kim Gyeong-ho’s elaborate recreation of the frontispiece to “The Practices and Vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva from the Great and Expansive Avatamsaka Sutra” (National Treasure No. 235) in the collection of the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.
The lines flowing from the tip of his brush belonged to a microcosm. With an amazingly steady hand, he drew in 5 to 10 minuscule lines on a tiny spot no wider than 1 mm. He was also capable of drawing two eyes, a nose and a mouth onto the Buddha’s face, no larger than 1 mm in diameter. Therefore, writing each Chinese character from the scripture onto a spot 2 mm in width seemed quite easy.
Practicing such an intricate task, his brush did not falter a moment: he had to make the most of the 3 to 5 seconds before the gold paint, a mixture of gold powder and oxhide glue, would dry at the brush tip. During the brief instant, a strand or two of his brush’s hair should land on the exact spot without even a 0.1 mm error. He held his breath since the line would get squiggly if he breathed.
Intricate Task Dealing with Tense Moments
Showing his works, Kim Gyeong-ho, honorary president of the Korean Society for Sutra Transcription Research, explained: “If 1 mm looks like 1 mm, you will never be able to draw these lines. The space of 1 mm should open up to look like 5 mm or 1 cm. It takes me at least 2 to 3 days to reach that state, and once I am in such a state I should not take even a day off because the next day I would certainly find it difficult to restore the previous state of equilibrium. That would make me feel restless, and working anxiously on and off, I might waste a week, 10 days, or even a month or two.”
The artist has very few molars left. The painstaking work that requires extreme precision has caused severe tension to various parts of his body, but he does not allow himself a trip to the hospital when he is in the middle of a project. Besides, he has more rules on maintaining his physical condition, such as no overeating and no lack of sleep, for even a small amount of discomfort in the body can upset his mental stability. For a while before beginning to work with his brush, he tries to avoid picking up any objects, no matter how light, for fear that it might make his hands shake. Perhaps, however, the most extreme of his self-imposed conditions may be the one defining the work environment.
Kim noted: “The ambient temperature of my workshop is 35ºC to 45ºC, because the oxhide glue that I use should be kept at over 35ºC to prevent hardening. And the humidity is set between 70 and 90 percent to enhance the sheen of the gold paint. The optimal condition for my work means the highest discomfort index for me. Bathed in sweat, I work for 8 to 10 hours a day, often staying up through the night, for about six months — or 10 months at the longest.”
From a Mere Reproduction to Creative Succession
For 20 years he has worked like that. For Kim Gyeong-ho, sutra copying is something more than just copying Buddhist texts by hand. It represents a fight against limitations: an act of getting over the human physical and mental limits and of transcending the limit of space a person can control with the tip of a brush. It also tests the limit of how much one can remove human elements from the time of a homo faber, until the time becomes pure, with nothing left but the task itself.
“During the Goryeo Dynasty, sutra copying was a national project. There were various government-sponsored organizations devoted to sutra copying, which employed a total of some 300 professional artists,” Kim said. “Three hundred out of three million, which was the nation’s approximate population at the time, is equivalent to 5,000 out of the current South Korean population of around 50 million.”
Through Kim’s arduous endeavor, the splendid Buddhist art which flourished during the 13th and 14th centuries has come to life again in the 21st century. In its early years, sutra copy-ing was a way to teach and disseminate Buddhist doctrines among the public. As typography and printing came into wide use, it took over the basic role of manual copying and the practice came to be regarded more as a pious deed of religious commitment or spiritual discipline. Later, with the use of gold and silver paint instead of Chinese ink, the exquisite hand-written copies of scriptures formed the centerpiece of Buddhist arts. After all, the painstaking practice was considered an effort to honor the teachings of the Buddha in the rarest and most earnest way. When the art reached its pinnacle, Goryeo sent its artists to China in a group of over 100, and their works demonstrated brilliant artistry which was as highly appreciated as that of Goryeo’s Buddhist painting and celadon. However, the tradition severely declined during the Confucian-oriented Joseon Dynasty.
Kim Gyeong-ho started to practice sutra copying in the hope of passing it down to the next generation. He further wanted to explore creative ways to succeed the tradition as significant heritage. As part of the effort, he has transliterated the Buddhist texts from classical Chinese into Korean letters, and revised or recreated the illustrations accompanying the texts.
Calligraphy is undoubtedly the fundamental element of sutra copying; Kim is a calligrapher with almost 50 years of experience, who is capable of rendering a Chinese character with complicated strokes within, say, a square 1cm on a side. He found, however, that sutra copying was an art that was much larger in dimension than calligraphy.
“You have to understand the content of the text to be able to illustrate it — you have to know Buddhism,” Kim said. “In order to add new components to its iconography, knowledge of the history of Buddhism is indispensable, as well as that of how Buddhist art evolved in the course of its long journey from India to China and Korea. You need to provide grounds for inventing new motifs and expressions. The complete lack of related research and specialists has led me to conduct my own research on available relics every time I begin copying a different piece of scripture.”
Kim showed a work that he had completed five years ago: “The Seven-Storied Jeweled Stupa” from a chapter in the Lotus Sutra, entitled “The Appearance of a Jeweled Stupa.” A work done in gold paint on indigo-dyed paper, it is a masterpiece that measures only 7.5 centimeters in length but 663 centimeters in width. On this long piece of paper are drawn 463 stupas, one next to another, with one character from the sutra written on the face of each story of each stupa. The cover is decorated with the motifs of Korea’s national flag (Taegeukgi) and flower (Rose of Sharon) interwoven with arabesque patterns. Each of the blossoms, about the size of a 100-won coin, is adorned with over 25,000 strands of fine golden lines.
“In the Goryeo era, there were separate artists for texts and illustrations, as well as others who were responsible for drawing borderlines, purifying gold powder and producing oxhide glue, and so on,” Kim said. “Now, I’m doing all these tasks that were divided among 300 individuals in the past.”
“When little things are overlooked, there is no special thing under the sun.”
Engrossed in the rigorous work of copying a Buddhist scripture, Kim Gyeong-ho is an officially designated master of the traditional art. On his desk is a set of 56 brushes of different sizes and uses, as a testament to his intricate work defying his physical and mental limits.
Insight about Tools and Materials
The single-handed execution of the entire work process has opened up his insight into the tools and materials. When examining ancient hand-written copies of sutras, Kim is able to make an approximate estimation of the date of their production based on the tone of the gold paint. He can discern the subtle differences, he asserts, in the concentration and the tone of gold paint used in the works, whether they are from the 13th century, from the early or the latter half of the 14th century, or from the subsequent Joseon period. He can also tell the quality of indigo paper just by seeing it, and even how it would be compatible with brush strokes. That piece of information is important because when the paper is too coarse or grainy it may ruin the brush hair even before the first 500 characters have been written.
He went on to explain in detail about the 59 brushes on his worktable. Some are for drawing straight lines, some for curvy lines, 0.1 mm lines, or 0.2 mm lines; some for dealing with domestic gold paint, some others for Japanese paint. In sum, every brush has its own use, and even the brushes of the same length and thickness have exclusive roles. Then, what properties would he consider when choosing brushes?
Kim said: “The best brushes are made of weasel hair — you have to first make sure if it is genuine. And the same weasel hair makes a considerable difference depending on whether it is spring hair before molting, or autumn hair after molting, or hair taken from the tail, back, or feet. You have to know all these matters to be able to choose the right brush.”
He did not give simple answers to any questions. Talking about brushes, it was as though he would rather say nothing at all, if he could not explain them in full. When asked about how to apply the mixture of gold powder and glue on paper, he replied in the same manner:
“In baseball, a good pitcher has a wide range of pitches — a fast ball, a low-lying curve ball, or a forkball with a downward movement. Since he needs to choose a pitch that is best for the situation, he may find it hard to give a simple answer to a question about how to throw a ball. Every time I work on a different type of lines, I determine the best combination of various factors: the concentration of the gold paint, the volume of gold powder and the consistency of the glue. The number of possible combinations must be in the hundreds. You can’t create the best work if your hand is not instinctive enough to instantly retrieve the experimental data accumulated in your brain.”
Creating the “best work” seemed to be what he had wished to achieve by driving himself — his body and mind — to the extreme. His willingness to do his best was also at work in the interview, which led to a string of questions. How would he really feel behind the solid equanimity of his face, in the deepest of his mind? For all those years when he had worked on such a microscopic level that required utmost concentration, what kind of thoughts had he nurtured in his mind? Would any thought cross his mind at all in the moments of such complete absorption? Would the silence in his workshop represent the fierce tension and struggle between his stress and his will? Or was it a transcendental realm where the brush would have its own will?
“It is not like you’re caught in some kind of trance. Just think about a crystal-clear pond. The water keeps undulating, the fish freely swimming in it but not clouding the water. The mind is just like that. All sorts of thoughts pass through it like the swimming fish, but that doesn’t change the clarity of my mind. It is serenity and tranquility in the true sense of the words.”
Little Things Do Matter
In his youth, he took a night train three times to leave home and become a Buddhist monk, but each time, his father managed to find him in some corner of the country and returned him to his place in the secular world. The recollection gave rise to still another question: As sutra copying in Buddhism is regarded as an act of accumulating merit through pious deeds, does he have special religious experiences while practicing it?
“Speaking of special experiences, is there anything more special than the phenomenon of your breathing? The oxygen in the air breathed in and out of my body — that is the most mysterious thing, a miracle, to me. When those little things are overlooked, there is no special thing under the sun,” he said.
The aura of his awe-inspiring work lifted for a moment to reveal the true person within the artist. Working for four hours on end to purify his gold powder, and washing the brush off completely every 20 minutes, the artist devoutly showed that ultimate Zen is not what can be attained only inside a temple.