The Korea Herald


Calligraphy of Buddhist monks reflects their personalities

By Korea Herald

Published : April 18, 2013 - 19:46

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Folding screen of calligraphy by Ven. Tanheo (National Museum of Korea) Folding screen of calligraphy by Ven. Tanheo (National Museum of Korea)
It is said that handwriting reflects a man’s character. Korean calligraphy using a brush and ink is said to be the epitome of self-discipline and academic achievements as it demands patience and self-control.

At the National Museum, an exhibition highlighting the calligraphy works of two of the greatest Buddhist monks of the modern Korea is held through June 16.

A total of 80 works and artifacts of Ven. Hanam (1876-1951) and Ven.

Tanheo (1913-1983) are on display, including nine calligraphy pieces by Hanam and another 31 by his protégé Tanheo kept at Soljeongsa Temple, where the two monks resided. 
Letter to Han Seo-wun, an old lady, by Ven. Hanam (National Museum of Korea) Letter to Han Seo-wun, an old lady, by Ven. Hanam (National Museum of Korea)

“Both Hanam and Tanheo were experts in hanhak, or Korean and Chinese studies, as well as Buddhist doctrine. Many people say that another person of such wide and deep knowledge and great personality is unlikely to be born,” said Park Sung-won, curator of the event.

Park said that the calligraphy of the two shows their highly contrasting personalities, which is a reflection of the very different paths they lived.

Hanam, born to a well-known Confucian family but converted to Buddhism during his studies, was a man of selfcontrol.

He inherited the traditions of the Zen school of Ven. Jinul (1158-1210), which emphasized meditation and study of sacred books. He was hailed as a “prodigy” in his early days and quickly became a leader in Jogye Buddhism.
(From left) Ven. Tanheo, Ven. Hanam (National Museum of Korea) (From left) Ven. Tanheo, Ven. Hanam (National Museum of Korea)

Hanam’s writing is, overall, very neat. When he corresponded with ordinary people by writing lectures or letters, he tried to make the letters as legible as possible. In his letter to Han Seo-wun, an old lady who is believed to have been a patron of his temple, the monk wrote in the standard Hangeul, or Korean characters, using plain phrases.

However, he doesn’t conceal all of his “natural character,” Park says. “If you look at the strokes carefully, the ends are quite sharp, meaning that he had a sharp and somewhat ‘sensitive’ character,” she said.

“Hanam, like his calligraphy, focused more on one’s inner self and self-training. But his protégé Tanheo was more aggressive and open to the world,” said Park.

Tanheo left several pieces in the late 1970s and 1980s, which make up the majority of the exhibited items at the museum, as part of a fund-raising campaign to support the victims of an explosion at Iri Station in North Jeolla Province in 1977. The incident killed 59 and severely wounded 1,158.

Tanheo’s calligraphy is more masculine, raw and animated. Some of the characters are blurred and linked with one another, implying that he may have written them without pause.

Born to an independence fighter, Tanheo was said to have mastered Confucian studies in his teenage years.

Searching for unsolved questions about life, he actively sought out a teacher and after corresponding with Hanam for three years, he became the Buddhist master’s pupil.

“Tanheo was a very outgoing person. If you sat next to him, he would go on talking for hours about all things he knows about all kinds of stuff. Sometimes, he would even get confused and give inaccurate information,” recalled Kim Yong-ok, a noted scholar in Chinese and Korean studies. Kim, a longtime acquaintance of Tanheo, gave a special lecture on Monday to mark the opening of the exhibition.

Having mastered Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, Tanheo translated the Avatamska Sutra into Korean, bringing the Sanskrit text closer to the Korean public. He also gave numerous lectures to both fellow monks and the public.

“If it hadn’t been for Tanheo, many people would have not known the Avatamska Sutra, or Hwaeomgyeong in Korean. Tanheo always talked about training of monks and Buddhist followers being the future of Buddhism in Korea. And his legacy is still vivid in our lives through education,” Kim said.

To help visitors better understand the legacies of the monks, the museum is holding a conversation-withthe-curator session every Wednesday, when the museum is open till 9 p.m.

For more information about the event, call (02) 2077-9000.