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[Lee Kyong-hee] Musings on 2022 alongside Maitreya images

A concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is an annual rite to usher in a new year. The reflective passages and choral “Ode to Joy” are constants when reviewing time past and listing hopes for the dawning year. The prolonged pandemic, of course, blocked performances of the musical masterpiece. But the National Museum of Korea afforded a wonderful substitute.

There, on the second floor, is a new permanent exhibition, “A Room of Quiet Contemplation.” The gallery is occupied by two famous Buddhist statues from the Three Kingdoms period. Designated as National Treasures, the gilt-bronze Maitreya statues are regarded as pinnacles of the specific type of Buddhist images, dubbed “Pensive Bodhisattva,” and masterpieces of Korean art.

The statues have never been exhibited together before. Min Byoung-chan, director general of the National Museum, compares their signature presence to the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris.

Extraordinary efforts went into creating a theatrical ambience to enliven the religious and aesthetic symbolism of the statues. Past the entrance and approaching the gallery along a darkened corridor, you are enwrapped in an unworldly atmosphere created by French media artist Jean-Julien Pous’ black-and-white digital video work, “Cycle.” Then, turning the corner at the end of the corridor, you find yourself facing the two divine Maitreya images seated next to each other on the opposite side of the gallery, which is the scale of a small theater.

Pacing slowly across the gallery toward the images under the undulating, star-studded ceiling, you are navigating a mystic void. The Maitreya images greet you with their iconic, gentle smiles. Immersed in meditation, they exude a powerful aura of grace and beauty in a solemn quietude. They share the same pensive posture -- seated in half-lotus position with their right leg crossed over the left knee; wearing a crown; their eyes downcast; and the fingers of their right hand slightly touching the cheek.

Detailed expressions delicately differentiate the two images, National Treasure No. 78 presumably dating to the late sixth century and the other, National Treasure No. 83, to the early seventh century. The former is regally robed and luxuriously adorned, while the latter looks notably simpler, except the gorgeous waves of the drapery covering the lower part of the body. With the exact places of their origin and date of production unknown, the technical reason for the differences remains a mystery.

The statues are atop an oval platform, allowing close viewing from all angles and detection of subtle differences in appearance. Across a span of 14 centuries, you may attempt a communion with the Future Buddha, who chose to remain in the phenomenal world to convey compassion and understanding. And, as Buddhism teaches, you can empty your mind and look inside yourself, or silently say your wishes.

As I turned around the platform, I naturally wished above all things that the pandemic will end so the world will be back to normal soon. With COVID-19 entering its third year and continued upticks in new daily cases and death tolls around the world, I wished that the global vaccination gap will be closed and people in low-income countries will get their shots as soon as possible. I wished that children will be able to play on school grounds again and that small-business owners will be freed from social distancing restrictions that strangle their income opportunities. I also hoped that health care workers and other front-line responders will no longer reel from relentless surges in caseloads and burnout.

And, as the runup to the March presidential election continues to be soaked in shameless smear campaigns, I wished that the candidates and their political parties would be more rational and competent. I wished that, instead of concocting half-baked ideas and seeking exploitations to gain an edge, candidates focus on gaining voter trust and confidence and presenting concrete measures to improve livelihoods. To that end, they should broaden their perspectives to tactfully deal with issues on the nation’s long-term agenda, including income polarization, youth unemployment, the demographic cliff and climate change.

On the international front, I wished that the presidential candidates would show they are better prepared for diplomatic challenges amid the surging geopolitical tensions in East Asia. The Republic of Korea will need to carve out its secure place in the potential new Cold War in the region. I hoped our new president will be able to bring about a thaw in stalled inter-Korean relations. Given that a foreign policy initiative requires consensus and support on the home front, I wished that our next chief executive will effectively overcome internal division and hostility by magnanimously embracing political foes.

The road may then open to help save the North Korean population from the potential risk of starvation. Then, efforts may follow to find a breakthrough in the stalemated dialogue for the denuclearization of North Korea based on a realistic and practical roadmap.

Last but not least, I wished that there would come a day when the National Museum of Korea welcomes a third Maitreya statue from Koryu-ji, a temple in Kyoto, Japan, for a joint exhibition of the world’s three most acclaimed Pensive Bodhisattvas. As is widely known by now, the Koryu-ji statue is almost a twin of Korea’s National Treasure No. 83 from the early seventh century.

Many historians agree that the wooden Maitreya statute, which is a national treasure of Japan, was a gift from the court of Silla in 623. It is believed to have been crafted from red pine wood produced in the old territory of Silla, which is present-day North Gyeongsang Province, and covered with gilt. A joint exhibition of the three ancient Maitreya statues would certainly suggest that Korea and Japan, acknowledging their historical and cultural affinity rather than animosity, have buried the hatchet to forge future-oriented cooperative relations.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

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