Click, swipe, and scroll. Trying to live authentically and to avoid succumbing to countless mindless experiences has become a daily struggle. Sotaesan, the founder of Won Buddhism, foresaw the progress of scientific civilization and its potential to enslave the human mind. Therefore, the founding motto of Won Buddhism gets straight to the point:
As material civilization develops, cultivate spiritual civilization accordingly.
The most vital human resource needing conservation and protection is our ability to pay attention. Researchers warn us that the digital world shrinks our attention, making us drift toward external distractions. However, this caution does little to reduce our time spent in front of a screen, checking email, working on projects, attending Zoom meetings, and reading the news. Yes, work productivity has increased, but the mind eventually reaches a limit and protests.
At this point, like some people, my mind starts searching for a reprieve and eventually makes its way to art. When I visit a gallery, I occasionally encounter a beautiful painting that feels like I’ve entered a sacred, alternative place. Art orchestrates time and space, so I approach my surroundings patiently and humbly. As a child, I remember sitting in front of my mother’s art canvas, wondering why she added shades of red and orange to the sky. Strange, isn’t the sky only blue with white clouds? In that moment of confusion, art would envelop me into a story, pull me into the world of imagination, and enrapture me with more questions. A work of art has the potential to enrich our range of feelings. Listening to a new song or reading a poem opens us up to new experiences. Our capacity to feel and express emotion, to empathize with the plight of others, and to rejoice in the success of a friend are all enhanced by how art connects us to the universal experience of suffering and joy.
Keeping your eyes fixed on a painting quiets the incessant inner critic and involuntary chatter. It is also a lesson in the science of making the hidden part of ourselves come out and touch our moral sentiments. If you ask any art lover how to understand a painting, they will most likely advise you to spend time with it. We are compelled to give a specific type of attention to beauty. It’s not always easy to understand, and it may require effort on our part. The long-neck paintings of Modligliani may startle you and compel you to pause, open yourself up like a child, and reverently receive the work with curiosity and an “I don’t know” mind.
Ven. Park Jang-Sik once wrote in his book A Wish for Peace, “Developing the arts as a means of reaching others is just as urgent as modifying the teachings [to suit the times]. Humans are rational as well as emotional beings. Therefore, the emotional side should not be ignored.” (158–59) This one sentence intrigued me because teachers I encountered rarely discussed the significance of art. The more I reflect on his words, the more I realize the tremendous truth in what he says because the arts affect us on a deep level. Art can provoke our intrinsic capacity for empathy. Empathy enables us to share the suffering, desires, and aspirations of others. Artists do not produce art; rather, they give birth to it.
Art allows us to experience the world through the eyes of someone else, who often sees more profoundly than we do. One of the most famous Won Buddhist artworks is the Il Won Sang (one circle image) calligraphy by Third Head Dharma Master Daesan. The stroke is effortless and spontaneous, calm yet alert. The stroke directs us to an experience of pure oneness, our common humanity, and true nature. His calligraphy was, of course, inspired by the circle traced on the ground with a stick by Sotaesan as he proceeded to teach his disciple, “This is the original home of the grand universe. Within it are included, without exception, infinite arcane principles, infinite treasures, and infinite creative transformation.” (The Doctrinal Books of Wŏn Buddhism, 333)
One of my greatest joys and memories is walking in an art gallery with my mother, an artist herself. She would slowly move from one painting to another with complete concentration and peace. Then, finally, her eyes would light up and her impromptu art class would begin about a particular painter or era of painting. Afterward, we would sit down at a cafe, and then it dawned on me that one of the most powerful aspects of art is its gift of human connection. Art is a communal experience and brings us together. It’s the one vehicle by which we come to understand one another. We may sit in a room together and enjoy music without speaking a word to one another and still feel a sense of community. Art reminds us that our lives will always be part of something bigger regardless of what’s happening now.
Pak, Chang Sik. 2005. Wŏnbulgyo Ch’ulp’ansa. Iksan: P’yŏnghwaŭi Yŏmwŏn.
2016. The Doctrinal Books of Wŏn Buddhism. Iksan: Wŏn’gwang Publishing.
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