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Korean Expert on Hand-Copied Buddhist Texts Visits Yale with Extensive Exhibition


Kim Kyeong-Ho, an expert in sagyeong, the reproduction of Buddhist sutras by hand, will oversee an exhibition of his works and other hand-written Buddhist texts at Yale University. The exhibition, titled Copying Sacred Texts – A Spiritual Practice, runs through 11 August and is open to the public. Live viewings of his work will take place at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library.

Kim began his career as a boy, and has continued for more than 50 years. Today, he is one of the foremost sagyeong experts in the world. Kim says he is inspired by the illuminated manuscripts that Christian monks produced in the Middle Ages, as well as Islamic calligraphy. Occasionally, one can find symbols from other religions in his lavish manuscripts.

“The basic tradition in both the East and West of transcribing the words of the saints—the mindset and the spirituality behind it is fundamentally the same,” he explained. “Everyone, all the scribes, did this as a form of spiritual practice. [T]he Bible and the Koran and sacred texts such as the Buddhist scriptures of the East, they all sort of come together in the same way.” (WSHU)

With his brush, Kim not only replicates the written characters of each manuscript, but also the images of buddhas and bodhisattvas and other iconography that adorn each page. Kim’s workmanship is so fine that the slightest disturbance can cause a mistake.


“When I touch it to the paper and accidentally take a breath, the 0.1-millimeter area can become a three-millimeter area,” said Kim. “And when we use this brush, we make sure that it is almost vertical to the surface.” (WSHU)

For Kim, such errors require a complete restart. As such, he works slowly and methodically, placing each new brushstroke with care. A single line can take several minutes, he said, describing the process as an “aesthetic of slowness.” (WSHU)

“So I’ve lost a lot of my touch during the 10 days I didn’t pick up a brush coming to Yale from South Korea,” he said. “What I wrote just now is considered a failure by my standards. But if you look at it like this, you can’t really tell where I messed up. But I know.” (WSHU)

In his home studio in Korea, Kim keeps the room at around 38ºC to slow the drying of the glue he applies to the page. Mimicking the removal of his shirt, he said: “In my studio I don’t usually dress like this.” (WSHU)

Describing his process of intense concentration, Kim said: “I often take a 10-minute break every hour, and since I do this for over eight hours a day, in summers, I gotta take maybe three, four, or even six times to wash my face.” (WSHU)

Jude Yang, a librarian for Korean Studies at Yale University, explained the importance of sagyeong: “It has an old history, traditionally, through the Koreas. The printing practice in Korea has a really long history. It’s kind of extended of handwriting of sagyeong. We actually claim that one of these is older than the Gutenberg Bible.” (WSHU)

Written with the same gold ink and indigo paper that Kim uses today, the university’s oldest Korean sagyeong has been dated to the 14th century.

Kim’s work is on permanent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been showcased at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of Korea, Korea University, and Korean Cultural Service New York. Kim has dedicated his life to reviving the art of handwritten Buddhist sutras, and has been honored with the title “Transmission Heir of Traditional Art of Sagyeong” in Korea.

See more

A Korean master’s hand-copied Buddhist texts debut at Yale (WSHU)
Korean Illuminated Sutras at Flushing Town Hall: Samadhi + Art = Sagyeong (Korean Cultural Center NY)
[Herald Interview] Fine lines and finer art (The Korea Herald)

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