An Apprentice Temple Painter

Bowon Temple in Seoul

Brian Barry first came to Korea in 1967 with the Peace Corps, which sent him out to a village as a health worker. He loved the people and enjoyed the experience. After his first assignment, he returned to Korea to train new Peace Corps volunteers, and he stayed on, working part-time and learning about the culture. He got involved with Buddhism and studied at a Buddhist night college. He also did folk dancing and arts and crafts and took part in a traditional farmers’ band. Then he became an apprentice temple painter under the Ven. Manbong, also called “The Golden Fish.”  I got to know Brian through Lotus Lantern, the Buddhist center he co-founded, and in 1992 we met for this interview. 

Brian’s Story

One day in 1983 I was doing some rice-paper dyes, and I had a strange feeling. So I did a chant, closed my eyes and folded the paper and dyed it without planning the results. Then I put it out to dry overnight. The next day when I opened it up, there was a design of a large monk’s robe, but empty, with a butterfly sitting at the top where the monk’s head would be if it were worn. The colors and design could only have happened spontaneously and unintentionally.

An American friend said, “Why don’t you name it for the Nabi Chum, or Butterfly Dance, and enter it in the Buddhist art contest?”  I did enter it, and it won a place in the show. One day I was in the hall when I saw a monk looking at it with great interest. I explained how it was done and asked him what he thought it meant. He said, “Go to a place where they do the Butterfly Dance and study Buddhist art.”  I walked away confused, wondering what I should do. Then I forgot about it. About three months later, I got a call about an American professor of architecture who wanted to examine the patterns on temples. I agreed to interpret for him. At the temple we were talking to the master in the studio when the music for the Butterfly Dance began. Two days later I started studying temple painting with the master. I feel the Buddha sent me to it.

There are paintings on the outside of temple walls, and I’ve done those as well, but what I’m referring to are the ones which usually go behind the statues on temple altars. It’s a visual art form which supports Buddhist ritual and devotion. The most common and most popular type is a large composition based on the Lotus Sutra or the Garland Sutra showing the historical Buddha giving a talk. With the Buddha are several Bodhisattvas, the Guardians of the Four Directions, and, depending on the size of the painting, from two to ten disciples. [A Bodhisattva is a being who has reached enlightenment, but doesn’t go to nirvana because she or he wants to return to earth and help the rest of us.]

The traditional course involves 9,000 practice works. First you take a line drawing of one of the Ten Kings of Bardo, and you make a thousand tracings of it using a transparent rice paper placed on top. This teaches you the basic strokes and the line which always has the same width and strength, reflecting the Buddhist concept of equality. Then you do a thousand sketches of the drawing, and then you draw it from memory a thousand times. After you’ve completed the three thousand copies of the first drawing, you’re given a more complicated drawing of one of the Four Guardians, and you do the same process again. Today the course is shorter.

Because of the body positioning you have to do all of the drawings on the floor in order to get a “weighted” line. You can really see the difference between lines drawn on the floor and lines drawn on an easel. You also have to breathe properly. Take a deep breath, hold it and do the line, then breathe out and do another one. At the beginning of the training process, you place your elbow and forearm on the floor, bring the brush down by moving the hand from the wrist, lift the whole arm and bring your arm down to continue the line. You have to practice linking the lines so that nobody can tell you stopped and started again. This takes concentration and control. It also takes practice and eye training to see the art and the difference in the lines.

After having done several hundred tracings, you can tell that your lines express your feelings that day. When you learn to see that, you can read other people’s lines, and you can see what state of mind they’re in, the flow of the emotion, the mood. The lines are a reflection of your heart. I get tremendous joy from this work. I love the meeting of black ink on white paper—both the visual effect and the way it reads your mind like a perfect mirror.

I’m now in my seventh year at the studio. I’ve done not quite three thousand copies. I have increasingly less time to do copies, although I certainly feel the need for them. But a lot of other work comes into the studio, and I have to make a living in the afternoon.

As Korea’s most renowned master of Buddhist art, the master gets a lot of orders from temples for various paintings.  After students have done their first thousand tracings, they are allowed to do some work on the larger paintings, depending on their amount of expertise and experience, in order to break the monotony of copying and to ease them into the process.  So we do these.

Once an order is received, we go out and get fabric like the kind used in bed sheets.  We tie the cloth to a frame and apply a watered-down version of cow’s glue, or carpenter’s glue.  We prime it on both sides several times, then take it off the frame and put it on the floor to do the line tracings.  We figure out the positions of all the characters going into the painting and draw them into the composition, putting a line drawing of each figure under the cloth and tracing it. The tracings are done with brush and ink just as we did them in the learning process.  We start with the Buddha, then do the Bodhisattvas, then the lesser figures like the gods. .

The cloth goes back on the frame.  The purpose of priming with water and cow’s glue is to prevent the colors from running and spreading.  That’s also the reason for what happens next. We put on four or five layers of rice paper and paste on the back, which gives the painting form and helps absorb the colors and keeps them from running.  That takes a couple of days because the painting has to dry between layers.  When it’s all dry we take the cloth off again and put it on the studio floor and begin the painting operation.

Another reason for doing the painting on the floor is that Korean floors radiate heat.  Since Korea has a monsoon season, it’s subject to a lot of mold and must.  When the paintings are done on the floor, the heat dries them on the bottom, and the air dries them on the top.  This prevents mildew.

The paint is a mixture of chemical colors, water, and cow’s glue.  The colors go on in order of the importance of the figure in the painting.  The Buddha colors go first, then the Bodhisattvas, then the Heavenly Kings or Guardians. We always start with red, which covers the most area. That is followed by green. I suspect that the prominence of these two colors is an indication of Taoist influence.  Anyway, the red and green go first, then blue, then orange, then yellow.  Most colors require several applications of a weak solution of color.

The facial features are, of course, the very last thing to go on.  The look of compassion in the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas is terribly difficult to get down.  Not only is there a tremendous amount of technique involved, but compassion doesn’t come from the brush.  The feeling has to flow out of you. The master almost always does the eyebrows and mustaches and whiskers.

Now that the painting is completed, we order the frame. On the back we apply three layers of rice paper, and then we turn the painting face-down on the floor and apply a generous layer of water with a large brush to soften up the five layers of rice paper on the back.  We do this before fixing the painting because when it dries it will become much tauter.  Then the frame goes onto the painting, and gradually we pull frame and painting into an upright position so that the bottom of the frame is holding the bottom of the painting on the floor and the top of the painting is up with the top of the frame.  We have a real workout then, pulling and tugging and fixing the painting to the frame.  Then it’s allowed to dry.

It’s astounding, the effort that goes into this—and the care with the colors and brushes and not making mistakes.  Fortunately, after hundreds of years, methods have been developed to correct just about any mistake, but of course you want to make as few as possible.  This is very much paint-by-number, but it’s how you paint that’s important.

I do the Kwanyin chant to myself when I’m painting—or rather, it just comes out and does itself now.  [Kwanyin is the female Bodhisattva with a position similiar to the Virgin Mary.] Sometimes we turn on the Buddhist radio station or put on a tape of chanting or Western classical music.  Sometimes we get to talking and nobody concentrates, and you can see that in the painting.  The master said when he was young the monks would come into the studio and chant while people painted.  I would love to work in an atmosphere like that.  All those vibes go into the painting.  I’m sure that’s why we have such masterpieces from years ago and centuries ago—because of the total commitment and dedication pouring into them. The facial expressions in many of these old paintings are absolutely astounding.

The Ven. Manbong shows a painting to a nun

For me it’s impossible to separate the master, Ven. Manbong, from the painting process.  I don’t think of the thing as separate parts—the teacher, the painting and the temple.  What’s important is the karma of the whole thing, the flow of everything.  He sets such an example—the devotion, the love, it shines in his eyes when he’s doing anything.  I couldn’t imagine learning from somebody else. You would never know he’s a National Treasure by his attitude.  He’s completely laid-back, completely unpretentious, very humble.   He’s just one of the funniest, nicest, most pleasing people you’d ever want to meet in your life. He has a tremendous sense of humor—he s always joking—and a heart of gold.  The other monks at the temple call him Buddha.  He’s eighty-three and still going strong—up painting until midnight every night, and he loves to paint in the dark. As a teacher he’s very strict in a traditional way, something I’ve come to appreciate. He doesn’t tell you what you should be doing or how you’re doing it. He lets you figure out a lot of that for yourself.  Although he pretends to be nonchalant about the students, he’s very concerned about us.  You can tell he’s always calculating which level each individual has reached and who should be doing what.

There were times when I was very frustrated because the master was strict and often acted indifferent. You sat there doing the tracing and drawing, and he wouldn’t let you do things you weren’t ready for. As a Westerner I wanted to be “creative,” and I wanted to try everything. But this is training, and his job as a National Treasure is to train people in a centuries-old tradition. In the Buddhist books, the temple paintings are described exactly—the figures and how this is supposed to be painted, the position of the colors on their clothes, everything. You can’t just do your own thing when it comes to a temple wall painting.

It makes a difference that this is considered a handicraft, not an art form. In the National Art Exhibition you have creative Buddhist art—water colors or oils of Buddhas and temple scenes. That’s fine. Creativity is important with those things. But with this way of learning, after all those drawings suddenly ideas and improvements will come out of nowhere. So I have verified for myself that there is something to this process.

There are lots of Buddhist teachings involved. First, there’s reverence for everything. Before you start tracing, when you’re sitting on the floor with your equipment ready, you do a half-bow from the waist with hands folded. This is an expression of genuine humility and a sense of awe at the universe and everything in it. Second, patience. Third, equality, as expressed in the equal width and strength of the lines. Fourth, purity of mind and body—you have to be physically clean, and your mind has to be pure. Fifth, concentration on the here and now—absorption in what you’re doing at the moment. Sixth, “beginner’s mind,” being completely in the tracing you’re doing and not in the 799 others you did that year. Seventh, emphasis on the process, rather than the result. Of course, when you have a deadline for large temple paintings, you have to have the result, and timing is crucial, but when you’re doing practice work you should be completely inside the process. Eighth, the peeling away of the ego. You can’t continue with an attitude of wanting to do things before you’re ready. You forget about yourself. You realize that it’s not important who did the painting. Maybe it will inspire someone. Over the years, millions of people have seen the master’s paintings, have prayed before them and been inspired by them. That thought gives you perspective. You see how the ego is responsible for a lot of trouble in the world. Before I came here I might have bragged about having done something like the two paintings I just finished. Now, I didn’t even sign them. I do get commissions now. At first it seemed amazing because nobody ever thought a foreigner would be asked to do one of these.

I find tremendous joy, not only being with the master, but just working. After decades of searching, I found what I really wanted to do. There are good times and bad times. It’s a question of faith and trust.

It’s funny how things come full cycle. As a Buddhist, I’m likely to call it karma. A friend of mine belongs to a computer forum. He was writing to a man in Wakefield, Massachusetts, my home town and asked me for something about Wakefield that he could put in his e-mail. Now, I had noticed once when I was flying out of Logan Airport that the shape of Lake Quannapowitt looks like the shape of the Korean peninsula. So I said jokingly, “Why don’t you tell him that Wakefield and Korea have a karmic relationship?”  The next day my friend received a reply saying that a Korean Buddhist temple had recently opened in Wakefield. That’s the last place on earth I would expect a Buddhist temple, let alone a Korean temple.

So here I am. I’ve spent twenty-five years in Korea and become a Buddhist and a temple painter, only to find a Korean temple opening in my home town. When I went home this summer, I met the monk in charge. I had brought with me a small painting as a gift, a painting of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The monk asked me to do a big painting for the temple. I can’t think of anything nicer to do than a painting for my home town. I’m so happy. I have always had this longing that sometime the Buddha would make his way to Wakefield and people would learn his teaching there. It’s as far from Korea as you can get. Here’s this boy who was brought up ten miles north of Boston, played Little League baseball in a quiet little suburb and chased the ice cream man down the street in order to buy an orange popsicle. I wonder what that ice cream man would think about my doing a Korean Buddhist temple painting.

I have no regrets whatsoever. I find joy that wells up from the heart. To be able to paint a Bodhisattva or a Buddha—this is paradise. It could not be anywhere else. I don’t know what enlightenment is, but I don’t need it. I can think of no greater joy.

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