Korea takes pride in the preservation of its culture, and the government in recognition of its rich heritage officially designates certain people and places as national treasures. At 77, Lee Man Bong is Living Treasure of Korea No. 48 and one of his country’s masters of Buddhist art.
Lee, a Buddhist monk, whose home is Pomun Temple in Seoul, began his art career influenced by a fortune teller’s prophecy that he would be a Buddhist monk. In 1917, at the age of 7, he joined the T’aego order, one of the two major Korean Buddhist sects. At 16 years of age, he was apprenticed to the venerable Kim Ye Woon who taught him to become an expert in two forms of Korean Buddhist painting, Tanch’ong and T’aenghwa. Today, Lee’s works can be seen at more than 170 of Korea’s Buddhist temples and cultural landmarks throughout the country.
Whereas most painters acquire skills to express individualistic ideas, Lee pursues his art as an act of religious faith. He says, “Each time I pick up a brush, I paint with the heart of a Buddha.” Early this summer, fourteen of his Tanch’ong and T’aenghwa paintings were exhibited at the Korean Cultural Service gallery under the auspices of the Korea Society, the Korean Cultural Service and the Korean Artists Association of Southern California.
Lee, who, with his son, the venerable Lee Yong Woon, presented a slide and lecture presentation on Buddhist painting, says, ” Tanch’ong painting does not express the artist’s world. Rather the inspiration comes from one’s feeling toward the Buddha.”