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2017-10-09 17:16
By Choe Chong-dae



Buddha statues are holy symbols representing the virtues of mercy, compassion, wisdom, generosity, philanthropy and enlightenment. Regardless of their religion, ideology or nationality, many people around the world admire the significance and profound aesthetic value of Buddhist art and pay respect to the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy.

It is a positive sign that Gyeongju civic groups have recently submitted a petition to the President’s office to return a stone Buddha statue from Unified Silla (668-935) that had been placed in the rear garden of Cheong Wa Dae to its original home in Gyeongju.

This masterpiece of Buddhist art delicately sculpted in high and low relief, named “Handsome Bodhisattva,” was designated as Seoul City’s tangible Cultural Property. It is considered to be a miniaturized version of a similar sculpture in the Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju because its original location was a Buddhist temple in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom.

Ironically, the stone Buddha statue was originally a gift sent to Japanese Governor-General of Korea Terauchi Masatake. While he was visiting Gyeongju in 1912 during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Masatake expressed his admiration for the Buddhist statue that was then located in the yard of the house of Ohira, a Japanese financial official. Subsequently, the owner sent the statue to the governor-general’s residence on Mt. Nam in Seoul.

The statue was later moved to Cheong Wa Dae in 1927 when it became the governor-general’s residence. Since then, the unique stone statue of the seated Buddha made around the 9th century A.D. had been placed in a forest behind Cheong Wa Dae, which later became official the presidential house.

It is said that former Presidents of Korea who were Christian such as Rhee Syngman, Kim Young-sam and Lee Myeong-bak felt uncomfortable with this location of the Buddhist statue located at Cheong Wa Dae.

As some Koreans refer to religion to explain disasters, it is not surprising there have been rumors that major catastrophes such as the sinking of the Korean ferry Seohae in 1993 (293 deaths), the collapse of Seongsu Bridge in 1994 (32 deaths), and the Sampoong Department Store accident in 1995 (over 500 deaths), happened while President Kim Young-sam was in office because he had allegedly displaced the Buddhist statue from its location. To dispel the rumor, President Kim finally invited reporters to Cheong Wa Dae to prove the Buddha statue was still there. It is believed that the Buddha statue has superpowers.

Contrary to Kim Young-sam, his predecessor Roh Tae-woo was a Buddhist. During the 1987 presidential elections, rumors spread that Roh, then the leading candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party, had pressured the Bank of Korea to inscribe a Buddhist symbol on its 10 won coin. According to some fortune-tellers’ predictions, Roh would certainly get elected if he dispatched 3 million Buddha statues to people’s houses. However, the Bank of Korea later announced the image on the coin would be “a lion statue, not Buddha.”

I wish the stone Buddhist statue at Cheong Wa Dae would promptly be returned to its original place in Gyeongju, after having wandered for a century. Moreover, a great amount of Korean cultural artifacts have been taken abroad illegally by irresponsible people for personal gains, and the Korean government should make every possible effort to retrieve those Korean cultural properties from overseas.

Thereby, our ancestors’ cultural identity and traditions will be preserved and highlighted. The value of the cultural assets will be magnified when they come back to their place of origin.

 

Choe Chong-dae is a guest columnist of The Korea Times. He is President of Dae-kwang International Co., and Director of the Korean-Swedish Association. He can be reached at choecd@naver.com

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