SOAS University of London

Centre of Korean Studies

Why is the 'Lonely Saint' so lonely in Korea's Buddhist Monasteries?

Dr Beatrix Mecsi (Eötvös Loránd University)

Date: 6 December 2013Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 6 December 2013Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G50

Type of Event: Seminar


In Joseon Korea where Buddhism was suppressed by the Confucianist ideology, different iconographies appeared and a special syncretism can be observed. From the 17th century onwards we can trace a special figure, called the “Lonely Saint” (Dokseong) or Naban jonja, who is usually represented as a monk in landscape settings, full of symbols of immortality. His figure is usually enshrined together with shamanist and daoist images, thus making a special connection with those practices. The connection is especially strong with them, since he is also used in the same fashion, for real-world benefits and for long life.

From these features we can identify this Buddhist saint with one of the foremost pupils of Śākyamuni Buddha, the Indian Pindola Bharadvaja, who is called Binduro in Korea, and Binzuru in Japan. This particular Arhat, Pindola Bharadvaja, was worshipped as a separate figure from the very early times (we have evidence that in China the cult of Pindola was existent by the 5th century CE.). Since he has associations with magic and longevity (he had to stay in Earth until the coming of the Future Buddha, Maitreya), he became surrounded by longevity symbols and placed together with Daoist and folk-deities in Korea. This form of enshrinement is unique to Korea. In Japan he is conceived as a healing saint and his figure is usually represented in a sculpted form outside the halls of Buddhist temples from the Edo period onwards. The common feature of these images in Korea and Japan that both are approachable and very human figures who are intermediators to the holier and more psychologically-distant Buddha-realms. This feature is supported by the background religious texts which discuss Pindola as not entering Nirvana, but living on Earth maintaining a unique direct living connection with the historical Buddha Śākyamuni , whom he used to see face-to-face.

Speaker's Biography

Beatrix Mecsi is an art historian with a specialization of East Asian Art. She has studied European Art History, Korean and Japanese Studies in Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, Hungary. After finishing her MA degrees (in Art History 1998 and Japanese Studies 1999), she went to England and obtained her PhD degree in University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the Department of Art and Archaeology (2004). She won the Pro Scientia golden medal bestowed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for outstanding research in 1999, and several other prizes with her essays in art history. Currently she is an associate professor at the Korean Studies Department, Institute of East Asian Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, teaching East Asian art in Hungary and abroad alike.

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