What is the Jikji Theatre Project About?

Theatre Amoeba meets the 직지! 직지! 직지!

The Place: Cheongju, South Korea

When one visits Cheongju, one finds a certain word bouncing around the city: Jikji. Whether sliding into a shopping center, slipping into a taxi or silently sitting and waiting for a city bus. Jikji. 직지. Even if you cannot read Korean you can’t help but to vibrate just a little bit. This acrobatic noun has a way of moving like a verb. And, in fact, has been reported to bounce as it onomatopoetically bounds from the entrances and exits of the Cheongju city streets to the tongues of those that dare to taste it. Jikji. Jikji. Jikji. This year Theatre Amoeba is engaging in a physical theatre project on the theme of Jikji. Welcome to our official blogtroduction.

So now that your tongue has finished tumbling. Let’s address the obvious. What is Jikji? First of all- let’s set things straight Jikji is a nickname. It is a shortened version of 백운화상초록불조직지심체요절 (The Monk Baegun's Anthology of the Great Priests' Teachings on Identification of the Buddha’s Spirit by the Practice of Seon). Saying that one three times quickly is not quite as fun. To quote the anonymous Wikipedia

“The Jikji was written by the Buddhist monk Baegun (1298–1374, Buddhist name Gyeonghan), who served as the chief priest of Anguk and Shingwang temples in Haeju, and was published in two volumes in Seongbulsan in 1372. Baegun died in Chwiam Temple in Yeoju in 1374. “Jikji” is composed of dharma teachings, hymns, eulogies, epitaphs, prose and poetry by the seven Buddhas, 28 Indian patriarchs, 110 Chinese Chan (Zen) monks and one Silla-era Korean monk. Its key concepts include non-duality, no-false mind and non-attachment to words. The essential teaching of “Jikji” is sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation: First, one should attain sudden enlightenment regarding the nature of existence, including the self; and after that, one needs to practice to get rid of dualistic way of thinking. Finally, if one’s thoughts come to be consistent with one’s actions, one can attain complete awakening and thus becoming a Buddha.

However, what makes the Jikji particularly noteworthy is the fact that it was printed with metal movable type in 1377. Hold the (Samsung) cell phone! That means it is the oldest extant book printed with metal movable type- 78 years ahead of the Gutenberg Bible. Perhaps, one reason myself and many people are not aware of the Jikji is that it was not wasn’t proved to have been printed with movable type until 1972 in France when the Jikji was found at La Bibliotheque Nationale de France (or the National Library of France in Paris- best spoken with a French accent).

The history of the Jikji and how it arrived to France is a story in and of itself. It passed through many hands and there is presently an international film being made here in Korea which will delve into this amazing story. But to make a long story short: French troops pillaged many cultural properties when they briefly invaded Korean soil in 1866. Then according to UNESCO records, the Jikji ended up “in the collection of Collin de Plancy, a chargé d’affaires with the French Embassy in Seoul in 1887 during the reign of King Gojong. The book then went into the hands of Henri Véver [in an auction at Hotel Drouot in 1911], a collector of classics, and when he died in 1950, it was donated to the Biliothèque Nationale de France, where it has been ever since."

Enter Dr. Park.

Theatre Amoeba’s Jikji Jikji Jikji theatre project is primarily inspired by Dr. 박병선 (Dr. Park Byeongsen). Dr. Park was the first Korean woman to study in France. In 1955, not long after the Korean War (1950-53), she first flew to Paris for additional study abroad. After a decade-long stay, she applied for a post at the National Library of France in Paris. It was there that she discovered the Jikji hidden in its the archives.

However difficult it is to find detailed information about Dr. Park in English, and perhaps in other languages as well, is clear is that her life was surrounded with challenges from Korea and France. While risking her job as a librarian at the National Library of France, the Korean government ignored Dr. Park. But this did not stop her. She persisted and for three years she performed independent research on the Jikji until she finally proved to international society that the Jikji was printed with metal moveable type. But of course the problem still remained that the Jikji was in France. While working to bring the Jikji back to Korea, Dr. Park continued to uncover historical Korean books that had been brought over to France under questionable ethical situations. Eventually she was fired from for her job at the library for “leaking” confidential information. Indeed she spent her life tirelessly persevering to bring the Jikji as well as 345 other ancient books back to Korea. Although initially scorned at home and dismissed in France, Dr. Park remained a patriot and devoted her life to “Bringing back what is ours”. Yoo Han Tae, Professor of Gesalt Psychology at Sookmyong Women’s University in Seoul writes:

“Interviews of the late Dr. Park reflect our sad reality. She said the rejections and disdain from the Korean government and scholars were what she found most difficult to handle. Scholars demanded to know how she expected to succeed when noted bibliographers of her homeland had failed. The government was worse. When she first raised the issue of retrieving the Joseon royal texts, the Foreign Ministry insisted she drop the subject for fear of fraying its relations with France. We can only imagine how devastating it must have been for Park.

Dr. Park passed away at the age of 83 in France on May 29, 2011 and buried in National Cemetery of Korea. I believe it was no coincidence that I visited “The Early Printing Museum” on that very same day in Cheongju, shortly after arriving to begin my job at Cheongju University.

So the Jikji is still in France?

Yes. The Jikji has remained in France. Sun-Young Kwak states in the essay “World Heritage Rights Versus National Cultural Property Rights: The Case of the Jikji”, April 22, 2005:

“The Biliothèque Nationale claims that the Jikji is part of a world heritage of the history of human invention, and not simply a national artifact of Korean culture or of any one country. Supporters of keeping it in France also argue that it has been better preserved and appreciated through its placement in a prestigious institution that enjoys the advantage of the necessary technological and scholarly assets. In contrast, Korea maintains the position that first and foremost the Jikji belongs to the people of its country of origin, where it is valued both for the cultural ingenuity of the printing and for its historical significance for Koreans.”

Theatre Amoeba looks forward to sharing how this project unfolds. This Project is bigger than us. Our first research perion will take place in Munmak May 15th and 16th and involves 8 actors from Korea, USA, Scotland, The Philippines. For more information, to make a contribution or to get involved email theatreamoeba@gmail.com or visit www.theatreamoeba.org or JikjiJikjiJikji.com.

Over the next year, Theatre Amoeba’s Jikji Research will take place Hooyong Art Center in Munmak, South Korea, in Seoul and in Cheongju, South Korea. Theatre Amoeba is a physical theatre project that develops original performance projects throughout the planet. Previous projects have included residencies in Indonesia, Italy, Sweden, Morocco and Colombia and presently in Korea where Theatre Amoeba’s Artistic Director has been living and working over the past two years. Denise is based in Cheongju, South Korea where she is an Acting Professor at Cheongju University Theatre Department. Her courses and research at the university center around creating original physical theatre while training performers in Lecoq based movement theatre. For those of you who may not know Korean geography, Cheongju is in middle of South Korea and is part of Chungbuk province, the only land locked province in South Korea. Denise resides in Cheongju for 7 months per year.


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