A myth-shattering foray behind the walls of a Korean Zen Buddhist monastery. The common Western image of Zen as a religion that features unpredictable, iconoclastic teachers ""bullying their students into enlightenment"" is, says Buswell (East Asian Languages and Cultures/UCLA), grossly inaccurate. And he should know, having spent five years as a monk at Songgwang-sa, one of the largest Zen monasteries in Korea. Here, deftly weaving scholarship and memoir, Buswell depicts what life in a Zen monastery is really like. Early chapters discuss the history and current status (not terribly vital) of Buddhism in Korea; the course (surprisingly flexible) of a typical monk's career and of a typical monastic year; and the layout and bureaucracy of Songgwang-sa, plus a look at its charismatic ""master,"" Kusan, who ""achieved the great awakening"" in 1960, at age 50. Through this survey, which is well-detailed but hardly gripping, Buswell explodes Zen's reputation as bibliophobic, artsy-craftsy, and reliant on physical labor. Ironically, the narrative takes flight with the author's description of the aspect of Korean Zen that matches its reputation--the arduous life of the monastery's ""elite vanguard,"" the meditators. Although meditators comprise only a small percentage of the monks (with the rest devoted to support activities or ritual), their efforts astonish: sitting in meditation for 14 hours a day; for one week a year, sitting seven days straight without sleep; engaging in such severe practices as extensive fasting, never lying down to sleep, and the frowned-upon but ever-popular practice of burning off their fingers (a ""symbolic commitment""). But for most monks, Buswell notes, it's ""a disciplined life, not the transformative experience of enlightenment,"" that's crucial. Less the sound of one hand clapping than of hands, mind, and heart working together to lead a sanctified life--and, as such, a sound corrective to Western misunderstandings about Zen.
Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1992
Page Count: 272
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1992
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