THE ZEN MONASTIC EXPERIENCE by Jr. Buswell

THE ZEN MONASTIC EXPERIENCE

Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

 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. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs.)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-691-07407-0
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1992