THE ZEN MONASTIC EXPERIENCE: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea
Robert E. Buswell, Jr.
Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J. 1992.
259 pp., $29.95 (clothbound).



ROBERT BUSWELL WAS a Buddhist monk in Korea for about five years, and this book is the first detailed and scholarly account of monastic life there. It is not a dry academic study but one forged from his own experience and practice. Although Buswell places Korean monasticism in its historical and scholarly context with frequent references to previous studies and to Chinese sources, he enlivens his study with a detailed, personal account of his daily life at Songgwang-sa, one of Korea’s main monasteries, and with wry humor.

In the introduction Buswell suggests that many Zen stories usually taken literally, such as “Master Nanchuan Kills a Cat,” are in fact mythology and hagiography and “were never intended to serve as guides to religious practices or as records of daily practices.”

Buswell intends to show Zen practice as it is lived in everyday life in Zen monasteries all over Korea, and he explains how looking at the outward aspect of the Zen life helps us to understand its inner workings. He argues that “although Western scholarship has promulgated a naive view of the [Zen] tradition as literally iconoclastic, bibliophobic, and antinomian, Zen monks. . . mediate in their daily lives these polarities-polarities of structure and transformation, discipline and iconoclasm, learning and bibliophobia, morality and antinomianism.” The monastic life presented here is a far cry from images of “burqing Buddha icons, raking sand beautifully, or drinking alcohol in quantity” so often associated with Zen by Westerners. Korean monastic life is quite moral, based on adherence to scriptural authority and sustained practice over a long period of time.

Buswell shows that within the monastic setting many vocations may be fulfilled. Not every monk is a meditator; the parameters provide for managerial, devotional, agricultural, and artistic tendencies also. The monastic life as it is lived in the context of the Buddha’s teaching of morality, concentration, and wisdom is presumed to have an impact on the monastics whatever their vocation.

In an inspiring section on Master Kusan, the spiritual leader of Songg-wang-sa, Buswell presents Kusan’s spiritual development and relationship with his own remarkable teacher, Master Hyobong. Here we see that Zen masters do not only spend their time telling Zen riddles to their students; it seems they have to excel as administrators and politicians as well. A lively account of Master Kusan’s practice, awakenings, and advancement in the Korean monastic hierarchy, the book is also an historical testimony to the challenges that Korean Zen monastics have had to face in this century.

What is missing from this book is atmosphere—an evocative rendering of the place, the people, and the practice. But such poetic description is often difficult and may also be due to the general reluctance among Korean monks and nuns to to talk about their spiritual experiences. Furthermore, Buswell’s own experiences in monasticism naturally excluded women practitioners. And while he rarely refers overtly to nuns, what he describes for the monks is almost exactly the same as the life in the nunneries.

Having recently visited Korea, I became aware that certain aspects of monastic life have changed in the last fifteen years. For example, I found both monks and nuns far more engaged in social activities than Buswell suggests. Still, this book is more comprehensive and less mystifying than many books available in the West on the Zen tradition and should be read by anyone interested in the daily life of Zen training.