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The Zen Monastic Experience Paperback – December 19, 1993


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Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

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.) -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"A myth-shattering foray behind the walls of a Korean Zen Buddhist monastery.... 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."--Kirkus Reviews

"[This book] is ... forged from [Buswell's] own experience and practice.... 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.... This book should be read by anyone interested in the daily life of Zen training."--Martine Batchelor, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (November 29, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069103477X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691034775
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #677,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Yoon on December 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
Wow. Should have been a documentary as well. It took me into the existence of Korean Zen Monks. No pop psychology here. I was humbled at the notion of meditating for two weeks straight in one sitting and I respected more what it is to be a monk. It made me think of my childhood. When I was a little boy in Korea a renunciate came to my house to beg for rice to my mother's disdain. He wore a white tattered robe and I realize now what he was.
Living in this hectic modern world and having my illusions shattered over and over again made me realize how lucky I was to have seen a Buddha with my very eyes. I think I'll read this one again soon. Buddha Bless You. You know what I mean.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By C. Blomberg on October 25, 2005
Format: Paperback
Below is an edited version of a critical book review for a class on Buddhism.

Professor Buswell's book is an engaging and fascinating portrait of Buddhist life in a Korean Seon temple long before it became common for us to see books and dharma talks by foreign Seon monks. His tale is as rollicking an adventure story as a tale of quiet mediation and disciplined scholarship could be. Reading his words we imagine the idealistic young man Buswell must have been, urgently holding his professor back in the halls after class to answer his eager questions, with firm purpose boarding a plane for Thailand where with a serious expression and a quick beating heart his head was shaved and he donned the robes of a monk. Then finding something missing setting out for a remote tete-a-tete, sharing his monk mentor with only one other as he diligently studied tracts on Buddhist philosophy written in Classical Chinese, then by chance and good fortune finding the spiritual home of his heart, Song'gwangsa, the `Sangha Jewel Temple'.

This book, in brief, is the story of Buswell's experience of Korean Buddhism, written in a style that manages to be both conversational and easily readable and yet academic and possessed of face and content validity at the same time. Buswell explains Seon Buddhism in Korea by explaining what he saw and experienced over five years at Song'gwangsa, including chapters on the temple itself, the daily work of monks and the different positions monks filled beyond working on meditation. This book serves as a more closely focused and Korean telling of the world that you can read about in Welch's "Practice of Chinese Buddhism".
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Swing King on February 29, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a comprehensive and direct account of the structure of practice at a contemporary Korean Zen monastery. Robert Buswell is a Buddhist academic teaching at the University of California who also spent five years as a Zen monk in Korea. Here he ties into the book what daily life and religious ritualistic practice is truly like while staying in a Zen monastery. This book should absolutely be read by everyone. Buswell draws on personal experience in this intriguing account of day-to-day Zen monastic practice. His depiction of the life of contemporary Zen monks practicing in Korea gives an original and thought provoking look at Zen from an insiders perspective. He covers truly everything one needs to know about Zen practice in a matter of fact way which can help clear up a Westerners possible misconceptions.
If you like this work, you will also like "A Glimpse of Nothingness" by Janwillem van de Wettering; an account of experiences had in an American Zen community. Also I cannot recommend enough the teachings of Zen master Seung Sahn, ie. The Compass of Zen, Only Don't Know, and Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. This is a great accent to such works.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Blood Sonsaeng on November 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book is not easy. You have to really want to know more about Korean Zen (Son) to get through this one. There is a lot of Korean words, and, as another reviewer aptly commented, 'no pop psychology' that seems so common in these types of books. However, the time you spend will be well repaid. The author writes well, and does not romanticize his topic. He speaks from experience- something that, in any field, let alone Asian Studies, seems quite rare.
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