Books about Korea

It’s a hot day here in Korea, and for some reason it seemed like it would be fun to share some of my favorite books about Korea, along with a couple that I’d like to check out.
(I’ll add links to these, because they can be hard to find, and expensive, depending on where you’re ordering them from.)

The all-time best travel guide to Korea has to be South Korea by Moon Handbooks. If you just want bus and hotel info, then Lonely Planet will probably be fine, but if you want history and details about the places you’ll visit, then this is the book for you. My Korean Dharma brothers were always amazed that I knew more about the places we were visiting than they did. This book is why!

(The new edition at Amazon has only two ratings, but if you look at the previous edition, you’ll see it was highly rated.)

However, if you’re going to be spending most of your time in Seoul, then you can’t go wrong with SEOUL.  For years the only city guides to Seoul have been small, pathetic things, but now that’s changed! 
This is a huge book, filled with photos and every kind of information you could imagine about the city and the areas around it. This book was put together by the same team that publishes Seoul magazine, and runs the Seoul Selection website, so they really know their stuff. (If you live in Korea, you can also get it at the Seoul Selection bookstore.) 

A very nice book about Buddhism here is Korean Buddhism. The photography in this book is incredible.  It’s a nice introduction, but also quite detailed in explaining the different parts of the temple, temple etiquette, and a fair amount of Korean Buddhist history. (I really, really want to meet the photographer and see if I can use his images for this blog. They’re extraordinary.)

A book I’d like to check out the next time I visit Seoul Selection is Minhwa: Tales of Korean folk paintings. As you can see from the cover, Koreans traditionally really like wild drawings of tigers. A friend and I joked that it was because artists were trying to draw them from old skins, as few people survived getting good look at a live tiger! 


On a similar note, if you’re interested in Korea’s mountain spirits, then the book you have to check out is David Mason’s Spirit Of The Mountains. You can also order this directly from David at his website, San Shin (which is an incredible reference guide in its own right). This book is almost out of print, so if this topic interests you, order now. Filled with photos and in-depth explanations, you won’t see a book of this quality again.


If you’re into tea, then you might like Korean Tea Classics. I happen to know one of the translators, Brother Anthony of Taize, who in addition to being a wonderful person and fluent in Korean, really loves his tea.

This book is a collection of three texts by the greatest figures associated with tea in Korea. If you live in Korea, you can also find this one at Seoul Selection

Recently, one of Korea’s most well-known monks, Beop Jeong Sunim, passed away. He was famous for his down-to-earth and humane essays that people of all religions could appreciate. Fortunately for us, Brian Barry had just finished an English translation of some of Beop Jeong Sunims most important essays, The Sound of Water, the Sound of Wind: And Other Early Works by a Mountain Monk.  (Here’s the link to Seoul Selection.)
 If you find Korean culture interesting, or want to share it with someone else, you might like the quarterly magazine, Koreana.  This is really one of the very best sources of regular information about the history and culture of Korea, both modern and ancient. 

(You can also order copies from Seoul Selection, or subscribe at the link above. This is also often sold in the major bookstores around Korea.)

For a bit of fun and culture at the same time, check out Meeting Mr. Kim, by Jennifer Barclay. This is a great book about her time in Korea. She realized that if she really wanted to experience Korea, then she had to get out of Seoul. So she started taking weekend trips out to the countryside and just seeing who she could meet. Her description of life there, and the kindness of the people, really hits the spot. If you want to see what life in Korea is like, check this one out.

 (You can also find this at Amazon UK, or Seoul Selection.) 

Finally, feel free to share any favorite books about Korea that you liked or that left an impression. I’d love to hear about what you found!

8 thoughts on “Books about Korea”

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Sunim.

    You can also order some of these books on

    The tea book exists also as paperback, it seems.

    Now I`m waiting for them to be sent.


  2. Dear Sunim,

    “The Zen Monastic Experience” by Professor Robert E Buswell was always a favorite of mine. It is part memoir, part academic examination, part historical account of Zen monastic practices in Korea.

    When he was a young man, Professor Buswell ordained as a Sunim and practiced as Songgwangsa with KuSan Kun Sunim (I believe). He is now Professor of Buddhist Studies at UCLA

    You can get the book on Amazon:


    – roy – holding palms together.

  3. What a great list of books — I love it!

    One other text by Boep Joeng Sunim is called The Mirror of Zen. It is quite good and is a guide containing quotes and commentary of Buddhist practice by Zen Master So Sahn (1520-1604).

    The Mirror of Zen is available on Amazon at:

  4. Thanks everyone!

    Roy and Gary both pointed out two really good books that I forgot to add, “The Zen Monastic Experience,” and “The Mirror of Zen.”

    Robert Buswell’s book is a great look at life inside a major Buddhist monastery in Korea. And while the text by Sosan Desa isn’t my favorite text of his, this one is still a classic.

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