In a previous post featuring books about Korea, readers pointed out a couple of truly great books that been overlooked.
The first one is The Zen Monastic Experience, by Robert Buswell. Written about life in a major Korean zen monastery, this is based upon the years he spent at Songgwa Temple. He lived here as monk for about five years, under the great master Kusan Sunim. Buswell also does a great job of explaining the different jobs and positions at a large monastery.
As I think about it, I could do an entire post on the books of Robert Buswell! He’s really done some great ones about Korean Buddhism. One of the most influential is The Collected Works of Chinul: The Korean Approach to Zen. This is the only English translation of the complete works of one of Korea’s most important thinkers. However, used copies of this one sell for over $200, so it’s probably better to get the excerpted version, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen. All of the works in this book are full-length; it’s only the longer, and more obscure works of Chinul that were left out. Buswell was also the editior of Religions of Korea in Practice, and Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions. This second one is definitely an under-appreciated gem. Most of us bought into the idea of a linear transmission of Buddhism. However, Buswell shows that this was much more dynamic, with Buddhist practitioners and teachers traveled throughout the region learning and influencing as they went.
Similar to Religions of Korea in Practice is Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism. This is quite a nice volume about modern Korean Buddhism, with many chapters about the history and key figures of Korean Buddhism during the turbulent 20th century.
Here’s a nice book about the life of modern Korean Buddhist nuns, Women in Korean Zen: Lives And Practices. Martine Bachelor was also another person who lived at Songgwa Temple and practiced under Kusan Sunim. She talks about the life of Korean Buddhist nuns, the difficulties of a westerner adjusting to both the monastic and Korean culture, and in the second half of the book, Martine includes the autobiography of the outstanding nun, Son’gyong Sunim.
One of the great works in Korean Buddhism is The Mirror of Zen, by Seon master Sosan. This one is studied by most of the monks and nuns in Korea, and here is widely availiable in English for the first time. My only complaint, and it’s not a reason to avoid this book, is that this book is only one section of Sosan Sunim’s original work, Mirror of the Three Religions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. (The only attempt at this work in English is a MA thesis at the University of Hawaii by Jinwol Sunim.*) In it, Sosan Sunim compares the three religions then prevalent in Korea, and shows their common characteristics and beliefs, explaining why there is no need for conflict between them. In a sense, Sosan Sunim’s original work may be one of the first “Appreciation of” textbooks in the world.
Another neat book is Temples of Korea. With beautiful photos, information, history about a number of important temples in Korea, I doubt you could go wrong with this one.
There’s an interesting couple of books that resemble the “How it’s made” series, in the sense that they show and explain all of the components of various temples in detail. The first is called Korean Temple Motifs, and is quite a nice, if expensive, book.
The second, Korean Cultural Heritage (Vol. 1), is perhaps even better. There is a volume 2, but it doesn’t cover Buddhism. This book (volume 1) is definitely worthwhile, but hard to find. It’s at Kyobo Books in Seoul, and I found my copy at the Bandi and Luni’s at Jongno 1ga (in Seoul), but apart from that, it doesn’t seem to be in many other places.
These are just some of the many books about Korea. I haven’t posted anything by my Dharma teacher, Daehaeng Kun Sunim, because you’ve probably already seen information about her books if you’ve visited this blog before. Likewise, most westerners interested in Buddhism already have at least a passing familiarity with the works Seung Sahn Kun Sunim. I’ve also avoided posting much about Korean art for two reasons. One, I don’t know anything! And two, there are a lot of newish books about Korean art that I haven’t looked at. Many of them aren’t available outside of Korea, but the bookstore Seoul Selection has a very good selection.
If you know of any books about Korea that left a good impression, please share them in the comments section. And I’ll try to include them in a future post.
* Common Themes of the Three Religions (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism): The Samga Kwigam of Hyujong (1520-1604) (University of Hawaii, 1990)