More (Buddhist) books about Korea

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)

14 thoughts on “More (Buddhist) books about Korea”

  1. Dear Sunim,

    This sad story comes under the heading “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

    For the longest time I had the book “Empty house: Zen masters and temples of Korea” by Chris Verebedes. It has interviews in it with Korean Zen Masters, great pictures of practice temples along with their history.

    I gave it away.. 😦

    Now you can buy on Amazon for $392.00 (for a paperback!!!).

    If you see this in a used book store, it’s a nice little volume.

    Also – I took one of your suggestions from the last Book List Post and went out and got “Meeting Mr Kim” I’m really enjoying it. Thanks..

    – roy

      1. $392 for Empty House?!! Hmm, I think I just figured out where my next plane ticket to the US is coming from…^-^

        Actually, as Evelyn points out it’s still in a few bookstores here in Korea. Though, I think the publisher has since gone under. So once it’s gone, it might really be gone.

        I worried a bit about coming across as too “commercial” with all the “where to buy it” links, but as you saw with amazon, finding thesa books can be hard, and the price differences between ordering it in the US versus Korea can be staggering.

  2. “The Way of Korean Zen” by Kusan Sunim – was my first book about anything korean and it is such a great book, all about mind, with alot of helpful advice.

  3. Sunim,

    Have you ever thought of compiling a Korea Movie List?

    Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring..

    Why did Bodhidharma travel to the East…

    Are their others like that?

    (apologies if this has already been covered)


    – roy. Hapjang

  4. Hi Tanya, you know, I haven’t read that book in almost 20 years. I didn’t get it when I first read it, but I might have more perspective now!

    Hi Roy, you know, I never really thought about a movie list, I guess mainly because they seem a bit off to me. (It turns out that nearly all of them were made by Catholics. Weird, huh!)

    Perhaps a list of great Buddhist/spiritual movies in general might be easier. Kundun, and The Cup are two of my all-time favorites. I think part of the problem is that I’ll see a movie, think it’s great, and then can’t remember the title a month later!

    Hi Barry,
    I actually have “Thousand Peaks” too, and am kind of surprised to see it’s out of print. Though, the info inside is not especially accurate, at least for the historical figures I’m well acquainted with. That said, the premise and role of the book were great.

    1. Sunim,

      Really?? ‘Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring’ was made by a Catholic? Pretty cool. I never knew that. My Ma would be proud.

      And ‘Why did Bodhidharma’ – that’s a product of a Catholic film maker as well?

      (Imagine my black-sheep lapsed Catholic side puffing with pride..)


      – Roy

  5. Hello Sunim. Reguarding Thousand Peaks, I don’t know if there will be another printing. Also about empty House do you know if anyone can contact the author? That book is a really good source of information.

  6. Hi Roy,

    Yes, I also understand that Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer…) is Catholic (and Spring Summer is the only film of his that I’ve seen that I even half like) and I also understand that Bae Yong-kyun (Why has Bodhidharma…) is Catholic, but – apart from the latter being a professor at Hyoseong Catholic University – have no evidence for this at all… it’s just something I’ve heard many times over.

    Interesting though, how, with that background ‘knowledge’ I started spotting how it plays out in the movies! You know, dragging the Bodhisattva up the mountain in a scene that could just as easily have been a large wooden cross for all it had to say about penance etc. Interesting stuff.

    (And in any case, they’re in very good company! The cross over between Buddhism and Christianity goes deeper than people like to say. Did you know that Zen Master Seung Sahn Sunim grew up a Christian for example? Of course, at the deepest levels, the influences flow back and forth).

    All the,

    Marcus _/\_

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