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Book review: Kim Seong-dong — Mandala

MandalaKim Sung-dong: Mandala
Translated by Ahn Jung-hyo
Dongsu Munhaksa, 1990


A novel about the search for truth, and about the nature of corruption in religion. When Pobun takes his priestly vows, he undertakes not to kill, steal, have sex, lie, drink, wear ornaments, sing or dance, sleep in a comfortable bed, possess gold, or eat between meals. After six years of meditation and spiritual discipline he falls in with Chisan, a tengcho — a fallen monk who breaks at least two of those ten commandments regularly and yet holds a strange fascination for Pobun. Chisan argues that detachment from the world is not the answer:

If he indeed is not a god but a human being with enlightenment, how can Buddha keep smiling in such a peaceful calm all the time while so many human beings are suffering from starvation, sickness, imprisonment and oppression by the rich and powerful … How can he be smiling forever amid such suffering? … He should laugh and cry like the rest of us. Do you think you can really love a Buddha that doesn’t have a human face?

Chisan shows us a world where temples are focused on making money from paying guests and worshippers rather than sharing hospitality to seekers after enlightenment; a world where lay people set up fake temples to earn a quick buck; where senior priests exercise a droit de seigneur over village girls; where a former spiritual master has to arbitrate in petty theological debates between bickering factions, rather than providing devotional guidance. In such a world it is not so shocking that an outcast monk can fornicate and imbibe but still genuinely be seeking the truth — and indeed seem more holy than some of the established priests.

Well-translated and highly recommended.

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