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Book Review: Robert E Buswell, Jr — The Zen Monastic Experience

Buswell Zen Monastic ExperienceRobert E Buswell, Jr: The Zen Monastic Experience – Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea
Princeton University Press, 1992, 259pp

A curious tourist visiting one of the popular Korean temples will admire the architecture of the buildings; will poke their nose into the main shrine, nervously wondering whether they’re allowed in and if so what is the protocol; and will take photographs of the monks as they go about their business. If they are lucky, they will hear some chanting coming from a simple ceremony, or be present when the great bell is tolled in the evening.

But how does the temple keep going? What do the monks do all day? They can’t be meditating all the time, because there’s that chatty monk who always seems to be happy to have tea with you and talk for hours on end. And if you’re lucky enough to be on a temple stay, you will appreciate that looking after troublesome foreigners must seriously get in the way of attaining personal enlightenment through solitary meditation.

Robert E Buswell Jr’s book answers some of the questions you might have. It doesn’t tell you what a Buddhist believes, it doesn’t give you tips on refining your meditiation techniques; it doesn’t give you the key to unlocking the meaning of your own personal koan. What it does do, though, is to talk about, yes, what the monks do all day.

It is a book of a particular time and a particular place – published in 1992, and relating to personal experience as a fully practising monk for five years in Songgwangsa (near Suncheon in Jeollado), one of the three jewels of Korean Buddhism (the other two being Haeinsa and Tongdosa). Buswell was based at Songgwangsa from 1974 to 1979, and returned for two brief stays in 1987 and 88.

Songwhangsa is a sizeable temple, and thus the organisational hierarchy and division of responsibilities are probably more defined than at a smaller temple where a monk has to turn his or her hands to whatever needs doing. But nevertheless is it illuminating to examine how a temple organises itself when there is a sufficient number of monks. The key distinction Buswell draws is between the “meditation monks” under the Seon Master, who are wrestling quietly with their koans; and the “support monks” under the Abbot, who keep the temple ticking over, looking after visitors, keeping the kitchens going, training the novices, and maintaining the daily cycle of ceremonies in the different shrines.

Writing for a particular time and a particular audience, Buswell aims to counter certain preconceptions he thinks his readership may have. Indeed, the blurb on the back cover describes the book as “myth-shattering”. He sets out some of the stereotypes that his readers might have, based on translations of the tales of the ancient Zen masters:

The thematic elements in this literary picture of Zen are now so well known among Westerners as to invite caricature: the spontaneity and iconoclasm of the enlightened masters, the radical discourse and rhetoric, the brash challenge to religious ritual and systematization, the zealous esteem of practice over doctrine. Even drinking and sex and be “good Zen,” to quote the Zen Buddhist protagonist of a recent American spy novel.”

The reader need not be too concerned if she has missed out on this literary canon, as this introductory section is soon finished. In his closing chapter he addresses and counters other items of received wisdom about Zen / Seon Buddhism: no, they are not bibliophobes who bypass the study of Buddhist doctrine and seek enlightenment purely through meditation; they do not have a minimalist stone-gardening “Zen aesthetic”.

He also unintentionally counters some of the other preconceptions you might have about temple life: ordered, harmonious, respectful… Buswell spices his account with amusing anecdotes: the red pepper mutiny in the meditation hall; the Seon master being heckled by a junior monk for recycling a tedious sermon; and a rebellious meditation monk’s meticulously executed escape from the three month retreat.

Along the way, we do get some insights into what Korean Seon meditiation is all about, and there is a very useful brief opening chapter on the history of Korean Buddhism, focusing on the 20th Century, which outlines some of the tensions between the modernising tendency espoused by Han Yongun early in the Japanese colonial period, which included allowing monks to marry, and the more conservative, ascetic Seon school which now predominates, among which Songchol was one of the more recent leading figures.

It would be fascinating to have an updated version of the book covering how the daily lives of monks have changed with the increasing volumes of tourists, and how they have responded to the government’s Temple Stay marketing initiative. Neither development can be particularly conducive to achieving enlightenment through silent meditation.

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