Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book titled, The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert Buswell Jr., who ordained as a Theravada monk in Thailand, and later became a monk in Korean Seon (선,禪) Buddhism which is very similar to Japanese Zen or Chinese Chan Buddhism. After several years, he finally returned to lay life in the US to pursue academic studies, but he wrote this book to describe his first-hand experience of Korean Buddhism:
Unlike most Westerner scholars and practitioners of Zen, I first learned about the tradition through living the life of a Zen monk, not through reading English-language books about Zen. Only well after starting monastic training in Korea did I begin to read any of the Western scholarship about Zen. But something seemed askew. Zen as I was experiencing it as a monk living in a monastic community just did not quite mesh with Zen as I found it described in this literature. (pg 8)
The book talks a great deal about his life as a monk in the Jogye Order in Korea, his teachers, training, etc. Unlike Japanese Buddhism, which has many different sects (shūha, 宗派), nearly all temples in Korea belong to the Jogye Order,1 and practice Seon Buddhism. However, Seon Buddhism itself is very broad (like Tendai Buddhism in Japan), and includes many different practices, teachings, etc. Later, Buswell talks about the differences between what people think Zen Buddhism is, and what he experienced.
For example, he talks about doctrine and study in Zen:
…many Western writers depict Zen Buddhism as radically bibliophobic [against books] and advocate that doctrinal understanding has no place in Zen training. But would such a reading be correct? Sŏn monastic life in modern Korea suggests not. Most Korean monks training in the meditation hall have extensive knowledge of Buddhist doctrine, ranging from basic “Hinayana” and Mahāyāna sūtras, to theoretical treatises on Sŏn praxis and collections of Sŏn lore. Most began their meditation training only after they were steeped in the basic teachings of Buddhism. Many had several years of study in the seminary behind them before they even considered starting meditation; as one monk told me, an infant must learn to crawl before it tries to walk, and so too must monks study before they begin to meditation. (pg 217)
This is really an important point. Some, not all, Zen practitioners I’ve met in the West seem to place a lot or reliance on meditation only, and seem not interested in studying Buddhism at all.
He also criticizes the idea that Zen is only about meditation:
While it is true that the meditation hall and the monks practicing there are the focus of much of the large monastery’s activities, the majority of its residents spend no time in meditation, and many have no intention of ever undertaking such training. Zen monastic life is broad enough to accommodate people of a variety of temperaments and interests—administrators, scholars, workers—offering them many different kinds of vocations.
….The testimony of the Korean monastic community, however, suggests instead that a disciplined life, not the transformative experience of enlightenment [through meditation], is actually the most crucial to the religion. This need not necessarily be even an examined, or an informed life, though those would be highly prized, but one that is so closely and carefully structured as to provide little opportunity for ethical failings or mental defilements to manifest themselves. The Koreans (and the Chinese and Indian Buddhists before them) created such structured regimens for their monasteries because they recognized that few meditators would have much chance of progressing in their practice without them. In this endorsement of discipline over transformation, the Sŏn monks of Korea would find much in common with their Buddhist counterparts in Southeast Asia—or even with the Benedictines of France. (pg 218-219)
This last statement may seem odd to readers who are interested in Zen, but consider the Buddha’s words in the Sutra of Half of the Holy Life:
Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path. (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
That’s why the Three Treasures of Buddhism (三宝, 삼보) includes the Sangha: the Buddhist community.2
Finally, Buswell writes:
Modern Sŏn monks in Korea train within an extensive web of religious thought and practice, a web that reticulates with the historical, institutional, and cultural contexts of their centuries-old tradition. These monks know that while Zen masters teach sudden enlightenment, they follow in their daily practice a rigidly schedule regiment of training. They know that while Zen texts claim to eschew doctrinal understanding, monks are expected first to gain a solid grounding in Buddhist texts before starting meditation practice. They know that while the iconoclastic stories of the past Zen masters glorify seemingly antinomian behavior, monks are pledge to maintain a sober, disciplined lifestyle….Zen monks are sophisticated enough in their understanding of their tradition to mediate in their daily lives these polarities….it is time that our scholarship learn to do the same. (pg. 223)
Compared to some of the limited experiences I’ve had with Zen in the US (some positive, some negative), I think this book really helps to explain Korean Buddhism, and East Asian Buddhism as a whole much more effectively than some other books I’ve read in English. These books aren’t wrong (actually some are pretty good), but they’re not telling you the whole picture.
Anyhow, check out Buswell’s book if you can. I highly recommend it. Suffice to say I have a much greater respect of Seon Buddhism and Korean Buddhism as a whole. It’s certainly not perfect (Buswell doesn’t imply it is either), but like Asian Buddhism in general, it has the benefit of experience, which Western converts largely do not.
P.S. Today is a kind of “triple-post” day. Just lots of interesting things I wanted to share lately. 🙂
1 Japanese version of the same page is here.
2 That’s why I think “American” Buddhism still has a long way to go: not enough “critical mass” of trained monastics and communities. One charismatic teacher alone isn’t enough, it requires a whole, established community and there just isn’t enough of them. Eventually, it will get there, but it will take time and investment. Until then, it’s mostly a lay community of people dabbling in it. Without sufficient structure and training, the community risks being “the blind leading the blind”. Personally, I think the best way to remedy this, is to have more and more Buddhists train in Asia until they’re thoroughly steeped in the tradition (1-2 years isn’t enough, more like 10-20), and then come back until there’s enough critical mass to start larger communities. Easier said than done, I know. Just my thoughts. 🙂