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Reviewed by:
  • Monasticism, Buddhist and Christian: The Korean Experience
  • James A. Wiseman OSB
Monasticism, Buddhist and Christian: The Korean Experience. Edited by Sunghae Kim and James W. Heisig. Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 38. Leuven: Peeters; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. 201 pp.

In order to evaluate Monasticism, Buddhist and Christian properly, one must know something about its origin. The principal editor, Sunghae Kim, is director of the Seton Interreligious Research Center in Seoul, a center that regularly sponsors interreligious dialogues at a scholarly level. In addition to those dialogues, the center also organizes a series of monthly lectures for the public at large, held each year around a specific theme. The chapters of this book were, with one exception, originally given in the 1995 lecture series and later translated from Korean into English. For that reason, most of the material will already be quite familiar to specialists in the Buddhist and Christian traditions and will at times seem to offer generalizations that would be accurate enough for presentations to the general public but would need various qualifications and nuances to meet the more rigorous standards of scholars.

The first two chapters are broadly introductory. In the first, Sunghae Kim gives a brief overview of the renunciatory life in six major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). She concludes that “in terms of strict renunciation of possessions, family, and pursuit of the ego, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Daoism stand out” (p. 35), with Buddhism and Christianity in particular being characterized by highly developed forms of monasticism per se. Bernard Senécal, a Canadian Jesuit who teaches Buddhist studies at Sogang University in Seoul, wrote the following chapter, “Korean Buddhism Today and Its Encounter with Christianity,” specifically for this book. The eight chapters that follow are the heart of the book. Jaemoon Yun, the abbot of the Korean Buddhist monastery in Chung-ju, has chapters on the history of the Buddhist monastic precepts, on nonpossession and the use of property in the saṅgha, on the organizational structure of the saṅgha, and on the homeless life and the Buddhist practice of compassion. Following each of these four chapters is one by the Benedictine monk Thomas Timpte on the corresponding topic in Christian monastic life as found in the Roman Catholic Church. A short final chapter by Younghae Yun, a professor of Buddhist studies and comparative religion at Gongguk University in Kyeong-ju, highlights a few characteristics of Buddhist and Christian life. Rather than comment on material from each chapter, I [End Page 228] will discuss in this review three points that struck me as particularly interesting and/or controversial.

At the beginning of the first of his four chapters, “The History and Spirit of Christian Monastic Rules,” Thomas Timpte rightly devotes several pages to clarifying terminology. The details need not concern us here, but in general monks and nuns in the Catholic Church make public profession of the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, celibacy (sometimes called chastity), and obedience; in addition, they practice some degree of enclosure (“separation from the world”) and (except for the relatively few who are hermits) live in community. Timpte notes that although there have been men and women who practiced the evangelical counsels since New Testament times, the formal institution of Christian monastic life arose in the eastern part of the Mediterranean only around the year 300. For that reason, he argues that monasticism cannot be considered central to the Church in an institutional sense, whereas monasticism was an essential part of Buddhism from the beginning, the Buddha himself and his earliest followers all having been monks. This is one of the points about which Younghae Yun disagrees with Timpte, for the Buddhist scholar claims that even though Buddhist monks and nuns, like their Christian counterparts, take vows (precepts), and in some sense live apart from society at large, such a way of life itself “is neither essential nor central” in Buddhism (p. 185). Younghae Yun bases his argument on the fact that the Buddha considered such practices as only “a means to achieve enlightenment” and that enlightenment itself is not the true raison d’être of Buddhism but is rather a way of facilitating...