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  • One Korean’s Approach to Buddhism: The Mom/Momjit Paradigm
  • Jin Y. Park
One Korean’s Approach to Buddhism: The Mom/Momjit Paradigm. By Sung Bae Park. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Pp. vii + 152. Paper $14.95.

One conceptual paradigm that characterizes East Asian Buddhism is nondualism. This paradigm challenges the fundamentals of some philosophies that accept the idea of certain binary oppositions, such as self and other, phenomenon and noumenon, and subject and object. Nondualism does not negate the separate existence of the two poles that comprise such binaries; instead, it suggests that these binary oppositions are in fact inseparably related to each other and that the identity of each is possible only through mutual recognition. The idea of interrelatedness between two opposites does not mean that seeing two separate identities is an illusion, as is sometimes the misunderstanding with regard to Buddhism’s view of the physical world. Nondualism admits the existence of separate entities, but at the same time it confirms their relationship as “nondual,” since the identity of the one is always related to that of the other. Here arises a major difficulty of nondualism both as a philosophical paradigm and as a religious soteriology. How does one aptly recognize, understand, and even practice this paradox of identity as non-identity?

One Korean’s Approach to Buddhism: The Mom/Momjit Paradigm by Sung Bae Park deals with this specific issue on various levels. The Korean words mom (meaning the body) and momjit (bodily functions or movements) are used by the author to try to reinterpret the well-known East Asian paradigm of tiyung (Korean ch’eyong). Ti [End Page 576] (literally “body”) and yung (literally “function”) are usually translated as “essence” and “function,” respectively. The English expressions already suggest a potential problem in conceptualizing tiyung due to linguistic connotations: “essence” and “function” seem to be in a hierarchical relationship, and they give the impression of being an abstract conceptualization. By employing the expressions mom (body) and momjit (bodily functions), Park indicates not only the nonduality of body and bodily activity but their physicality and actuality in one’s daily life. That is, body/bodily function is concerned not with abstract concepts but embodied reality, reminding us of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh (la chair), through which he explains the chiasmic relationship of the visible and invisible.

In his explanation of the mom/momjit paradigm, Park incorporates the variety of personal experience, which makes the book more accessible for those who are not familiar with Buddhism; to those who are already well-versed in Buddhism, it demonstrates how to apply or understand Buddhist philosophy in everyday life. The author tells us that the expressions mom and momjit used by Zen Master T’oeong Sŏngch’ŏl (1912–1993) during a visit to the master in 1965 when the author was a young assistant professor and advisor for the Seekers after Truth, a group of fifteen male college students who were attempting to practice Buddhism in a more authentic and rigorous way than would be expected of a regular lay practitioner. The purpose of the visit was to ask for advice to resolve the difficulties that this group faced in practicing Buddhism, and the master’s answer was, in brief, that their difficulty arose because the group approached the issues they were dealing with through momjit (bodily movements) and not through mom (body). This advice completely changed the author’s philosophical and religious perspective, marking the beginning of his more than forty years of reflection on the mom/momjit paradigm.

How do we define mom and momjit ? The author attempts several definitions: mom is “invisible” and “indescribable”; it is “universality itself,” whereas momjit is its counterparts, “visible,” “descriptive,” and “particularity.” In terms of religious discourse, the author explains, mom designates the “absolute and religious,” whereas momjit represents the “ordinary.” Park also employs the image of a tree: the roots are the body, and the trunk and branches are bodily functions, reminding us of the image of a tree in the Daodejing in the explanation of the relationship between Dao (path) and de (virtue). With this brief description of mom...