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Reviewed by:
  • Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism
  • Bernard Senécal S.J.
Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism, edited by Jin Y. Park, New York: State University of New York Press, 2010, 382p.

This book, the first “in English devoted exclusively to modern Korean Buddhism”, is most welcome. It helps to find answers to many of the questions that can be raised on the whereabouts of Buddhism in the Korean Peninsula since the end of the 19th century, i.e. the closing years of the Neo-Confucian Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). It also provides curious readers with a broad frame of reference, which will greatly facilitate the further research required to answer the many questions left unanswered by the work.

Edited by Jin Y. Park of American University, the book is composed of thirteen quality chapters, among which six were originally published as earlier versions in other academic publications. Starting with the editor, the contributors are all qualified scholars—old and young—with excellent or promising credentials. They represent an interesting mix of men and women (twelve/two), non-Koreans (from Australia, Europe and America) and Koreans (four/ten), most of whom are either teaching abroad or in Korea.

The three parts of the book are divided into thirteen chapters. The shortest chapter has less than twenty pages and the longest one close to forty. The first and second parts respectively deal with the life and/or thinking of five reformers (including one Nun, Kim Iryŏp) and five Zen masters of Modern Korean Buddhism (including Daeheng, another Nun). The last part consists of three thematic chapters dedicated to the study of the impact of Japanese Buddhist missionaries on Korean Buddhism (1876–1910), of minjung Buddhism (Buddhism of the masses), and of the formation of modern Buddhist scholarship.

Readers with a good background in Korean Studies and Buddhism will best benefit from the reading of the entire book and will find it very informative and enlightening. Others may have to limit themselves to more easy-to-understand parts. Indeed, while some chapters such as, for instance, “Sŏn Master Daeheng’s Doing without Doing” will be readily accessible even to outsiders, some of the technical aspects of “Zen Master T’oeong Sŏngch’ŏl’s Doctrine of Zen Enlightenment and Practice” will not be fully understandable without a deep knowledge, not only of the history of Korean Buddhism—including its doctrinal aspects, but also of Buddhism in general. [End Page 214]

Contrary to what its title may seem to suggest, the book does not deal with all the makers of Modern Korean Buddhism, but only with some of them. Indeed, as a reader somewhat familiar with that Buddhism goes through the table of contents, he cannot but be struck by the conspicuous absence of others such as, to name a few, the monks Kusan (1901–1983), Songgwang Monastery’s former Zen Master who has trained many foreigners—including R. Buswell Jr and H. S ∅︀ rensen, Sungsan (1927–2004), whose tireless activity has spread Korean Zen practice worldwide, or Chigwang, founder of the extremely successful Nŭngin Sŏnwon. Although Jin Y. Park’s introduction to the work deserves much praise for its overall intelligibility and coherence, after reading it one may still wonder why some “makers of modern Buddhism” have been selected and others have not. Even if such a selection is unavoidable and, as such, perfectly understandable, it would be preferable to justify it. Otherwise, it seems exaggerated to claim—as the back cover, not the editor, does twice—that the book is a ‘comprehensive exploration’ of Modern Korean Buddhism, when it obviously does not include everything that is needed or relevant.

It may be—to a certain extent, at least—as a result of the selection of important figures made by the editor, that, at times, the reader will wish some parts of the book were less historical or doctrinal, and more directly in tune with contemporary Korean society. For instance, in the first part, a few words on how Won Buddhism is faring nowadays would have been welcomed; in the second part, the serious and numerous difficulties still faced by the revival of Korean Zen Buddhism, not...


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pp. 214-216
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