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Book: The Way of Korean Zen, by Kusan Sunim

Book: The Way of Korean Zen
by Kusan Sunim
Published by Weatherhill / Shambala (c) 2009, 182 pages
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The author, Kusan Sunim (1901-1983) was the Resident Master of the Song-gwang Sa, one of the largest monasteries in South Korea. He was the first Zen teacher to accept and train Western students in a Korean monastery. The extensive introductor section of the book was written by Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs.

There are two major sections to the book, the introduction by Stephen Batchelor, and the bulk of the book by Master Kusan. The introductory portion explains the history of how Zen spread to Korea, life in a Korean monastery, the biography of Master Kusan, and various remarks about the rest of the book.

The final two-thirds of the book are translations of Master Kusan’s teachings, and are in four parts: Instructions for Meditation, Discourses from a Winter Retreat, Advice and Encouragement and the Ten Oxherding Pictures. There is also a very brief glossary.

Master Kusan teaches the Hwadu method of meditation. Hwadu meditation is somewhat similar to meditating on a koan, but there is a difference. A Koan is generally a complete situation or story, while the hwadu is just the central question involved. For example, a koan often involves specific characters and situations, it’s a whole story, while the hwadu is just the question, “What is this?” or something along those lines. He explains that hwadu meditation means keeping that question at the forefront of your mind non-stop while living your life. Everything you do involves that question and must apply to that question. It seems to be a super-challenging form of mindfulness and concentration.

The section From a Winter Retreat is a collection of his teachings and lectures given during one four-month long retreat that took place one winter. There are various topics and subjects, but again, many of them center around hwadu meditation. This is the largest section of the book, and includes lots of advice and wisdom.

The final portion of the book is Kusan’s explanation of the famous Ten Oxherding Pictures. We have covered those pictures here before, and I don’t think Kusan really adds much new to the interpretation.

Overall, it’s a good book. The historical introduction and the focus on hwadu are interesting; it’s always hard to really explain “koan” meditation in a coherent way, but Kusan covers it well and thoroughly. There are some superficial differences between Korean Zen and Japanese Zen, but nothing really stood out to me as particularly significant. If you are interested in Zen, give this one a try.

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