A Handbook of Korean Zen Practice

A Mirror on the Son School of Buddhism (Son'ga Kwigam)

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John Jorgensen
Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , March
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A Handbook of Korean Zen Practice: A Mirror on the Sŏn School of Buddhism (Sŏn’ga Kwigam) is a translation of the works of Sŏsan Hyujŏng, along with an introduction by John Jorgensen. Overall, the book is split fairly evenly between three sections: an introduction, the translation, and notes. It should be noted right away that the endnotes are extensive. In many parts of the translation, the notes take up more page space than the actual text. While the notes contain a great deal of useful information, there is also occasional repetition.

Many of the more interesting aspects of the work can be found in the introduction. This section gives both a history of the Sŏn school in Korea and a biography of Hyujŏng. It is broken down into several sections, specified in concepts such as “The Korean Context” and “Origins of the Sŏn’ga Kwigam.” Each section gives enough information on both Korean and Chinese Buddhism that it can be used as a starting point for many other possible studies. For example, the text includes an attempt to find justification within scripture for Hyujŏng’s willingness to engage in warfare against Japanese invaders in the 1590s. While short, this presents several interesting concepts which can be expanded upon. Another exceedingly helpful portion is the summary of the primary text. Here, Jorgensen breaks down each subsection in the translation and clarifies them in simple, concise explanations. This helps to relieve some of the repetitious nature of the translation itself.

For each section of the translation, Jorgensen provides the classical Chinese and ŏnhae translations together, followed by the translation of the commentary for each separately. These are taken from the 1569 and 1579 versions of the original text and they are clearly marked as to which is which. Both versions were used in order to clarify things like compound words and verb forms. Sections can range anywhere from one sentence to more than a page. The translation was also done with a conscious effort to be a literal as possible. However, it should be noted that while the term “Zen” is used in the title, Sŏn is by no means a one-to-one translation of Zen. For example, while there are similarities between what Hyujŏng and Dōgen wrote in terms of form of practice, these writings are significantly more open to Pure Land Buddhist teachings.

While the translation is exceptional, it nevertheless seems in some ways to be a missed opportunity. The classical Chinese was used in places among the endnotes, but was generally not included. This could have been useful for comparison of the text in multiple languages (though the rationale for excluding the classical Chinese for the purposes of publishing is understandable, and the original source document is certainly made clear).

It should be noted that there are a few times in the introduction where the reader would benefit from a greater clarity regarding sources. In one section, precedent for military action by monks is mentioned, with multiple accounts given from both Korea and China, yet the endnote connects only to a Korean manuscript referencing events which happen later than many of the ones mentioned in the text itself. In many places, though, the sources are more strongly used.

Editing was also very well done throughout the text. Only a few errors were obvious enough to be caught, and by no means did they disrupt the reading of the book.

Overall, Jorgensen’s translation of the Sŏn’ga Kwigam and his introduction were absolutely worth the time to read them. Anyone who studies Buddhism, especially in medieval Korea, China, or Japan, as well as anyone who studies religious militarism, will find a great deal of useful information in this work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kenneth J. Valencich is a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Jorgensen is adjunct professor at the Australian National University.



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