An interview with the Korean Buddhism expert
CHEONAN, South Korea -- American David A. Mason has lived in Korea for over 30 years. Much of that time has been dedicated to the study of Korean Buddhism and the exploration of the country's sacred sites. Mason first became interested in Buddhism while in high school as an alternative and a supplement to the Protestant worldview of his upbringing. He had always liked hiking amid the mountain scenery and found it to be the perfect combination of spiritual and physical exertion when he came to Korea as an English teacher.
Over the decades, Mason has watched Korean Buddhism globalize, a development he intends to aid with his encyclopedia, An Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism, which was published last year by Seoul publisher Unjusa.
Mason now works as a professor of Korean Cultural Tourism at Namseoul University in Cheonan.
Your encyclopedia is over 600 pages long and contains thousands of definitions of Buddhist concepts, as well as biographies of major monks and histories of major temples. What were your sources for all this information?
A lot of the information came from previous compilations of such material in Korean by the scholars of Dongguk University and the Jogye Order, which some had been translated into rough English. There was also a collection of academic essays on specific topics in English by scholars previously working for Dongguk on other projects. I had already written and edited a collection of 30 essays on Korea’s top Buddhist treasures that was published in the Korea Times and published as a book distributed at the 2010 G-20 summit in Seoul. All this material that I had to start with, perhaps 1,000 pages in crude form, had to be completely rewritten and heavily edited to make it consistent in style and sufficiently brief for the encyclopedia format. And then extensive fact-checking had to be conducted as we went along, including all the Chinese characters and their precise translations—I utilized public sources available on the internet and various reference works, the websites of the various temples, the official Dictionary of Korean Buddhist Temples (in Hangeul and Hanja), and so on. It was really such a tremendous amount of work, keeping me busy for more than a year—working way past midnight trying to “get it right.”
When did you and the Venerable Hyewon conceive the idea of this encyclopedia? How long was it in the making?
Professor Hyewon had been thinking about doing this great project for more than a decade. She, myself and many others knew that there was such a great need for this kind of comprehensive work in English, to properly present the deep characteristics of Korean Buddhism to the world. And also to inform Koreans themselves of the correct facts and perspectives, the best English terminology to use when they are speaking or writing about these traditions to the global community—this is a dire necessity for the TempleStay program, those working to promote Korean tourism, the Jogye order’s missionary efforts and those working in museums, cultural villages, etc. So the need was there, but it took the Venerable Hyewon a long time to arrange the necessary funding and pull together the other resources, and to find the correct native English-speaking person who could accomplish this with her. She told me that it had been very difficult to find a westerner who already had deep knowledge about Korean Buddhist sites, masters and history, and was also a good writer with the organizational skills and sufficient time available to accomplish such a gigantic project. It just so happened that I was unemployed and available in 2012, and upon hearing about this prospective encyclopedia became excited about participating in it. I was able to bring some valuable aspects to the project, Hyewon and other scholar-leaders found, as a non-Korean and “outsider”—I could add a more objective and international perspective. So once they felt that they had found the right person to accomplish the book, and the funding, review editors and publisher were all arranged—by the winter of 2012 we could get seriously started and then make rapid, smooth progress together.
What was the hardest part about compiling this encyclopedia? What part did you like the most?
Just the very long hours of going over minute details of so many entries, struggling to present the best quality and most extensive knowledge in a very concise manner—sometimes that got really tedious and seemed a lonely effort. Maybe the best aspects were that I learned so much more than I already knew by doing this, and I got to refresh all my great experiences of visiting all the major temples over the past three decades, going over the photos and reliving the memories. Experiencing the grand monasteries and finding the remote hermitages up on the slopes of Korea’s most beautiful and sacred mountains has always been my favorite activity while living here, and so going over the extensive related materials again and considering what perspectives to use in presenting them to the world was very fulfilling.
What role did your 30 years of personal experience with Korean Buddhism play in your composition of the encyclopedia? How did you maintain your objectivity?
Well, a particular advantage was that I had already been to all of the hundred most important temples in Korea that would be considered for inclusion in this work, some of them multiple times; altogether I had visited and photographed some 1500 Korean Buddhist temples and major shaman shrines to research my work on the sanshin mountain spirits—this meant that I was able to recognize errors in the texts about histories, architecture and treasures, and add some other insights from my notes, memories and photos. Most scholars that work on historical and philosophical issues have not done such extensive traveling fieldwork, so they don’t have such first-hand knowledge of the sites and artworks. That visiting such sites had been my personal hobby in this nation, that it’s what I do in my leisure time for enjoyment, certainly assisted me in having both an accurate and a positive perspective. On the other hand, being a westerner with different eyes and mind from Koreans allowed me to maintain an international perspective about what is most important and interesting in this gigantic set of traditions, and what people from other nations really want to know about them. I have been in Korea long enough to be able to work harmoniously with Korean scholars on a project like this, fitting together with their perspectives while not compromising my own.
What do you think is the most important Buddhist concept for foreigners to understand?
Perhaps “enlightenment” itself, how it is not mystical or otherworldly as some people might think, but a very real-world perspective of insight and wisdom, quite pragmatic and accurate. Also that in general, Buddhism is less of a superstitious religion than people think, and doesn’t really take the worship of deities and the notions of heavens, hells, reincarnations and transcendent gods or spirits very seriously. Foreigners often don’t understand that the very serious focus on concentrated meditation practice and attainment of wisdom by philosophical study is the main focus of the serious Buddhist practitioners, especially in this nation where meditative Buddhism (Chan or Zen, which we call Seon) has been the predominant stream for 1000 years, and that the more “religious” aspects are only subsidiary.
What is the main thing that a foreign reader can learn from your encyclopedia?
What aspects of Korean Buddhism are similar and shared with other Buddhist nations, especially our northeast Asian Mahayana neighbors, and which ones are unique to this country or at least unusually specialized or emphasized here. Readers can learn the exact details of the greatest masters, temples, practices, doctrines and artworks that have made the Korean Buddhist tradition what it uniquely is over the past 1700 years; they can also gain a well-balanced perspective over the entire flow of it, I think.
Is there anything else you would like to tell potential readers?
A book like this is a good guide, but the really essential way to understand Korean Buddhism and get some benefit from it is to visit as many as possible of the great temples scattered around the nation, usually at the highly sacred mountains and in beautiful national and provincial parks. Traveling to those sites offers very pleasurable experiences of the surrounding atmosphere, the food and drink available, the very friendly countryside people involved and the great artworks in their natural settings. I have to strongly recommend everyone to try a few TempleStay experiences—ever since I assisted in the creation of this program starting in 2002, it has blossomed into the best way to experience Buddhism in the world, and traditional Korean culture as a whole, really. Just bring a copy of this encyclopedia along with you during your trip, and you will come to understand much more of what you see, hear and experience out there.
For more, visit Professor Mason’s website: www.san-shin.org.
Photo by Kim Myung-sub, courtesy of David A. Mason.
Professor Mason's book is available on Amazon.com.