[KS] REVIEW>_Being Buddhist in a Christian World_, by Sharon Suh (reviewed by Jin Y. Park)

Charles Muller acmuller at gol.com
Thu Sep 23 23:12:23 EDT 2004

From: Charles Muller <acmuller at GOL.COM>
Subject: REVIEW>_Being Buddhist in a Christian World_, by Sharon Suh (reviewed by Jin Y. Park)

[Originally Published on the H-Buddhism Scholars' Network]

Sharon A. Suh. _Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and
Community in a Korean American Temple_. Seattle and London: University
of Washington Press, 2004. ix + 210 pp. Notes, Bibliography,
Index. $35.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-295-98378-7.

Reviewed for H-Buddhism by Jin Y. Park (jypark at american.edu),
Department of Philosophy and Religion, American University.

Why Are We Buddhists?: Korean American Perspectives

Scholars of American Buddhism generally categorize Buddhism in America
into two groups: "Asian immigrant Buddhism" and "American convert
Buddhism." The former refers to the Buddhism that immigrants from
Asian nations brought with them and continue to practice in the new
land, whereas the latter indicates Buddhism practiced by westerners.

On a surface level, the difference between _immigrant_ and _convert_
Buddhism lies in the respective languages spoken by each group. On a
deeper level, however, the list of factors that divide these two
groups of Buddhists runs longer: there are differences in the way each
group understands Buddhism as well as differences in their mode of
practice. The relative volume of available scholarly research on these
groups also reflects significant differences. Material on American
convert Buddhism has steadily increased for the past twenty-five
years or so, whereas the dearth of material on Asian immigrant
Buddhism has yet to be paid serious attention.

In light of virtual lack of research on Korean immigrant Buddhism in
the United States, Sharon A. Suh's anthropological study based on her
field research at a Korean Buddhist temple in Los Angeles is more than
welcome. Korean Buddhism in America has come to be known mostly
through the activities and publications centered around Zen Master
Seung Sahn and his organization. However, whether Seung Sahn's
Buddhism can be characterized as being representative of Korean
Buddhism in the United States is highly questionable, and the
situation becomes more problematic when we consider Korean immigrant
Buddhism in the way that it is practiced among Korean Americans. Suh's
book is, in this sense, the first book-length research on Korean
American ethnic Buddhism in America.

In _Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and Community in a
Korean American Temple_, Dr. Suh explores the meaning of the practice
of Buddhism by immigrants in a land whose religious traditions are
still largely dominated by the influence of Christianity. Based on her
interviews with twenty-five female lay practitioners and twenty-five
male practitioners--twenty-three lay practitioners and two monks--at a
Korean temple in Los Angeles (for which the author uses the pseudonym
Sa Chal Temple), Suh develops her discussion in the context of the two
major themes of the book: gender and community. Her research shows a
clear distinction in the ways male and female practitioners perceive
the meaning and the function of Buddhism in their lives. It also
reveals that the communal context in which these practitioners live as
immigrants, largely separated from mainstream society, has a
significant impact on their view of Buddhism.

The book is composed in eight chapters. In the Introduction (Chapter 1),
the author states: "religion is a highly gendered phenomenon that
results in distinctly male and female forms of worship and constructions
of identity" (pp. 4-5). In three chapters--Chapter 4 and 5 on female
members' views of Buddhism and Chapter 6 on that of male members--Suh
provides a detailed articulation of the gendered practice of Buddhism by
directly offering the words of her interviewees, while consciously
restraining herself from making authorial interpretations of the
material. This shows the author's methodological preference of capturing
the "lived experience" over the totalizing view of cultural abstraction
(p. 27). Instead of constructing a "metanarrative" of Korean ethnic
Buddhism in America, the author expresses the intent to present for the
reader individual case studies.

The author finds that for women, the Buddhist concept of karma and its
emphasis on self-knowledge become a strong source of power in helping
them overcome the hardships they face in life. By employing the Buddhist
concept of karmic retribution, the author claims, these women come to
the understanding that the tragedies in their lives are of their own
making, and hence they are responsible for their own suffering. For
these women, practicing Buddhism is a process of "psychological
healing"-- of finding and knowing their own selves--which brings them

The Buddhism of psychological healing for female practitioners at Sa
Chal Temple stands in stark contrast with the Buddhism understood by
male practitioners. Dismissing women's Buddhism as an emotional and
fortune-seeking religion, male practitioners at Sa Chal show more
interest in intellectual and political approaches to Buddhism such as
the temple's efforts toward the reunification of North and South
Koreas and the temple's College program. By participating in the
functions of a Korean Buddhist temple, not only do male members
establish "a strong connection with the place of origin," but they
construct "a distinctly male space for [themselves] in response to the
vicissitudes of immigration to the new country" (p. 138). To male
practitioners at Sa Chal, the Buddhist temple provides a transnational
space in which they regain the same social status and recognition they
received in their home land. The extension of this is the notion that
"to be Buddhist is to be Korean" (p. 139).

In Chapter 7, Suh discusses the double minority status of ethnic Korean
Buddhism in the United States. This means that (1) Buddhism is a
minority religion in the United States in which majority of the
indigenous populace is Christian; and (2) These Buddhists also represent
a minority among the Korean Americans, especially as compared to the
number of Christians, who reached a record of more than 70 percent of
Korean Americans, compared to the 5 percent representation by Korean
Buddhists in the U.S.

One point of tension between Korean American Buddhists and Korean
American Christians can be seen in the religious orientation of the
second-generation Korean Americans. In many cases, the children of the
members of Sa Chal stop attending the temple and begin attending
Korean Christian Churches. One reason for their conversion is the
minority position of Buddhism among Korean Americans. Most Korean
American associates of second-generation immigrants are Christians,
and in order to keep up with their friendships, members of the second
generation attend churches.

To conclude her discussion, Suh asks why Buddhists at Sa Chal remain
Buddhists when they are aware of the double minority positions in
which they will be placed. Her interviewees' responses show that
Buddhists are proud of their self-reliance and independence. They
believe that Buddhism is more advanced form of religiosity than
Christianity, since the Buddhist tradition does not need to rely upon
a God.

The book does an excellent job of portraying why Korean Americans
practice Buddhism, how Buddhist teachings help them regain their
personal and public identities, and what function a Buddhist temple
plays in the milieu of the immigrants' lives. While the author was
successful in providing "lived experiences" of the members of Sa Chal,
because of her methodological approach of restraining from offering critical
interpretations on her material, some important questions are left

One such question is the issue of the role of the temple as a
community center. As the author well describes, this function surely
benefits the life of Korean immigrants for the time being. However,
the author could have asked whether or not in the long run it might
impose limitations on the wider spread of influence of Korean American
Buddhist temples among the general populace. The failure on the part
of Korean immigrant temples to keep the second-generation Korean
Americans within the fold is another issue that requires a critical
evaluation in order to consider the future of Korean immigrant
Buddhism and its role for young generation Korean Americans, and this
matter is not adequately addressed in this book.

Additionally, some of the author's interpretations of the Buddhist
doctrine require further elaboration. For example, at the beginning of
the book, the author argues that, unlike the overemphasis on
selflessness as the core of Buddhism seen in western introductory
courses on the religion, "discourse on selflessness was historically
aimed at the most highly trained of monastic Buddhist scholars
interested in questions of ontology and was not a concern of the
ordinary lay Buddhist" (p. 5). This is a strong claim which requires
some scholarly buttressing, but which the book does not provide.

The author's portrayal of gender equality in a Buddhist temple seems
idealistic. The author claims that unlike Korean Christian churches
where Confucian gender hierarchy is still maintained, in Buddhist
temples, women are recognized "first and foremost as pious laywomen
rather than dutiful wives and mothers at the temple"
(p. 128). However, the readily-observable reality of many Korean
American Buddhist temples is that women practitioners are still
responsible for preparing food and handling household chores for the
temple whereas male practitioners are concerned with managerial-type
work and usually occupy the leadership positions.

Furthermore, the lack of clarification of the different identities of
the Sa Chal Temple and the Diamond Sutra Recitation Group creates
confusion and weakens an important finding the author provides through
the words of a female practitioner who attends both Sa Chal Temple
(which the author considers as a traditional Buddhism) and the Diamond
Sutra Recitation Group (an alternative practice) (pp. 78-95). A clear
explanation of their relationship in the context of Korean Buddhism,
which the book does not provide, would not only help readers
understand the discussion but is also necessary for the logical
development of her argument.

Finally, there are problems at the technical level of the writing
itself, the most visible of these being the lack of the usage of
systematic transcription of Korean in romanization. As a result, the
romanized Korean words are sometimes unintelligible even to a native
speaker of Korean.

Though these technical lapses can be distracting, the book as a whole
does a superb job in describing what it means to be a Buddhist at a
Korean ethnic temple in the United States as an immigrant. It surely
captures the "lived experience" of these practitioners by expanding on
the meaning of Buddhism in their lives and the influence of gender and
community on their views of Buddhism. The book will be helpful in
courses on Buddhism, gender studies, and Asian American studies among

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