A. Charles Muller has provided those who are interested in Korean Buddhism and culture with an excellent window into both through his translation of "The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment".
While many know of Japanese Zen Buddhism, and more are coming to understand its origins in Ch'an (Chinese Zen), there still reamins a great deal of Zen history that has yet to be documented properly. Because of that lack of documented history, many people still do not realize the extreamly important contribution made by Korean thought and practice to Buddhism in general and Zen in particular.
In this regards the commentary of Son Monk Kihwa's on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment is rich with insight into the those aspects of Korean thought which are unique to that culture. Specifically what Kihwa focuses upon is the core of Zen ideology - which is the understanding that one cannot depend upon written text, or oral tradition, for enlightenment.
How then, Kihwa asks, can one be certain to have the essence of the Buddha's technique's of attaining enlightenment in one's practice. The answer for Kihwa lays in the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, where the Buddha outlines how future generations can be assured that they are still following the proper practices to obtain enlightenment. The simplicity of the Buddha's answer (When illusion ceases the nature of enlightenment becomes self evident - Discriminatory thinking causes illusion) becomes the foundation for Kihwa's thesis on what should consitute Korean Zen practice.
What that foundation of practice turns out to be is a Zen based upon everyday life, and not esoteric thought and the intense study of scripture. As Kihwa says, "The Buddhi-Dharma is contained in the world;you cannot separate the world and enlightenment. Seeking bodhi apart from the world is like looking for horns on a rabbit."
So Kihwa's formulation of a sucessful Zen practice is to seek out a good teacher to instruct one in the proper techniques of mediation, but to then work out one's path towards enlightenment on an individual level actively engaging in mediation, and this mediation is done to remove the obstructions of illusion from the mind one concept at a time. If this is done with the required dedication and energy, enlightenment can then take place suddenly (Satori) as was promised by the Buddha.
A. Charles Muller's introduction and commentary provide an excellent overview of the historic forces that were at play and provide a context for understanding Kihwa as a person. Muller point out that he had originally been a highly sucessful Confusian scholar, which at that time was pushing Buddhist influence out of mainstream Korean life.
At the peak of his Confusician career he converted to Buddhism and applied his highly developed knowledge of Chinese to the task of translating the Sutra from the original Sanskrit. Kihwa's discussion on the meaning of the Chinese character for "Perfect" [Yuan] takes us right into the heart of Zen, as he explains how the character means circle (as in the empty circle), complete and perfect.
What Muller also points out, which is critical for many people's proper understanding of Zen, is that the apparent anti-intellectual/anti-scripture ideology of Zen came from a need to clearly demark it from Confucian scholarly study and mediation. Muller argues that the anti-scripture arguements made by many Zen scholars were just slogans being thrown at the Confucians, rather than true indicators of practice.
What the record shows is that there was actually a very active body of Zen monk scholars who wrote exensively about their practice and experiences. The problem for westerners is that when we read the translated materials, we can't reference the historic context that the material was writen in, so we don't "get" the sub-text of the arguments simply because we today are not the intended audience.
So Muller provides us with an excellent means of understanding who Kihwa was, why he is important for us today, and how his translation provides a true window into Korean Zen thought and practice. Again, the significant contribution that Kihwa makes is the understanding that once we eliminate illusion from our minds and perception, enlightenment is self evident.
What we see in that state of enlightenment is the world as it is, and from that gain the understanding that everything that matters and is profound is right in front of our eyes. Nothing else is needed, and nothing is to be gained trying to search for enlightenment outside of our ordinary lives. Be at one with what is around you through living in the here and now.
That is Kihwa's message, and it is just as relevant today as when he wrote it nearly 600 years ago.
The translation is very good as far as I could see without relation to the original. It's fluently and the comments are profound.
I was little bit surprised about this Son Monk Kihwa and his comments. Son Monk Kihwa is not a monk from today, it's one of the 14th century. And without his commentary the book wouldn't be worth it.