Kim Iryop. Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun: Essays by Zen Master Kim Iryop. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2014. 328 pp. $46.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-3878-2.
Reviewed by Hwansoo Kim (Duke University)
Published on H-Buddhism (July, 2014)
Commissioned by A. Charles Muller
From Passionate Feminist to Passionate Defender of Buddhism: The Life and Teachings of the Korean Nun Iryŏp (1896–1971)
One of the more frustrating challenges faced by research scholars of any religion is the lack of women’s voices in archives, which perpetuates the representation of religion by males. The gender-biased understanding of religion, despite recent efforts by new research to rectify this oversight, still persists in scholarship. In this regard, Buddhism is not an exception. The male-centered monastic institutions throughout Buddhist history have explicitly and implicitly silenced and marginalized the presence and influence of female monastics, not to mention laywomen. This propensity still continues despite the fact that, for example, half of the monastics in the Chogye Order, the largest Buddhist denomination in South Korea, are nuns. Not one of the twenty-five major monasteries in the country is run by a nun, and their leadership in the administration of the institution is negligible. Recently, attempts have been made by lay Buddhists and some monastics to push the institution to improve such biased conditions, but this movement is too premature to guarantee fundamental change anytime soon--neither in the attitude of superiority taken by monks toward nuns, nor in the monks’ reluctance to share prestige and power with the female clergy. Nevertheless, the institution visibly faces mounting pressure to reflect the current demographics and also respond to the general trend in Korean society in which women’s self-confidence is on the rise.
Jin Park’s translation of a collection of essays, talks, and letters by the eminent nun Kim Iryŏp was released at the right time, and offers one of the most convincing arguments that “nuns matter.” Iryŏp’s original book was first published in Korean in 1960 under the title, in Park’s translation, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun, and was reprinted in 1962 under a different title. It became an instant best-seller. The popularity of this book also made an unknown singer into an immediate celebrity; when Ch’unhee Song sang “A Nun of the Sudŏksa Temple” (Sudŏksa ui yŏsŭng), which referred to Iryŏp residing at the temple, the song became a major hit and still remains one of the most beloved pop songs among Koreans.
What made Iryŏp, her book, and the song about her so popular has roots in her former career as a pioneering female writer of modern Korea and a staunch feminist who campaigned against traditional values imposed upon Korean women. Iryŏp, before commencing a nun’s life in 1933, was among a few Korean women who had the rare opportunity to study abroad. In her case, she studied in Japan. Back in Korea, she published the journal A New Woman (Sinyŏja) in 1920, introducing global knowledge and ideas she gained from her study. Through her writings in this journal, public talks, as well as tumultuous marriages and love affairs, she stood at the forefront of redefining what love, chastity, marriage, and womanhood should mean in modern society. Until she abruptly left for monastic life, she enjoyed life at the center of public attention, being adulated for her bravery and also vilified as a destroyer of traditional gender roles.
After three decades of absence from the public eye, her book rekindled her previous stardom, even though her role as a feminist writer and social critic had long expired; however, her feminist image was still dominant in the minds of people. Thus, as Park rightly points out, despite the religious contents of this book, scholars’ focus on Iryŏp’s life and work has centered on her pre-monastic career, neglecting the religious dimension of her life.
Jin Park, most qualified to undertake this challenging translation project, is the first anglophone scholar to have examined Iryŏp from the Buddhist perspective, exploring the continuity between the secular and monastic periods of Iryŏp’s life. Iryŏp’s original book, which consisted of fifteen chapters, was written primarily to disseminate Buddhist teachings to the public and thus encapsulates her understanding of Buddhist doctrines, practices, and soteriology. Iryŏp presents these ideas by relating them to her life stories, existential human problems, Christianity, and pressing issues in the world and Buddhism’s role in it. However, Reflections takes a slightly different format from Iryŏp’s original book and comprises two parts. Part 1 contains thirteen of the fifteen chapters of Iryŏp’s original book; finding portions containing overlapping materials, Park took out two chapters. Part 2 consists of four chapters that Park selected from another of Iryŏp’s books that was published after her death; thus Reflections includes eighteen chapters altogether. Park has meticulously and beautifully translated Iryŏp’s writings, which have many expressions that are difficult to translate. In terms of contents Reflections presents the most articulate, forthright, and apologetic voice of an influential nun in modern Korean Buddhism.
At first glance, the fifteen chapters of part 1 seem fragmentary and lack an underlying theme. However, Iryŏp explicitly writes in chapter 1 that the essays were selected with a “subtle attempt at proselytizing Buddhist teachings” to help readers find their true selves (p. 31). It is intentional, she notes, that she wrote these essays to present her messages to the general reader in an engaging way by sharing her stories, which are reinterpreted through Buddhist teachings. Iryŏp metaphorically likens her writings to “sugar-coated medicine for little children” and “a bowl of rice with mixed vegetables.” The overarching premise of part 1, also similar in tone to part 2, is that Buddhism is the panacea for all problems since it is the religion that can transform a small, fake, delusional, dichotomous “I” or mind, into a great, true, universal, complete, wholesome “I” or mind.
Under this premise, chapters 2 through 7 make the case that Buddhism is a path to finding a true, creative life and self, as well as a religion; it is superior to Christianity, in being capable of saving both the East and the West. This chapter sets the tone for the subsequent chapters by revealing the existential reality in which we are prevented from leading an authentic life due to our lost minds. Iryŏp introduces Śākyamuni Buddha as an ideal teacher who accomplished the complete “I.” Chapter 3, titled “Buddhism and Culture,” claims that “the true realization of culture” is only possible through the activities of a great person, like the Buddha, who led “a balanced life” without any discrimination (p. 51). Chapter 4 concerns Iryŏp’s late master Man’gong (1871–1946), who inspired her towards a lifelong practice. Iryŏp identifies Man’gong with a teacher like Śākyamuni Buddha and details his Sŏn (Zen) teachings and memorable anecdotes.
In chapter 5, Iryŏp discusses the two periods of her life, namely before and after her introduction to Buddhism. Before, as a daughter of a pastor, she was a faithful follower of Jesus. But she was disillusioned with Christianity when she could not find a satisfactory answer to the following question: “[D]id God, who is omnipotent and omnipresent, not foresee that Adam and Eve would eat the apple of good and evil?” (p. 79). Later, she found that Jesus and God and their activities were the mere mirrors of mind, and this realization prepared her to convert to Buddhism, a religion that she perceived to revolve around the centrality of the mind. In addition to this religious transition, she also makes a clear demarcation between her life as a feminist writer and a Buddhist nun: namely, she discredits her former self by characterizing herself as “determined” but “impulsive” and “inexperienced” (pp. 79–80). Seemingly denying her previous identity, she claims that Buddhist teachings are “about the original mind free of all writings, languages, and theories” (p. 80).
In chapter 6, which is a proposal that Iryŏp wrote for the World Buddhist Conference in Thailand in 1958, Iryŏp highlights that there was a Buddhist revival and, during this time, many Westerners came to practice Buddhist meditation. She implores Buddhists to play a leading role in contributing to world peace and human freedom. As a most urgent matter to disseminate Buddhism, she proposes that establishing a meditation hall at each temple should be “the single special duty of Buddhism at the moment” (p. 91).
Chapter 7 contains Iryŏp’s response to a factional strife between married and celibate monks that had plagued Korean Buddhism for decades after Japanese colonial rule (1910–45). She takes a pro-celibacy stance and maintains that monastics should observe precepts because leading a family life would be detrimental to their pursuit of Buddhahood. Iryŏp was critical of the ways in which the movement to purify Korean Buddhism was implemented, but she was steadfast in believing that married monks would not be able to build the future of Korean Buddhism, proclaiming, “It would be like constructing a building on sand” (p. 95).
Chapters 8 through 12 demonstrate Iryŏp’s efforts to come to grips with her past and, especially, those with whom she had close friendships and love relationships. These chapters appear to emphasize the transformation that she achieved as a result of her monastic training and Sŏn practice. Chapter 9 is an emotionally charged, accusatory reaction to one of her closest friends, Ch’oe Namsŏn (1890–1957), who converted to Catholicism after his decades-long work as a Buddhist intellectual. She speculates that the sectarian strife in Korean Buddhism might have been a major factor. It was particularly painful to her to find out that Ch’oe had lost his Buddhist faith, since they had worked closely together. Besides, it was Ch’oe who had granted her the penname Iryŏp, which he had taken from the prominent Japanese female writer Higuchi Ichiyo (1872–96). Ichiyo, pronounced Iryŏp in Korean, passed away in 1896, the same year in which Iryŏp was born. Ch’oe viewed Iryŏp as Ichiyo in Korea. Iryŏp continued to use it as her monastic name. For this reason, she forcefully seeks to persuade Ch’oe to reconsider his conversion. Interestingly, the following chapter is Iryŏp’s contrasting response to a letter from one of her Christian female friends, in which the friend expressed her shock upon learning that Iryŏp, a daughter of a pastor, had left Jesus and converted to Buddhism. In her reply, Iryŏp justifies her conversion by repeating the point about Christianity being inferior to Buddhism.
Chapters 10 and 11 consist of Iryŏp’s letters to two men with whom she had bitter romantic relationships. Chapter 10 is her letter to the poet Im Nowŏl, with whom she fell in love without knowing that he already had a wife. The ensuing deception, betrayal, separation, depression, and joint suicide attempt, all caused by his psychological instability and her naïve compliance with this messy situation, are analyzed from the lens of Buddhist teachings. Chapter 11, the longest and most fascinating chapter of the book, is her letter to the Buddhist monk Paek Sŏng'uk (1897–81). Paek was her true love and the first teacher who deepened her understanding of Buddhism. Ordained in 1910, he was an elite monk who received his degree in Germany in 1925. After his return to Korea, Paek was active in Buddhist institutions and education. A yearlong intensive romantic relationship between Paek and Iryŏp abruptly ended with his sudden announcement of separation. He apparently went for another woman! Iryŏp never recovered from this unexpected severance, but the resultant pain and suffering she underwent paved the way for her journey to seek monastic life to find her greater self. Now, as a nun and mature person, Iryŏp recollects her previous self, even with a tinge of relief and self-mockery: “How crazy that was! How silly!” (p. 198). Paek’s letter to Iryŏp follows in the next chapter, which leads one to wonder what motived her to include his letter in this book. She may have felt that his letter would bring a sense of resolution to their relationship and confirm in public her spiritual growth. What could be a better way than to be endorsed by her former lover and monk who was highly successful in his public career? Paek, now a widower, apologizes for his betrayal but reassures her of his unswerving affection. Yet, as if amending his mistake, he turns his romantic feeling toward her into a gesture of respect, calling her “Venerable Iryŏp, Venerable Iryŏp … Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva” (p. 205). His deferential and self-deprecating attitude, slightly contrived in my opinion, culminates in his seeking her spiritual advice.
Chapter 13 is a letter from one of Iryŏp’s disciples, Wŏlsŏng, who helped compile the publication and tended to Iryŏp until her death. Wolsŏng expresses gratitude to Iryŏp for her guidance and teaching.
Chapters 14 through 18, which fall under part 2, are lectures with similar Buddhist messages that Iryŏp gave in the mid-1960s. Iryŏp expounds upon the key Buddhist concept of emptiness (chapter 14), two central practices, namely prayer and chanting (chapters 15 and 16, respectively), and how one, as a leader in society, should apply Buddhist practice and teachings to daily life (chapter 18).
While reading this book, I was amazed at how honest and forthright Iryŏp is in recounting her past, although, as she admits, it was dramatized for the sake of readers. However, Reflections raises a number of interesting questions pertaining to the historical, social, and religious contexts in which she lived. First, as Park also asks, what happened to Iryŏp’s feminist ideals after she became a nun? As implied in her writings, did she consider those modern ideas as nothing more than futile endeavors due to a small “I” and binary mind? How did she see the obvious gender issues in Korean Buddhism that she must have witnessed? Were they now totally obsolete, and thus irrelevant, because the monastic setting would operate beyond gender discrimination? Equally important, what changed her position on the clerical marriage issue, especially given that when she was in a relationship with Paek, she deemed it not aberrant but natural? Also, after breaking up with Paek, she even married a monk before becoming ordained. Additionally, how did Buddhist monastics and followers react to the vivid disclosure of her romantic stories? How did Ch’oe and other Christians respond to her book, which contains seemingly contentious, polemic descriptions of Christianity? If there is a thread of continuity between her initial career as a feminist and her later life as a Buddhist teacher, perhaps it is that she brought great passion to whatever she undertook.
While one must await future research to be able to answer these questions and others, including Iryŏp’s impact on Korean Buddhism, I would like to salute Jin Park for making this significant work of Iryŏp’s available in the English language. Reflections is a jewel in understanding modern Korea, Christianity, gender, and Buddhism through the eyes of an elite nun and thus should be a must-read primary source for undergraduate and graduate courses on Korean religion, Buddhism, and women and gender studies. Undoubtedly, Reflections will stimulate ample scholarly discussion and further efforts to give the voices of Buddhist nuns more prominence.
. Jin Y. Park, “Gendered Response to Modernity: Kim Iryŏp and Buddhism,” in Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 109–130.
. There are three other book-length works on Korean nuns: Martine Batchelor, Women in Korean Zen: Lives And Practices (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006); Daehaeng, No River to Cross: Trusting the Enlightenment That's Always Right Here (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2007); and Eunsu Cho, Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen: Hidden Histories, Enduring Vitality (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-buddhism.
Hwansoo Kim. Review of Iryop, Kim, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun: Essays by Zen Master Kim Iryop.
H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews.
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