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Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun

Essays by Zen Master Kim Iryop

Kim Iryop, translated and with an introduction by Jin Young Park

Publication Year: 2014

The life and work of Kim Iryŏp (1896–1971) bear witness to Korea’s encounter with modernity. A prolific writer, Iryŏp reflected on identity and existential loneliness in her poems, short stories, and autobiographical essays. As a pioneering feminist intellectual, she dedicated herself to gender issues and understanding the changing role of women in Korean society. As an influential Buddhist nun, she examined religious teachings and strove to interpret modern human existence through a religious world view. Originally published in Korea when Iryŏp was in her sixties, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun (Ŏnŭ sudoin ŭi hoesang) makes available for the first time in English a rich, intimate, and unfailingly candid source of material with which to understand modern Korea, Korean women, and Korean Buddhism.

Throughout her writing, Iryŏp poses such questions as: How does one come to terms with one’s identity? What is the meaning of revolt and what are its limitations? How do we understand the different dimensions of love in the context of Buddhist teachings? What is Buddhist awakening? How do we attain it? How do we understand God and the relationship between good and evil? What is the meaning of religious practice in our time? We see through her thought and life experiences the co-existence of seemingly conflicting ideas and ideals—Christianity and Buddhism, sexual liberalism and religious celibacy, among others.

In Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun, Iryŏp challenges readers with her creative interpretations of Buddhist doctrine and her reflections on the meaning of Buddhist practice. In the process she offers insight into a time when the ideas and contributions of women to twentieth-century Korean society and intellectual life were just beginning to emerge from the shadows, where they had been obscured in the name of modernization and nation-building.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Translator’s Introduction: Kim Iryŏp, Her Life and Thought

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pp. 1-26

Kim Iryŏp (1896–1971) was a writer, new woman, and Zen Buddhist nun whose life offers us a panorama of modern Korean society. Modernity as a global phenomenon has brought changes in the way people understand the world and create values. Rationality, secularism, freedom, equality, and civil society are some of modernity’s major characteristics. To understand modernity in East Asia, however, it is necessary to recognize that...

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Part One

The value of one’s existence is measured by whether one stands as an independent being, leading one’s life according to one’s own will. When we say “I,” this “I” has meaning only when we are fully in charge of ourselves. When we are free to do everything our own way, there is no reason for complaint or discontentment. Freedom and peace cannot be attained outside of oneself because they are the very self of each and every existence...

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Chapter 1: Preface

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pp. 29-32

The value of one’s existence is measured by whether one stands as an independent being, leading one’s life according to one’s own will. When we say “I,” this “I” has meaning only when we are fully in charge of ourselves. When we are free to do everything our own way, there is no reason for complaint or discontentment. Freedom and peace cannot be attained outside of oneself because they are the very self of each and every existence...

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Chapter 2: Life

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pp. 33-44

Because life (insaeng) concerns everyone, different people take different positions, propose different perspectives, and argue against one another. However, before discussing issues related to the life of a human being, we should first ask whether we are living as a human being. I would say that living as a human being is the beginning and end of all questions. All problems are solved once we know that we are leading such a life, ...

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Chapter 3: Buddhism and Culture

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pp. 45-54

The Buddha is the pronoun for all existence, an alias for the universe as well as the real name for each of us. Each and every thing in the entire world, both inside and outside, can be represented by this one letter, Buddha (Pul). Phenomenal reality, within the limits of human speculation and divided sensory capacities, is the external aspect of the Buddha. Its internal aspect is existence before a thought arises, before even the name of...

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Chapter 4: In Memory of the Great Master Man’gong on the Fifteenth Anniversary of His Death

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pp. 55-77

It is already becoming part of the past. Fifteen years have gone by since the master entered nirvana, quietly, as if the entire world had died away, on an unusually warm early winter day. Why did he keep himself so busy, trying to save sentient beings who are leading lives of naïveté amidst the greatness of nature, where birds sing timeless songs under white clouds and on green mountains? What was he trying to show us through the...

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Chapter 5: On New Year’s Day of the Twenty-Fifth Year after Joining the Monastery

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pp. 78-86

Twenty-four years is a fragment of a moment compared to the innumerable kalpas [eons of time] that existed before and will exist after this life. All the same, the time before I joined the monastery, though only twenty-six years ago, seems to me like the ancient past. I published the following end-of-year poem in the Chosŏn Daily newspaper: ...

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Chapter 6: A Proposal to the World Fellowship of Buddhists Conference

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pp. 87-91

To the Chairperson of the Conference:
I, a Buddhist nun and member of the general conference of Buddhists, the largest gathering of people, wish for the results of this conference to change the history of humanity, which has been lost in currents of confusion, so that a true history can begin to shine. With that prayer, I submit this proposal...

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Chapter 7: Why Has Buddhism Launched a Purification Movement?

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pp. 92-96

The Buddha signifies everything; he is wholeness. To exclude even a turd or a handful of dirt makes the Buddha incomplete. How, then, does purity or impurity come to be an issue in Buddhism?
The Buddha is the unity of phenomena in the universe (after a thought arises) and that which is before the creation of this reality (before a thought arises). The Buddha is the original name of the universe. The...

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Chapter 8: Is the Mind One or Two? To Mr. C., Who Has Recently Converted to Catholicism

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pp. 97-109

It has been almost thirty years since we last met. During that long time, we have not had a chance to exchange letters, but an acquaintance of mine from time to time has sent your news to me up on this mountaintop. I was so sorry to hear that you were ill lately.
You were a longtime Buddhist, and the news that you recently converted to Catholicism was quite unexpected. I thought that you knew at least basic Buddhist doctrine: that Buddhism is a teaching that unifies the states of before and after the creation of all beings; that the Buddha is the...

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Chapter 9: What Is Faith? Contemplation upon Reading a Letter from My Friend M.

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pp. 110-119

In the secular world, to study means to increase the quantity of one’s knowledge; for monks and nuns, to practice means to dissolve whatever one already has, both in quantity and in quality, so as to grasp and utilize the inner essence of that which exists before a thought arises. As a nun I have yet to fully realize progress in my practice and, thus, there are people in the shadows of feelings that linger in my path. I especially find from time to time...

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Chapter 10: The Path to No-Mind: A Letter to Mr. R.

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pp. 120-139

Our “romance,” which caused quite a scandal both in Seoul and in the countryside, came to an end thirty-six years ago. It floated away like the fallen leaves. Compared to the infinite number of lives we are destined to live, that year or two together was like the shortest dream in a short period in our lives. It is not our relationship that compels me to write this letter now. I have a habit of making decisions without thinking them through...

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Chapter 11: Having Burned Away My Youth: A Letter to Mr. B.

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pp. 140-198

The knife of an enemy can only hurt the body, but who could have known that the touch of love could damage both body and mind? Do you know what it’s like to suffer, to groan in the midst of the ruins of love holding a heart fatally wounded by the knife of separation, the knife that was the very transformation of the touches that had caressed your body and soul? In one corner of my chilly room sits a lonely desk with a clock on it...

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Chapter 12: With a Returned Gift in My Hand

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pp. 199-205

It was more than thirty years ago, and yet it feels so recent, like something that happened just today. On the other hand, it also feels like a thing that happened a long while ago. When we met, you and I were adults who had already experienced married life, but we were purer and more passionate in our love than any boy and girl could be! Our love was like a universe...

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Chapter 13: Having Prepared a Clean Copy of My Master’s Manuscript (by Yi Wŏlsong)

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pp. 206-210

The reason to give up the relationships and responsibilities of the secular world and join a monastery is to find the original mind that has been lost and thus become a human being with a clear mind. It has been more than thirty years since my master vowed to remind those who have forgotten their original mind about this loss. Even without reading or writing, life at the meditation center is busy, and to pursue reading and writing, which...

Part Two

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Chapter 14: Return to Emptiness

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pp. 213-223

You should keep in mind Śakyamuni Buddha’s declaration, made for all of us, that “In the entire world, only I am precious.” This “I” is the head, tail, and center of the universe. The universal “I” travels through eternity and eventually inherits that eternity. The mind is the basis of human existence because the mind does not lose the “I.” Everything begins from the “I.” This “I” exists closest to “me” but can also travel to the end of the...

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Chapter 15: Meditation and the Attainment of the Mind

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pp. 224-226

People always have desires in life, and since their desires are not always satisfied, they become lost in their own complaints. This happens because they fail to attain the foundation of life, the state of mind that is endowed with all the required elements. To live without attaining this state of mind is like trying to cook rice with no rice at hand. Meditation is the way to attain the foundation of life. Meditation (that is, to control one’s mind) is...

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Chapter 16: Prayer and Chanting

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pp. 227-228

Meditation is a way of finding oneself through self-reflection. Prayer, on the other hand, is an endeavor with a goal, thus there exists an object to whom one prays. If the object of the prayer is Bodhisattva Kuanyin [Avalokiteśvara], the name Kuanyin means that by listening to the sound (the mind) of the world, the bodhisattva makes happen what is being prayed for. Those of us who live in the weakest and most myopic way...

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Chapter 17: Path to Eternity: A Message to Journalists

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pp. 229-236

Before I joined the monastery I came to realize that people have difficulty in life because they fail to secure the “foundation” of life. This realization convinced me that I should find the very foundation of life for myself. It is the same as needing first to prepare fields in order to cultivate crops, to have rice to make cooked rice, or to build railroad tracks for the operation...


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pp. 237-274

Character Glossary

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pp. 275-278


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pp. 279-288


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pp. 289-302

About the Translator, Series Page, Production Notes, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824840235
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838782

Publication Year: 2014