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Reviewed by:
  • Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen: Hidden Histories, Enduring Vitality
  • Shi Zhiru, Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies and Chinese Religions
Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen: Hidden Histories, Enduring Vitality. Edited by Eun-su Cho, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011, xiii, 210 p.

Due to the paucity of written records, it is difficult to attempt historical reconstruction of the lives of Buddhist women in East Asia. Happily, in the last decade, book-length historical studies of female monasticism in China and Japan have appeared, notably Beata Grant's Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China (University of Hawai'i Press, 2008) and Lori Meeks' Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Pre-Modern Japan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010). Another first book is Elsie DeVido's short monograph, Taiwan's Buddhist Nuns (State University of New York Press, 2010), a historical study of contemporary nuns in Taiwan.

In this range of studies, Korea is visibly absent from this burgeoning scholarship on female monasticism in East Asia. This is particularly odd at a time when nuns constitute half of the ordained population in the largest Korean Buddhist order, the Chogye-jong (p. 35). Two popular publications on Korean nuns have recently appeared (Martine Bachelor, Women in Korean Zen: Lives and Practice, Syracuse University Press, 2006; Daehaeng Sunim, No River to Cross: Trusting the Enlightenment That's Always Right Here, Wisdom Publications, 2007). However, thus far there has been no book-length scholarly publication on the topic. Hence, Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen: Hidden Histories, Enduring Vitality is a long overdue contribution, which bridges this lacuna in modern English-language scholarship.

The book's eight chapters provide historical vignettes of the lives and work of Korean Buddhist women. Portrayals of their unwavering dedication, resourcefulness, and strength are contextualized within broader intellectual, political, and social environments. Chapter 1, the editor's Introduction, sets forth the scholarly and religious backgrounds for studying Korean Buddhist women. Eun-su Cho explains that the relative neglect of female practitioners [End Page 187] on the part of both scholars and practitioners of Korean Buddhism is the outcome of three obstacles: the dearth of primary textual sources; the nuns' tendencies to represent themselves through inherited traditional (and often sectarian) views; and the problematic of applying Western feminist or gender theories to Korean contexts.

Chapter 2, also by Cho, gives a useful historical overview that coherently organizes the themes, chronological periods, or individual women in the other chapters into a broader religious history from the arrival of Buddhism to Korea in the fourth century up to the contemporary times. Cho addresses the question why female monasticism was able to outlive centuries of suppression during the pro-Confucian trends and the often anti-Buddhist sentiments of Chosŏn rule (1392-1910) and the four decades of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), to emerge as a vital force in contemporary Korea. While acknowledging the religiosity and strengths of women, she ultimately attributes the tenacious vitality of the female order to changes in Korean society, economy, and women's status (pp. 36-38).

Chapters 3 and 4 analyze elite Buddhist nuns and laywomen of the Koryŏ period (935-1392). In Chapter 3, Young Mi Kim shows the reader glimpses of the religious opportunities and practices elite Buddhist nuns of Later Koryŏ had access to, whereas in Chapter 4, Tonino Puggioni turns to Koryŏ court ladies living abroad in China and explores their substantial contributions to local Korean Buddhist temples and communities. Using writings, letters, and even the epitaph of Chin-gak Hyesim (1178-1234), Young shows that this eminent Sŏn monk accepted female disciples to whom he imparted the technique of hwadu meditation. Hyesim taught that women could also achieve awakening on the grounds that all living beings regardless of their innate abilities could attain Buddhahood through hwadu meditation. As his teaching was contrary to the mainstream position of Sŏn teachers of his time, Hyesim represents "the most progressive male view about women's Buddhist practice in Korean history" (p. 9). Hyesim's relationship with his female disciples, including his written communication with them, is reminiscent of the Song dynasty Chan monk Dahui...