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  • Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun. Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion by Kim Iryŏp
  • Mark A. Nathan
Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun. Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion. By Kim Iryŏp, translated and with an introduction by Jin Y. Park, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014, viii, 301pp.

In the latest contribution to the Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion series, Jin Y. Park provides an English translation of the writings of Kim Iryŏp (1896–1971), a prominent, twentieth-century Korean Buddhist nun. Better known as a literary figure during the Japanese colonial period and as an advocate for the New Woman’s movement in Korea during the 1920s, Iryŏp was ordained in the early 1930s, effectively giving up her career as a writer to pursue her spiritual vocation. She returned to writing only later in life, and Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun is largely a translation of Iryŏp’s book Ŏnŭ sudoin ŭi hoesang, which was published in 1960, nearly three decades after she first became a Buddhist nun.

Reflections is actually a collection of diverse essays, most of which were written in the 1950s, that were compiled by the author and published as a book. The material ranges from philosophical ruminations to autobiographical and sometimes intimate discussions of different events or people in Iryŏp’s life, including personal letters written to and received from a former lover who had abandoned her before she took her vows. Park has chosen to leave out two of the fifteen chapters from the original text and added four additional essays that originally appeared after the book was published. She also made careful editorial decisions by comparing this text with Iryŏp’s 1962 book, Having Burned Away My Youth, which contained many of the same essays, but she makes these and other editorial moves transparent to the reader in her endnotes, including occasional elisions for the sake of clarity.

Drawing on her previously published work on Kim Iryŏp (née Kim Wŏnju), Park provides a succinct introduction to the translation that does an excellent job of acquainting the reader with the author’s life and thought. She also [End Page 257] situates Iryŏp and this book within the scholarship not only on modern Korean Buddhism, but also Korean literature and gender studies. In this regard, she mentions the prevailing view among many who have written about Iryŏp as a colonial-era writer that her life appears to have two distinct halves separated by her ordination. As Park’s introduction and the translation that follows make clear, however, there are some common threads running through her life both as an accomplished writer and as a Buddhist nun.

One of these threads is Iryŏp’s emphasis on creativity as the ground of existence and freedom, which for her is the very essence of what it means to become fully human. Though she asserts that “attaining buddhahood means attaining humanhood” (42), she views creativity as the basis of all religious practice. Her thoughts on Christianity, the religion in which she was raised, are an interesting aspect of this book, and two chapters are devoted to this topic. Both God and the Buddha, Iryŏp claims, “are the ones who were aware of their own creativity and utilized it; they are the great people of culture (taemunhwain) capable of creating a work of art out of their bodies and minds as well as of others” (37). Park accurately notes that the words creativity, freedom, Buddha, and culture “most aptly characterize Iryŏp’s Buddhist thought” (22), but we could add human beings and the self to this list as frequent topics of discussion.

A proper understanding and mastery of the self is an issue that reappears throughout Reflections. Iryŏp talks at great length about the self, often contrasting people’s fragmented sense of self or partial self (small-self life) with the great self (the self before a thought arises), the latter of which is equated with the entire universe. Because people do not understand the unity of self and all things, Iryŏp says that “humans have...