- Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun by Kim Iryŏp
Kim Iryŏp (1896–1971) was raised and initially educated in a devout Methodist Christian environment under the strict guidance of her fideistic pastor father and her mother, who believed in female education. Both parents died while she was in her teens, and she questioned her Christian faith at an early age. She was one of the first Korean women to pursue higher education in Korea and Japan. Kim became a prolific poet and essayist, her writings engaging cultural and social issues, and a leading figure of the feminist “new woman” (sinyŏja) movement in the 1920s, which promoted women’s self-awareness, freedom (including sexual freedom), and rights in the context of the complex intersection of traditional Korean Confucian society, Westernization and modernization, and Japanese colonial domination. Iryŏp (her pen and dharma name) embraced Buddhism during this period, first in her writing and later as a lay practitioner, as a path to universal liberation. She was ordained in 1933 and became a prominent Sŏn (Chan/Zen) Buddhist nun. After two decades without publishing, she returned to print in 1960 with Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun (Ŏnŭ sudoin ŭi hoesang).
Jin Y. Park has been at the forefront of introducing Iryŏp as a modern female Buddhist thinker to the Western world.1 Reflections of a Zen Buddhist Nun is an elegant translation that includes all but two of the essays from the original Reflections, omitted to avoid repetition, and four additional essays that illuminate Iryŏp’s thinking on Buddhist thought and practice. In her introduction Park provides an overview of Iryŏp’s biography and works in relation to the multifaceted social-political and intellectual situation of her era. Park articulates the existential passion and commitment that run throughout Iryŏp’s life and writing and through her shifting identities as a youth who dreamed of becoming a Christian missionary, a young woman who questioned her fideistically defined faith and dedicated herself to receiving an education in a society that typically denied that opportunity to women, a feminist writer who advocated social change and free love, and a Sŏn nun devoted to meditation and the promotion of the dharma. Iryŏp resisted the artificial constraints of society as a feminist and one’s own habitual self as a Buddhist for the sake of realizing the autonomous and comprehensive life that is a fundamental theme of Reflections.
The existential character and passion of Iryŏp’s writing, which blends reflection and intimate autobiographical narrative, is evident from the beginning in her preface (chapter 1). She introduces basic existential questions such as: How does it stand with my own existence and what value does my existence have? How can I achieve [End Page 1049] freedom and how do I become myself, a genuine self, in response to a situation in which we are unfree and “have lost ourselves”? The phrase “having lost myself” (silsŏngin) is used throughout the work and primarily means “to go crazy” in Korean. It is Buddhist practice that offers a response to the lostness of the human condition by providing a perspective of wholeness, a tranquility and clarity of mind, and a freedom in the midst of the fluctuating conditions of life through the dedication and purity of one’s thought in meditation.
Iryŏp’s existential, individualistic, and in some ways modernistic understanding of Sŏn Buddhism is further developed in the chapters that follow. In the second chapter, “Life,” she focuses on the primacy of life (insaeng) and its fulfillment in “independent life” where one is of utmost value to oneself through realizing one’s relational interconnectedness with all beings. Such autonomy becomes possible through the deconstructing of conventional boundaries and limitations. These include the limiting ideas or idols of the Buddha and God that lead away from mindfulness of...