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  • Women and Buddhist Philosophy: Engaging Zen Master Kim Iryŏp by Jin Y. Park
  • Jungshim Lee (bio)
Women and Buddhist Philosophy: Engaging Zen Master Kim Iryŏp, by Jin Y. Park. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2017. 262 pages. $65.00 hardcover.

Jin Y. Park's book presents new horizons for the study of women and Buddhism through the life and thoughts of a Korean Zen Buddhist nun, Kim Iryŏp (1896–1971). Women's role and participation in Buddhism have been subjected to biases and distortions in society, with the move to religion often being labeled as failure or escapism. The Buddhist community and scholarship have also neglected women as the agents of history. This skewed perception has been partly corrected by recent studies of Buddhist nuns, but nuns' pre-monastic lives in society are still seen as holding little value. Against this backdrop, Park transforms the dissonances between women and Buddhism into strings of resonance, interaction, and synergy. It is her philosophical perspective that explores "how and why women engage with Buddhism" (pp. 1 and 184) and highlights how their meaningful interactions open up new modes of philosophy termed as "a narrative philosophy and a philosophy of life" (p. 15). Her effort shifts women and Buddhism from the margin to center stage, ultimately challenging the male/Western-dominated academic philosophy.

It is no coincidence that Park adopts a format of biography, instead of the usual abstract and theory-based framework of philosophy, as the best way to explore the distinctiveness of Kim Iryŏp's life- and narrative philosophies. The first half of her book pays attention to Kim's early life as a writer and activist for the women's liberation movement, whereas the second half delves into Kim's late Buddhist thought and practice as a Korean Zen Buddhist nun. Although her discussion is divided into two parts, this does not mean separation and opposition between Kim's early [End Page 99] (women-centered) and late (Buddhism-centered) lives. She argues for Kim's life-long interest in and quest for "searching for the self and freedom" (pp. 2, 72, 84, and 108) shared by both early and late lives. Her main concern is also to trace the formation, evolution, and completion of this existential philosophy along Kim's move from feminism to Buddhism.

According to Park, Kim's existential philosophy starts with her childhood experience of the deaths of her family. The impermanence and ambiguity of life and death and the ensuing sense of loss, loneliness, and misfortune are seen to have traumatized her and cast a shadow over her life (Chapter 1). Existential philosophy evolved into her feminist philosophy as a liberalist New Woman preached and practiced, which especially emphasizes "individualism in women's liberation" (p. 8). Kim's New Theory of Chastity is discussed as an important text in which she claimed women's personality, agenthood, and independence, challenging the traditional concept of chastity and redefining feminine sexuality for women's sake (Chapter 2).

Park argues, however, that Kim "felt the limitations of women's movements and sought a new way to express her identity and freedom" (pp. 9–10)—Korean Zen Buddhism. The hwadu meditation that Kim concentrated herself on as a Zen Buddhist nun is seen to have led her to focus on the Buddhist theory of the non-self. With this notion, Park argues, she finally found an advanced form of liberated selfhood, which was to liberate herself from the small self (according to Park, socially constructed identity, daily existence, and a false concept of identity) and to become the great self (according to Park, the unbounded self, existence in its entirety, and an individual liberated from dualism) (Chapter 5). Kim's journey in search of self and freedom is seen to have been completed with Buddhism.

The most remarkable aspect of Park's discussion is her effort to place Kim's life and Buddhist philosophy in the broad contexts of the global New Women phenomenon, on the one hand, and of Korean Zen Buddhism, on the other. To understand the philosophical background of Kim's feminist life, Park considers two more liberalist Korean New Women...