Kim Iryŏp (Kim Wŏnju, 1896‒1971) was a pioneering feminist and prolific writer who left lay life to become a Buddhist nun. The bifurcation of her life between the secular and religious has generated two separate narratives, with Korean feminist studies focusing on Iryŏp as a revolutionary thinker and Buddhist studies centering on Iryŏp as an influential Buddhist nun. When divided this way, the biography of each career reads more simply. However, by including two significant but unexplored pieces of her history that traverse the two halves of her narrative, Iryŏp emerges as a more complex figure. The first is her forty-five-year relationship with the Buddhist monk Paek Sŏng’uk (1897‒1981). The second is how she extended some of her early feminism into monastic life but said little about the marginalization of nuns in Buddhism’s highly patriarchal system. In both her relationship with Paek and her feminism, Iryŏp drew on the Buddhist teaching of nonself, in which the “big I” is beyond gender. Thus, Iryŏp repositions herself as having attained big I, while Paek remained stuck in “small I.” Yet, while she finds equality with monks through an androgynous big I, none of her writings contest Korean Buddhism’s androcentric institutional structure.

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