This article is directly inspired by personal visits to Unmun-sa resulting from interaction and practice with the lay Sangha of the Jungto Society, a voluntary Buddhist community founded by Korean Dharma master and social activist, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, and his participation in the 18th Sakyadhita. International Conference, held in Seoul from June 23 to 27 this year.
The first in-person Sakyadhita conference since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2023 forum in Seoul was held under the theme “Living in a Precarious World: Impermanence, Resilience, Awakening” – the largest gathering of the story of Sakyadhita, jointly organized by the Korean Bhikshuni Association and Sakyadhita Korea. More than 3 Buddhist monks, lay people, guests and dignitaries from different countries and Buddhist traditions were present, sharing their experiences and research, and providing support and encouragement for projects and initiatives aimed at improving the conditions of Buddhist women, especially those living in developing countries. .
This short essay is part of a series that explores the unique manifestation of the sacred feminine in contemporary Buddhism, by meeting and learning from some of the women working to shape the face of Buddhism today. The second part of this article will focus on a candid conversation with members of the Unmun-sa monastic community.
Women have played a prominent role in the history of Korean Buddhism, an influence that dates back to the advent of Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula in the fourth century, during the Three Kingdoms period, a period of considerable political and social upheaval. . Indeed, becoming a Buddhist monk was a common life choice for the social elites of the Silla kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE) and the Goryeo period (918 CE – 1392).
Although the role of women in the history of Korean Buddhism has not been well documented, due to patriarchal biases in record keeping, their influence has been an undeniable presence – for example, the oldest book in the world printed with movable metal type, the Jikji Simche Yojeolou Anthology of the Teachings of Zen Buddhist Priestswritten by Buddhist monk Baegun (1298-1374) and dated 1377*, refers to a female Buddhist monastic named Myodeok, considered a member of the royal family, who was instrumental in the production of the book at the historic site of Heungdeok-sa. , a former Buddhist monastery in North Chungcheong Province.
In contemporary South Korea, women monastics remain an active force for progress and change within Korean Buddhism, despite a general decline in interest in spiritual traditions within society at large: according to data from According to a 2021 survey compiled by the Gallup Korea Research Institute, a majority of South Koreans' population - 60 percent - have no religious affiliation. Christians make up the largest religious segment of the population at 23 percent, while Buddhists now make up 16 percent.
However, Korean bikkhunis have played and continue to play a vital role in the practice and propagation of Buddhism. Yet despite this undeniable contribution, most formal Buddhist institutions remain structurally patriarchal – a key factor hindering the development of Buddhism in contemporary Korea, out of step with a modern society that is rapidly moving towards greater gender equity, and in out of step with the 2 year old teachings of the Quadruple Sangha expounded by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.
One of the most striking manifestations of this sacred feminine in South Korea is at Unmun-sa (Kr: 운문사), a historic Buddhist monastery located in Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea. South. Of the nearly 6 bikkhunis in South Korea, about a third were educated at the Unmun-sa Buddhist Nunnery University.
The monastery is ideally nestled in the southern end of the Taebaek Mountains, a chain of rugged peaks that stretches more than 500 kilometers from the peninsula's south to North Korea, like its strong spine. Resting serenely amidst deep forests and protected by the gentle embrace of the surrounding mountains, Unmun-sa, meaning "Cloud Gate Temple" in English, is administered by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest Buddhist order of South Korea, and is today the country's largest college and training center for female monastics.
It was originally built over a three-year period, from 557 to 560 CE, and completed in the 21st year of the reign of King Jinheung (r. 540-576), who is remembered as the one of the greatest monarchs of the Kingdom of Silla. a 37-year reign that laid the foundation for the later unification of the Korean Peninsula. Towards the end of the Silla period, the monastery was enlarged and renamed Taejakgap-sa, or "Hillside Temple of the Great Magpie". The name changed again to Unman-sa in 937 CE, during the 20th year of the reign of King Taejo (r. 918-943) of the Goryeo dynasty.
During the Goryeo period, Unmun-sa received much of the surrounding land, which is now cultivated by the bikkhunis and student nuns to supply the monastic kitchen with fresh vegetables.
Unmun-sa has been expanded and rebuilt over the centuries, taking on its current appearance through several stages of renovation and reconstruction. Today it is filled with a plethora of historic buildings and exquisite architecture, and is surrounded by magnificent mountains, which the resident monks liken to the gentle embrace of a sacred lotus flower. The resulting ambience is perhaps unique even among Korea's many sacred mountain monasteries: it possesses a spiritual energy that is both soothing and reassuring; a geoenergetic center of tranquility and security.
Even approaching the monastery prepares the visitor for the transition from the profane to the spiritual; following a winding path that passes under an intricate tree canopy of intertwining branches and skirts the soothing Unmun-cheon River. Unmun-sa is especially beautiful during the fall months, as seen in the attached images.
The monastery houses many rare and precious objects of special significance and considered national treasures, including a stone lantern (Treasure No. 193), a stone pillar of the Four Protectors of Buddhism (Treasure No. 318), a three-storey stone building. (Treasure no. 678), a bronze urn (Treasure no. 208), a seated stone Buddha (Treasure no. 317), and above all worthy of attention, a weeping pine over 500 years old (Treasure no. 317 ). Monument No. 180).
Unmun-sa became modern Korea's first school for bikkhshuni ordination in 1958 and is today the nation's largest training center for fully ordained monastic women. With a capacity of approximately 260 bhikshunis, who studied and practiced for four years at the Unmunsa Buddhist Nunnery University, founded by Ven. Myeongseong Sunim, 92, one of Korea's first female Buddhist teachers, has produced more than 2 bikkhunis since 1970.
In light of the tireless commitment, dedication and verve of the female monastic community in South Korea, manifested in their personal practice, in their socially engaged activities and in the global movement to fully restore the Quadruple Sangha, in breaking down remaining barriers to gender. equality within the monastic sangha is vital. Structural and institutional inequalities simply serve to stifle women monastics in their efforts to contribute to the vitality of Buddhadharma in South Korea and around the world and thus attract the hearts and minds of new generations of lay practitioners and future members of the monastic community.
* Goryeo Kingdom exhibition in Seoul celebrates Korea's Buddhist history (BDG)