Yi Yesun, a Living Buddha (1587 – c. 1657)

Written by Yi Hyang Soon
Professor of Comparative Literature, Director of Korean Language and Literature University of Georgia

Yi Yesun (1587 – c. 1657), is one of the most famous Buddhist nuns in the seventeenth century Chosŏn Korea. Her understanding of Buddhism was deep and her teaching was powerful, resulting in a large following among both upper class women as well as the general population. Her followers called her a “Living Buddha” because of a mystic fragrance and light that would fill the rooms she entered. She was also a clever political strategist who played a behind-the-scene role in a coup d’etat that deposed one king and installed another to the throne. Her dramatic young life and rise as a Buddhist teacher in Confucian Chosŏn society led to an eventually settled, monastic life until she died at the age of seventy, leaving behind many legendary tales.

Yangban Confucian Upbringing

Yesun was born in 1587 to an upper class yangban family known for their rich scholarly heritage. Her father, Yi Kwi, served a high position in the royal court of Kwanghaegun (r. 1608 – 1623) and during the reign of King Injo (r. 1622 – 1649). He played the leading role in the Injo Rebellion that thwarted the Kwanghaegun from his throne.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century Chosŏn, a girl child — even in the yangban family — would typically receive only basic reading and writing education and extensive training as a homemaker. The Chosŏn Sillok mentions Yesun as an intelligent child who could read by the age of six. Not only was the young girl given an uncommon and remarkable academic education equal to that of an upper class family’s boy, but once married, she dedicated herself to studies in Buddhism as well as other scholarly pursuits.

Study of Buddhism

Yesun was married at age of fifteen to Kim Chagyŏm, an equally remarkable individual from a yangban family and her father's political ally. The marriage lasted only four years, but Chagyŏm played a decisive role in setting the future direction of Yesun’s life. They were both interested only in pursuing philosophy as life’s ultimate goal and made a pact to denounce their conjugal relationship and vowed to become friends and scholars. This was an extreme departure from the normal Confucian mores of the era. Records have Yesun saying, “We were not interested in the kind of affairs between man and wife or producing children. This was due to the influence of my husband who was dedicated to the study of Sŏn Buddhism.”1 During the first years of marriage, the couple immersed themselves in studying Buddhist philosophy. Kim Chagyŏm’s best friend, O Ŏn’gwan, frequently joined them in their discussion and studies. Yesun described typical meetings among the three of them, as follows, “We faced each other as if we were sitting in a pine grove and discussed the Buddhist path all day long and some days until very late at night.”2

Four years into the marriage, Kim Chagyŏm abruptly died. According to legend, he knew he would die, and one day before his death, he made his friend, O Ŏn’gwan promise that he would look after his wife and continue to pursue studies of Buddhism with her. After his death, they continued to meet and discuss Buddhism, and these study meetings stirred then vile rumors about inappropriate liaisons between the man and the widow. Indeed from the Confucian point of view in the seventeenth century Chosŏn Korea, it was a most unusual kind of relationship. However, both their families knew and probably accepted their relationship as simply dedicated fellow students of Buddhism.

Adultery Charge

Soon after her husband’s passing, Yesun decided to leave home for the mountains to join the monastic community. She wanted to follow O Ŏn’gwan who left home to devote himself to Buddhism. This was the beginning of their hardship. They traveled under pseudonyms and pretended to be husband and wife, for that was a convenient explanation to give to curious passersby on the road. Little did they know that would prove to be a disastrous mistake. This pretense was used against them to prove the previous rumors of adultery as facts, and the two were caught and jailed. Soon afterwards O Ŏn’gwan died from illnesses obtained from torturous interrogation sessions.

Yesun wrote her most well-known poem, “Self-Lamentation.” during this period of incarceration and interrogation.

이제 가사를 황진으로 더럽히게 되니
어찌하여 청산은 사람을 허락치 않는가
세상은 다만 나의 육신을 가둘 수 있을 뿐
금오도 멀리 떠도는 마음을 막기 어렵도다.

Now my monastic robe is soiled with yellow dust.
Why does the Blue Mountain not allow me in?
The world may confine me in my body.
But even the police cannot stop my wandering spirit.

With the death of O Ŏn’gwan, Yesun’s adultery charges were dropped. After her release from jail, she continued to devote her days to pursuing Buddhism as an ordained nun. Her family’s background and her father’s high political power enabled her to obtain the position of teacher of Buddhism and secured access to a small Buddhist temple in the palace.

Women in the royal family and their friends from aristocratic families would gather at her Buddhism classes and worshipped in this temple. Women here revered her and they were fascinated with her knowledge of Buddhism and her holy and mysterious charm.

Becoming a Living Buddha

Her father led a coup d’etat, the Injo Rebellion (1623) that installed Injo as the new King. As she had free access to the Palace as its temple nun, she could easily become friends with the palace staff, helping the Injo’s coup d’etat indirectly.

With King Injo safely installed as new king Yesun’s family became an even more important force in political life in the period. As a daughter of an important man in Injo’s court, Yesun had freedom and means to go wherever she wanted. She kept in touch with the women in royal families and the court and carried out her Buddhism classes.

Her story was written in the Sillok, the Annals of Chosŏn Kingdom, and other historical books and temple gazetteers. She was definitely one of the strings of nuns who kept Buddhism’s fire burning in the Chosŏn period unofficially while male scholars were running the official Confucian government bureaucracy.

Her story is extraordinary because during her life time, Chosŏn was at the peak of Neo-Confucianization process, suppressing Buddhism heavily; monks were not allowed to stay within the capital city, Hanyang; monks and nuns belonged to the lowest class of society. Her decision to pursue Buddhism was at odds with her upbringing in Confucian culture. With political saviness, intellectual prowess and fervent spirituality, Yi Yesun was able to overcome all the hardships and adversities in her life. She was a rebel and became a pop cult figure in numerous story books. Yi Yesun embodied courage, power, and wisdom in a male-dominated society and her story establishes her as an important figure during the Chosŏn dynasty.