Daughters of Enlightenment: Unmun-sa, a Beacon of Bhikshuni Ordination

Throughout the rich tapestry of Korean Buddhist history, women have silently woven threads of influence, their presence deeply embedded in the spiritual fabric of the nation. This legacy traces its roots back to the advent of Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula in the fourth century, a period marked by profound political and social upheaval. Notably, becoming a Buddhist monastic was a path often chosen by the social elites during the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE–935 CE) and the Goryeo period (918 CE–1392).

Despite the scarcity of historical records reflecting women’s roles in Korean Buddhism, their undeniable impact shines through. For instance, the Jikji Simche Yojeol, the world’s oldest surviving book printed with movable metal type, authored by the Buddhist monk Baegun (1298–1374) in 1377, references Myodeok, a female Buddhist monastic, believed to be of royal lineage, who played a pivotal role in its creation at the venerable Heungdeok-sa monastery in North Chungcheong Province.

In contemporary South Korea, female monastics continue to be a dynamic force for change within Korean Buddhism, even as wider society sees a decline in interest in spiritual traditions. According to a 2021 Gallup Korea Research Institute survey, a majority of South Koreans—60 percent—identify as having no religious affiliation, with Christians constituting 23 percent and Buddhists, 16 percent.

Nonetheless, Korean bhikshunis have made and continue to make vital contributions to the practice and propagation of Buddhism. Yet, formal Buddhist institutions often maintain patriarchal structures, hampering Buddhism’s development in contemporary Korea and misaligning with the rapidly evolving ideals of gender equality in modern society and the 2,600-year-old teachings of the Fourfold Sangha, as laid out by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.

One of the most profound embodiments of the sacred feminine in South Korea can be found at Unmun-sa, a historic Buddhist monastery nestled in Cheongdo County, South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province. Of the nearly 6,000 bhikshunis in South Korea, approximately one-third have received their education at Unmun-sa Buddhist Nunnery University.

Unmun-sa, meaning “Cloud Gate Temple” in English, is gracefully ensconced in the southernmost stretch of the Taebaek Mountains, a rugged range extending over 500 kilometers from the southern tip of the peninsula into North Korea. Cradled by this formidable backdrop, Unmun-sa is administered by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest Buddhist order in South Korea. Today, it stands as the nation’s premier institution for the education and training of female monastics.

Originally constructed over a three-year span from 557 to 560 CE, Unmun-sa was completed during the reign of King Jinheung (r. 540–576), one of Silla’s greatest monarchs. Toward the end of the Silla period, the monastery expanded and was renamed Taejakgap-sa, or “Great Magpie Hillside Temple.” Later, in 937 CE, during the reign of King Taejo (r. 918–943) of the Goryeo dynasty, the name was changed to Unmun-sa.

Throughout the Goryeo period and beyond, Unmun-sa received substantial surrounding land, which today is cultivated by bhikshunis and student nuns to supply the monastery’s kitchen with fresh vegetables.

Unmun-sa’s transformation and expansion unfolded through the centuries, culminating in its current architectural grandeur. It now boasts a treasure trove of historic buildings, set amidst the embrace of the surrounding mountains, which resident monastics liken to the gentle cradle of a sacred lotus flower. This unique ambiance radiates a spiritual energy that is both calming and reassuring, establishing it as a geo-energetic haven of tranquility and solace.

The journey to Unmun-sa itself is a prelude to a transition from the secular to the spiritual. A winding pathway leads visitors beneath an intricate canopy of interwoven branches, alongside the soothing Unmun-cheon River. The monastery is particularly enchanting during the autumn months, as depicted in the accompanying images.

Unmun-sa treasures numerous rare artifacts, considered national treasures, including a stone lantern (Treasure No. 193), a stone pillar depicting the Four Protectors of Buddhism (Treasure No. 318), a three-story stone pagoda (Treasure No. 678), a bronze urn (Treasure No. 208), a seated stone Buddha (Treasure No. 317), and a more-than-500-year-old weeping pine tree (Natural Monument No. 180).

In 1958, Unmun-sa became modern Korea’s first institution for bhikshuni ordination, evolving into the nation’s largest training center for fully ordained female monastics. Unmunsa Buddhist Nunnery University, founded by Ven. Myeongseong Sunim, 92, one of Korea’s pioneering female Buddhist teachers, has graduated over 2,000 bhikshunis since 1970. They stand as a testament to the unwavering commitment, dedication, and vigor of South Korea’s female monastic community, shaping their personal practices, engaging in socially meaningful activities, and participating in the global movement to fully restore the Fourfold Sangha.

As South Korea’s female monastics tirelessly strive to contribute to the vitality of the Buddhadharma within the nation and beyond, addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality within the monastic sangha is imperative. Structural and institutional inequalities only serve to hinder female monastics in their quest to resonate with new generations of lay practitioners and future members of the monastic community, aligning Buddhism with the evolving ideals of gender equity in modern society.

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