Master Beophui stands as a major star in the world of Korean Buddhist nuns (bhiksuni), serving as the first Head Master of the first meditation hall for nuns, the Gyeonseongam Hermitage at Sudeoksa, as well as instructing numerous students under her tutelage. Though perhaps not well known in the secular world, amongst her esteemed contemporaries in the monastic order, the power of her spiritual wisdom is praised, and to this day she is known by her students as an eminent nun and unforgettably kind and virtuous friend.
Born in 1887 in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do Province, Master Beophui lost her father at the age of three. At the age of three, she was carried on her grandmother’s back to Donghaksa on Mt. Gyeryongsan where she was entrusted to the Mitaam Hermitage. When she was 14, she took the novice precepts and then at 21 she received the full bhiksuni precepts and began a study of the sutras and the Analects of the Patriarchs. In 1912, at the age of 25, she heard the news that “a spiritual Master resided on Mt. Deokseungsan,” so she set out to find Master Mangong, the spiritual heir of Master Gyeongheo. Walking alone for three full days without rest, she was utterly exhausted when she entered Jeonghyesa Monastery at the summit of Mt. Deokseungsan. Master Mangong greeted her happily, stating “I knew a meditator like her was coming,” and he took her on as his disciple.
Though a nun, she practiced Seon meditation just like the monks, becoming the first female revered master in an inestimably long time. In this, Master Mangong boldly opened a new path for female monastics to engage in the training of Seon meditation.
In 1916, at the age of 29, practicing with unstinting dedication, Master Beophui received approval of her awakening from Master Mangong during the summer retreat at Gyeonseongam Hermitage at Sudeoksa. Recognizing the opening of Master Beophui’s mind’s eye, Master Mangong gave her a dharma transmission and bestowed to her the dharma name of Myori Beophui. With this, a new chapter in the lineage of nuns in Korean Buddhism was opened.
Sangnyun sunim, who had led the expansion of Mt. Bukhansan’s Seunggasa to its present enormous size, had Master Beophui as her master from the first day of her ordination. She noted that the master only used but one room at the temple and she reminisced that, “My Master (Master Beophui) didn’t sleep more than two hours a day. During the day, she was always organizing joint work activities and clearing the seminary grounds of weeds, working her fingers until they became bent. Without anyone else knowing, she would even work with a hoe in the temple gardens under the moonlight, and when I thought she would be sleeping she was sitting down and practice Seon meditation.”
She added by saying that when people would ask Master Beophui something about the dharma, she would pretend as if she didn’t know. Her master Mangong was afraid that she might be discouraged before she could attain her place within the bhiksuni lineage, but contrary to his expectations, she flourished. As Master Byeokcho, who assumed the leadership at Mt. Deokseungsan after Master Mangong, said to Sangnyun sunim, Master Beophui’s disciple, “The merit of Master Beophui will be known even some 200 years from now.”
For almost 60 years, after Master Beophui’s enlightenment and until her passing into nirvana, she served as the head master of Korea’s first bhiksuni meditation hall, located at Gyeonseongam Hermitage, and she also instructed Seon practitioners at Yunpil Seonwon (Meditation Hall), Bodeoksa, Naewonsa at Mt. Cheonseongsa, the Seonwon at Seunggasa and other Seonwon across the country. Following Korea’s liberation from Japan, she even practiced meditation training with the second Empress Sunjeong hyo at Insujae in Jeongneung, Seoul. Following this, she returned to Sudeoksa in 1967, whereupon she became the Head Master of the Bhiksuni Chongnim Meditation Hall at Gyeonseongam Hermitage. Then on April 20, 1975, at the age of 88, she passed into nirvana having spent 85 years in the sangha.
Master Beophui’s disciples include the Masters Chunil, Suok, Yeongmyeong, Yeongho, Hyeneung, Jeonghwa, Suchan, and Sangryun.
Master Beophui left us neither one line of writing, nor did she offer even one word expounding on the dharma in front of an audience. However, through her life, the silent reverberations of her dharma remain to this day. At a time in Indian society when women were looked upon simply as a type of possession, the Buddha recognized the ability of women to reach the highest pinnacles of achievement and he approved the establishment of the female monastic order. For this time, such an act was positively revolutionary. He recognized that women were similarly capable of enlightenment owing to the dignity inherent in the character of human beings. He asserted that it wasn’t by social status or gender that but rather “how one thought, how one spoke and how one acted” that determined whether one was noble or base.
However, if one looks across the breadth of Korean history, it is clear that women have continually been devalued. From far back in time, the spiritual prison women found themselves in, built by the prejudice and theories of karma among those in control of politics and religion as well as the self-abasement of women themselves, has served as a major obstacle to be overcome by female monastics. Moreover, needless to say, the aftereffects of the 500 year Joseon Dynasty practice of namjon yeobi (respect men, abase women) were also a major hurdle to overcome.
Master Beophui was thus someone who, though born into this difficult situation, still was able to achieve enlightenment as a woman. Her life was based on a gentle, sincere faith and a pure ascetic practice. Building on her deep faith and her indomitable spirit that simply did not know how to quit, she showed how her actions made her able to establish a foundation for cultivating the dharma purely relying on her staunch belief. Expressing through her sincere ascetic practices the proper appearance of an upstanding practitioner, Master Beophui conveyed a model of behavior to other Buddhists for as long as she lived. But this was not all. Always appearing as if to hide the powers of her spiritual attainment, she made constant sacrifices to help her students’ training, taking upon herself the most onerous of others’ tasks, earning inestimable merit through her lifelong service. Maintaining constant meditative concentration, both Seon and life were the same for her, and thus, with meditation, wisdom and virtue abundant, she was truly a complete person. Beginning with the time when Beophui was practicing there, Gyeonseongam Hermitage has stood out as a place fitting of its reputation as Korea’s first meditation hall for nuns, and it has served as a gathering point for many female Seon practitioners, remaining to this day the pre-eminent bhiksuni meditation hall in the Korean Buddhist tradition. This is, of course, owing entirely to the fact that Beophui served as this meditation hall’s sturdy cornerstone.
Walking or at rest, sitting or lying down, throughout all her life, with each step representing the broad-mindedness of the Buddha, Master Beophui embodied the notion that “our ordinary minds are precisely enlightenment” through her actions lived in her everyday life. This ordinary mind spoken of here is the state where that natural mind as it is sees all things as they are naturally, without any discriminating thoughts or deluded thoughts attached. The goal of Buddhist practice is to attain and maintain this mind. Though on the one hand, this may seem to be a more or less simple task, in reality, it is not quite so. This ordinary mind is not the everyday mind of unenlightened beings. It refers to the mind that accepts the whole where all confrontation and conflicts are dissolved. If we quietly look upon our minds, we’ll see that within each day there may be numerous times that we become angry, then happy, getting sad at something or other and worried about something else. All of this stems from some form of delusion or mental distinction. When something we want is lacking we get angry, when something we do is seen favorably we are happy, and when we lose someone we love, we are sad. Only when we appreciate the whole of what we have and what we are as it is, we move beyond this shifting happiness and anger. When comparing ourselves to others or to ourselves in the past, if we have less we are angry and if we have more we are happy. Without this type of comparison and distinction, we come to see everything as it is, and the fluctuations of joy and sorrow will not arise. What is happy by itself is happy, what is sad by itself is sad. This is the “ordinary mind,” this is the mind of the enlightened one.
A life lived in this way is the greatest of dharma sermons, the embodiment of the 84,000 dharmas, the edification of the masses achieved by itself. Staying at the Master’s side, the gasping mind calmed down, quarrels dissipated, and the humble mind emerged. Beophui’s enlightenment of the people came about just like this. Just in looking at her, one’s mind would become sublime, and on our own mind of faith and devotion would then arise. Though she didn’t speak with smooth eloquence or freely expound with profound erudition, she possessed a recondite power capable of bringing about change in the minds of all those she encountered.
In just this way, without a sound, those who live with ferocious intensity can, simply through the example of their living, take on the appearance of a completely perfect dharma sermon within every moment of their entire life. Within such a life, we can earnestly sense in our heart a genuine dharma message that we cannot otherwise find, even within any of the most magnificent words. This was Master Beophui’s underlying strength as well as the strength of Seon.