Poet Ven. Cho Oh-hyun is known as the senior monk of Backdamsa Temple of Mount Seorak, a temple that has been famous since the Ven and where Han Yong-un stayed during the Japanese colonial rule. Ven. Han was imprisoned for signing the Korean Declaration of Independence on March 1, 1919, and he represented the Buddhists in the movement for Korean independence from Japanese rule. Later, in the 1990s, Korean strongman Chun Doo-hwan was "imprisoned" at the temple, kind of a house arrest, for his many wrongdoings as the president. However, many Korean people still remember the temple with Ven. Han, and now, Ven. Cho has made the temple famous to the outside world as well. Ven. Cho created Manhae Village and the prestigious literary award after Ven. Han, who was also well known for his poetry book, "Silence of My Lover." Manhae was Ven. Han's pen name. Many literary figures inside and outside of Korea have visited Manhae Village for its annual festival.
I read "For Nirvana" with great interest, because it is a poetry book of Zen and "sijo," which are one and inseparable, like two sides of one coin. Zen means meditation to control the mind. Sijo is a traditional form of Korean poetry with much more strict regulations; it regulates the number of words in a rhythm, like with haiku poems. All forms of Korean poetry contain Zen and sijo elements. The 108 poems in this book, which was published by Columbia University Press, were translated into English by famous writer Heinz Insu Fenkl, who also teaches at the State University of New York at New Paltz. The figure "108" refers to human agonies in the Buddhist sutras. I was attracted to the many interesting elements of this book. I reviewed "The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry," edited by Peter Lee, in 2003. "For Nirvana" did not meet my expectations, however; the 108 did not contain the 108 agonies in the Buddhist sutras. There may be more than 108 agonies in this modern world. Zen is in the book, but not in the sense of meditation. In addition, the old form and style of sijo are not faithfully observed in this book, because the sijo in this book is more free verse in spirit. Nevertheless, I am attracted to this book. Cho is not just another poet writing traditional sijo poems like Yoon Sun-do (1587-1671) and Hwang Jin-yi (1506-1544), two of my favorite sijo poets. He is not just another Zen Buddhist as Hyesim, the first Korean Zen monk from the Goryeo Kingdom whose poetry book, "Magnolia and Lotus," was published in 2013. Cho is his own Zen monk writing his own style of sijo.
Traditional sijo poems were both popular and successfully performed in songs and chants. The recited narrative was interspersed with the primal poem that was the poet's song. Indeed, spoken word and performances were significant features of traditional vernacular poetry in Korea. I am a free verse poet, but I respect and admire sijo poets.
Hyesim's sijo poems were great. Ven. Cho's sijo poems are different from those of Hyesim, who lived in the 12-13th century and who cultivated Seon in the Korean Buddhist practices. Zen, a Japanese concept, is much better known to the outside world. Zen representing the Korean Seon and Chinese Chan.
Ven. Cho's preface to this book looks like a short essay, but it is considered as free verse. I believe it is both a free verse is a short essay — no disputes or arguments. Poetry and prose are undistinguishable these days. We live in the modern age, where the wall of one genre falling and that of another is disappearing. In a sense, Ven. Cho is a new pioneer with his sijo poetry. I bet he is trying to bring new Chamsun, Zen meditation for control his mind. Let me quote his well-known poem, "Distant Holy Man" from page 3.
Today, this one day,
On this day called today
I saw the whole of the sun rise And saw it all set
Nothing more to see — A swarm of gnats laying eggs, dying
I am still alive, Long past my time to die,
But consider — today, I don't feel As if I've lived even this single day
He may live a thousand years But the holy man
Is but a distant cloud of gnats
I see the spirit of Master Cho from the metaphor of a day in the life of a gnat. My own translation of the title of this poem is either "Faraway Saint" or "Saint with a Long Way to Go." Many other poets have used gnats in their poetry. However, this poem written by a famous monk may make a different impact on the readers. Humility is a virtue. I can exclaim that this monk is really a saint. This poem is a self-portrait of the monk, as is the 107 other poems.
The following poem on page 105 is one of the most beautiful poems in this book. In this poem, he made a clear distinction between Zen and poetry. His views on both are succinctly presented in two words.
What I have been seeking all my life
Are the mountains, the veins
The conclusion I reached today — Poetry is woodgrain, knotted, & Zen is wood's grain, straight.
Ven. Cho is a Zen sijo poet, but not an orthodox one. He declared that he is far away from sainthood, that he is simply producing knotted poems, not beautiful waves inside the wood's grain. He has created a new tradition of Korean sijo poetry, straightening the knotted waves. I wish him the best on his admirable endeavors.
Dr. Choi is a Washington, D.C.-based poet and writer.