This file photo shows Ven. Beop Jeong, one of the most highly revered Buddhist monks in Korea. He died at the age of 78 in Gilsang Temple, Seoul on March 11 after a long battle with lung cancer.
/ Korea Times
By Choi Yearn-hong
Ven. Beop Jeong passed away last week, and the nation mourned his death. He was a good teacher to all contemporary Koreans about the beauty of no possessions. His book, ``Non-Possession,'' made him a famous Buddhist monk and essayist.
He continued to steadily produce books and practiced what he was trying to teach. After he became a famed writer, he maintained a lonely life in an empty house on a mountain in Gangwon Province away from telephone lines and modern facilities.
Wealth and fame are what most people pursue, but they are only temporal and vain. He was trying to educate people that the pursuit of happiness must not dwell on wealth and fame. Life itself is temporal and vain, so are wealth and fame.
Korea's modernization and development meant basically the pursuit of wealth, but not necessarily the pursuit of happiness. His teaching, however, could be applicable to all people across national borders. Human beings instinctively want more.
That desire changed Korea from a poor agricultural state to an industrial power. On the other side of social change, tension among individuals and social conflicts emerged.
The passage of Ven. Beop Jeong shed a new light on one woman who had donated the picturesque Korean restaurant, Daewongak, to the monk in 1995 who built Gilsangsa, a Buddhist temple on that site.
Her real name was Kim Young-han, born and raised to a well-to-do family at Gwancheol-dong, central Seoul, and educated in Japan during Japanese colonial rule.
Her family fortune changed and that forced her to become a gisaeng ― a traditional Korean female entertainer. She became famous in this role after she learned traditional Korean songs and dances, while playing the geomungo (six-stringed Korean zither).
She met Poet Paik Suk who was an English teacher at a girls' high school in Hamhung and they fell in love at first sight. He was 27 and she was 22.
Their passionate love in Seoul and Hamhung could not last very long, because Paik's parents did not allow their marriage. Marrying a gisaeng was not acceptable at all, according to his parents.
Paik ran away to Manchuria and persuaded his lover to join him there. She turned down that offer for the benefit of her lover. During their passionate love and after the separation, Paik produced several brilliant poems, including ``I, Natasha, White Donkey," ``Park Si-bong's House, Yu-dong, South Sinuiju" and ``White Wall."
His poems were modernistic in the last stage of Japanese colonial rule. Strangely, he drew a cause-effect relationship between his love and heavy snow, and inserted a white donkey as a sole transport instrument to bring Natasha to his hideout place in the snowy country.
His loneliness and fugitive life were candidly, but powerfully disclosed. His metaphors were strikingly unique from other Korean poets' in the 1940s.
Many young South Korean poets and poetry lovers discovered Paik Suk's poems in the 1980s. For a long time, his poems were forbidden in South Korea for his communist identity and his teaching career at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang after the liberation from Japanese rule.
Why Natasha? Natasha was a Russian woman's name in Leo Tolstoy's ``War and Peace." The two lovers watched the movie at Dansungsa, the first modern theater in Korean history. Needless to say, Natasha was Kim Young-han in Paik's poem.
But Jaya was a better known name for Kim, because Paik named her thus after Li Po's poem, "Jaya Owol." Kim once explained her new name in this way: I gave him a poetry book as a gift when he came to Seoul.
The book was a collection of Tang Dynasty's poems. Paik read it and chose Jaya from Li Po's poem for his lover. Jaya was a Changan woman who was waiting for her husband who was sent to the battlefield.
Li Po's poem was ``A Wife Longing for Her Husband in Spring." She loved that name until her death. She remained as Jaya longing for Paik Suk for all her life.
Kim remained a spinster, and became a successful business woman. In her old age, she created the Paik Suk Literary Award, and offered her Daewongak to Ven. Beop Jeong for Gilsangsa.
After a long hesitation, he acceded to her wishes. That was 1995. When she donated Daewongak, she was asked by a newspaper reporter: ``Don't you think your donation was so large you may regret it later?" She answered: ``I know 100 billion won is a lot of money, but its value is much less than one poem by Paik Suk."
Her answer was the most touching to me. Her love affairs must have been most tragic to both of them in the 1940s, but it may be the most romantic story of this century. All was proven with her short and simple answer to a newspaper reporter.
Who can say today, ``One hundred billion won is a large amount, but its value is much less than one of Paik Suk's poems."
Most probably, that one poem must be, ``I, Natasha, White Donkey." Most probably, she was Hwang Jini (1506-1544) in modern day Korea. (Hwang wrote romantic sijo poems.)
I present my poem dedicated to their unforgettable love affairs.
An angel sends me a message, ``Wait for the winter!"
She makes a wonder, making whiteness shine on the field.
The first snow is falling down from the sky
as the cherry blossom I fell in love with at first glance.
The back of my first love is appearing in the heavy snowflakes.
Euna, Sooni, Natasha, Lana … all lovers of the poets are coming out
To enter the forthcoming winter festival.
Someone makes the lovers excited in a glow.
Someone makes this world a beautiful island.
My lover whispers to me flake by flake:
``Let us walk until we reach the hot spring near the sea!"
Her hand is in my hand in my black overcoat's pocket.
She is whispering:
``The most beautiful thing in this world is the softest!"
Dr. Choi is a poet and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.