Korea’s premier poet, the former Buddhist monk Ko Un, presents 108 Zen poems. These “thought-stopping Koan-like mental fire-crackers” (as Allen Ginsberg called them) let us taste, hear, smell, and see the absurdities and miracles of daily life. Accompanied by Ko Un’s own brush-painting illustration, these small gems offer the gifts of laughter, tears and insight.
Ko Un outfoxes the old Masters and the young poets both.—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
These tiny, irreverent, compassionate, often humorous vignettes open to vast fields of understanding. Ko Un’s poems live amid the democracy of all beings, looking directly and with great pleasure at this very moment’s bright-leaping essence. —Jane Hirshfield, After
Here stands a good-for-nothing who let himself get soaked till the mud dissolved, set fire to himself so the wood disappeared, and the iron finally rusted away in the wind and the rain.
Go now. A new life has been born, and isn’t that a new world?
Sôn poetry enjoyed its initial Golden Age high in the mountains of T’ang China (618—907) and its history has continued for more than a thousand years down to the present day.
Sôn has preserved its own characteristics, and become one with poetry alone, never accepting the lengthy narratives and descriptions found in other forms of writing. That explains why Sôn masters are poets, but never novelists.
Through ten years’ experience of Sôn life as a monk I gained a tiny scrap of experience of Sôn poetry. I am also familiar with the way in which the literature lying at the opposite extreme from that experience—Sôn rejecting the act of writing—has the freedom to incorporate anything as its subject. That is an assurance gained through my thirty-five years as a poet.
Consequently, this collection of Sôn poems is an act of poetry writing, not so much faithful to the history of Sôn poetry as trying to get away from it.
I too need to encounter water, fire, and iron, because my ceaseless dream and desire is for a new world. Surely Sôn is nothing other than a love for that world, just as a mother always knows what her kids are up to, and kids are always looking for their mother.
From the poet’s preface
The world renewed! I want to give water to every person journeying in search of a new world; I want to quench their weary bodies’ thirst. I have to thaw out their frozen bodies with a blazing fire on cold evenings.
More than that, I long to give them strong bars of iron to hold on to, to prevent them being swept away by raging storms.
People made of mud cannot cross streams, people made of wood cannot go near a fire. And surely even someone made of hard iron will rust away into so much junk in less than a century.
No moon up
Yet the two hundred miles
Between you and me
Shine bright all night long
That dog that’ll die tomorrow
Doesn’t know it’s going to die.
It’s barking fiercly.
Standing in front of the smile
On the face of a boiled pig’s head
By all means be generous
I’ve never been an individual entity.
Sixty trillion cells!
I’m a living collection
Staggering zigzag along
Sixty trillion cells! All drunk!
Lightning over the hill in front
Thunder on the hill behind
Between the two
one dumb pebble.