By J. Andrew Goodman
Admittedly, I had to read Magnolia and Lotus a number of times before I could appreciate its depth. Some poems are rigid; others are didactic or produce moral puzzles; some poems are merely observations of nature or human experience. Most, however, are evocative or clever in their explorations of human thought and playful in their allegories. Hyesim is a natural observer and an endearing persona. His life is an interesting one.
Hyesim (1178-1234) is the first Sŏn Buddhist Master dedicated to poetry. Sŏn Buddhism is the Korean equivalent of Zen Buddhism in Japan—both forms originated from the same Ch’an Buddhism tradition in China. And, like most poetry written in this tradition, the world is distilled through a tonal distance. Mood appears by observing nature or its juxtaposition with the ravages and delights of human experience. As Ian Haight says of Sŏn Buddhism in the introduction, nature is not an object, but an ideal.
In “Plantain,” Hyesim is imaginative in describing an aspect of nature: A plantain is an unlit/green candle of beeswax//the spread leaves, a vernal coat’s sleeves/desiring to dance.//I see this image in my intoxicated eyes/though the plantain itself//is better/than my comparisons.
The fruit is beautifully rendered here in simile and apt metaphor. In the second stanza, it is personified. In the final stanza, Hyesim acknowledges his limitations to describe the fruit completely. The inability of language to describe absolutely is another aspect of Sŏn Buddhism, and seemingly an exercise in Platonic forms. Magnolia and Lotus is replete with such poems.
“Instead of Heaven and Earth, I Answer” is another example of linguistic exploration and the human mind’s capacity for description. Hyesim recognizes the myriad distinctions a person may observe in an object, then asks in the poem’s final lines:
if one abandons this discriminating mind
what forms of matter are unique?
Nature provides the epistemological truths people should strive to learn. Such realizations lead to enlightenment and transcendence. As Sŏn Buddhists believe in “sudden enlightenment,” it is no surprise to see such didactic poems written in simple verse. The poem is expansive because so much depends on the reader’s thoughtfulness.
These poems feel like anecdotal lectures that may only interest readers who enjoy cerebral foreplay. Other poems intimate Hyesim’s life and a wider gamut of readers will find those more accessible and enjoyable.
In the collection’s introduction, readers are given Hyesim’s biography in short detail. Its brevity owes to little information about Hyesim’s personal life; the book’s translator, Ian Haight, even claims that arranging this collection as a chronicle of Hyesim’s life is presumptuous. What I find most interesting in Hyesim’s biography is his determination to become a monk, though his mother disapproved—his father died when Hyesim was still young. At his mother’s request, he entered the National Academy to prepare for government service. When his mother died and he had no other familial obligations, Hyesim immediately left school to become a monk novitiate.
Hyesim’s own life seemed analogous to Sŏn Buddhist teachings. To achieve enlightenment and to cultivate the mind through self-discipline and abstaining from desire, there is certainly some ambition in the quest. Hyesim proved it could be obtained with humility—he famously refused titles, promotions, and tried to refuse royal gifts—but he seemed to always desire self-improvement toward a more natural ideal. Sŏn Buddhists believe all humans are a part of the Buddha-mind. The Buddha-mind assumes a type of objectivity through which to view humanity and likely accounts for Hyesim’s ease at writing witty, quixotic, and insightful poetry.
In the poem, “Patiently Dreaming, a Buddhist Layman Asks for a Poem About the Pasture Cow,” Hyesim slyly acknowledges the distance between a liberated Buddhist mind and those who do not seek enlightenment, while also addressing the effects of humanity’s exertion of power over nature.
Put to pasture on a family’s field,
a cow watches other cows drink water.
Sometimes this cow tries to eat a little grass—
held by a nose ring, her head cannot move.
As days pass, the cow grows accustomed to this—
after years, the cow accepts it as natural.
In an eternity, the cow never yearns for freedom—
how many years does it take to accept the habit of a yoke?
One wonderful quality about Hyesim’s poetry is its timelessness. Magnolia and Lotus is a collection of poetry written approximately eight centuries ago. Still, Hyesim is thought-provoking. His commentary on nature resounds as a quality of human nature in spite of their sometimes symbiotic relationship. His poetry contributes to modern rallies for human equality and liberation from consumerism. Haight’s translation recovers a unique Korean voice, often overlooked among other Buddhist poets and scholars. Hyesim’s voice is a refreshing one, minding new readers that transcendence is humanly possible. Our only obligation is to watch and to listen.
Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim, Translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ. White Pine Press, 2012: $16.00
J. Andrew Goodman is a recent MFA graduate from Murray State University and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.