Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim
Translators: Ian Haight and T’ae-yŏng Hŏ
White Pine Press, 2012
Korean Voices Series
Co-translator Ian Haight introduces Magnolia and Lotus
Chin’gak Kuksa Hyesim (1178 – 1234) was the second Patriarch of the Korean Buddhist Chogye Order and the first Zen Master dedicated to poetry in Korea. The book’s title, Magnolia and Lotus, is taken from a poem within the book:
Magnolia, the Lotus of Trees
Observing leaves: at first, I doubt they are persimmon—
looking at the blossoms, I doubt they are lotus.
How fortunate there are no fixed forms—
this tree has no comparison.
I like this poem for a number of reasons and, at the translator’s ever-present risk of presumption, believe it captures the voice of Hyesim. There resides so much Buddhism in these four simple lines: the non-judgmental doubting of what is observed, and how shifting perspective reveals different possibilities in assumptions; the idea of the blossoms themselves – both lotus flowers and magnolias as representations of wisdom, beauty, truth, and enlightenment; the appreciative acceptance of not knowing what a flower is because its fixed form cannot be determined, and how this understanding could be applied to everything comprehended by the mind; finally, a penetrating recognition: that there is nothing to compare with the singularity of what is observed – everything under the sun has uniqueness. A train of thought that is simultaneously paradoxical and circular couched in deceptive simplicity – yes, this poem feels very Buddhist. The poems in this collection present a world observed with reverence and admiration by a monk who lived more than 700 years ago. It feels natural to identify the collection as a unified voice of Hyesim.
Why title the book Magnolia and Lotus? The answer lies in the poem ‘Magnolia, the Lotus of Trees’. Consider a poem as an image of perspective; or the idea that language, a poem, a translation is a shifting continuum, both having and lacking permanence. And yet, somewhere among these possibilities is a node that remains distinctive, if even for a moment – something we can give a title to, calling it a poem or perhaps even a book. Under this Buddhist way of thinking, naming the book after the poem feels appropriate.
The poems in this book are built around an imagined life of Hyesim and his purpose for writing poems. What did Hyesim experience in meditation? How did his wisdom grow with progressive enlightenment? What did he place importance on in life; as a monk; as an early founder of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, the Chogye Order? If he eventually relinquished this position, what did he then do? What were his thoughts in his final years? Each of the translated poems, attentive to the nuances of Hyesim’s Buddhist and Confucian background as well as the landscape of Korea, posits the point of view of Hyesim, his voice, and his time. My hope is that this collection – utilising metaphor, rhythmic language and imagery – invites a reader into relaxed companionship with Hyesim and his life.
Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002 – 4. He has been awarded five translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Garden Chysanthemums and First Mountain Snow: Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, the translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ (2009) both from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s Chronicle, Quarterly West and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications. For more information, please visit Ian’s website.
T’ae-yŏng Hŏ has been awarded translation grants from the Daesan Foundation and Korea Literature Translation Institute. With Ian Haight, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Hŏ Kyun and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim. Working from the original classical Chinese, T’ae-yŏng’s translations of Korean poetry have appeared in Runes, New Orleans Review and the Atlanta Review.
“Korea’s first Zen Master-poet wrote simple yet elegant poetry of the world he inhabited, both physically and spiritually, and of daily insights—a pause along the way for a deep clear breath, a moon-viewing moment, a seasonal note or a farewell poem to a departing monk. His poems speak softly and clearly, like hearing a temple bell that was struck a thousand years ago.”
– Sam Hamill
“Hyesim’s poems: transformative as walking high granite mountains by moonlight, with fragrant herbs underfoot and a thermos of clear tea in the backpack. Their bedrock is thusness, their images’ beauty is pellucid and new, their view without limit. The shelf of essential Zen poets for American readers grows larger with this immediately indispensable collection.”
– Jane Hirshfield
“Reading poems from another language, culture, and century, I often feel like a foreigner excluded from the original’s subtleties. Not so in Hyesim’s miraculous time-traveling poems, which might have been written yesterday or tomorrow, and anywhere. There’s not a single opaque word in the book. The poems are Buddhist, yes, and Zen (Sŏn) in particular, but they’re written for anyone interested in human consciousness: what it is, how it perceives the world, how it can be transformed, and what pure perceptual clarity and joy result from the realization of its ultimate transparency. Through eight hundred years Hyesim’s voice delivers the gift of his wisdom, modesty, humor, and profound understanding of the human mind. These are important poems.”
– Chase Twichell
Leaving Home to Enter the Priesthood
I have longed for the School of the Void,
to learn with my mind of ashes to sit in Sŏn.
Fame is fragile as a clay rice-cake steamer—
even after success, the effort for fame has been in vain.
Riches and honors, sought uselessly—
the poor also have this affliction.
I have left my village home
and sleep calmly under pines.
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
than my comparisons.
Curves of Incense
Threads of incense drift upwards
unending in my silent room—
a smoky portent, like cracks on a tortoise shell—
nine perfumed plumes twist.
An old mirror hides light with darkness—
embers flare within sullen ash.
The many folds of my silk curtain part—
what is most precious faces the wind.
Saying Goodbye to a Monk
One who leaves home to be a monk must be completely free—
how many times have you entered the gates of enlightenment?
Walking alone, wandering outside the world of humans—
a refined heart looks from afar upon the world.
The body, lively, like a single cloud—
the mind, quiet: a mistless moon.
With the simplicity of a bowl and set of old clothes—
a bird ascending 10,000 mountains.
Replying to Mr Kal’s Poem
Spring silkworms spin threads, strangely tying themselves—
flies content themselves with their vinegar-pot world.
If you want to escape your bonds and reside outside common
turn your head as soon as possible. Practice Sŏn.
Together, with you, I am bound—
once freed, why should a crane linger to fly?
The lustrous moon reminds me of your promise—
on which day in the mountains will we practice Sŏn.
Again, a Poem Given at Departure
The somber sky portends rain—
the miserable mountain bears a weary face.
Fortunately, friends of the same practice release clasped hands
but with such heartfelt friendships, it is difficult not to shed tears.
October 1231, I Pass by Growth of Humanity Temple
Borrowing a Poem Written on a Wall
A stand of bamboo unifies a garden—
a salutary breeze drifts below a fence.
In the season of golden leaves, I regret the day’s brevity—
this night of silence—I want it to last.
Sun showers surround the Abbot’s quarters—
humid air entices the land.
Five days I’ve stayed, resting my staff and shoes—
such a delight when the world’s grace endures.
A breeze of winter—
the months of this year draw to an end.
Every leaf in a forest eventually falls, yellowing a mountain—
only pine and bamboo retain an inborn breath of emerald.
How many years will a human live?
Time is fleet as lightning.
Details of self ought to be examined—
then the empty dream will not endure.
from Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim
(White Pine Press, 2012).
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