One day, the poet Ko Un said to me, as if talking to himself, "Transmigration (samsara) is Emancipation". What could he possibly mean? Emancipation means to be freed from the wheel of transmigration that continues the round of life and death according to the karma of desires. By his words, Ko Un is rejecting the primary proposition of Buddhist thinking. Is he offering absolute approval of the world we inhabit? It seems so, in that he does not assume anything outside of the world.
However, given that he identifies transmigration with emancipation, his approval is not totally free of reservations: rather, it is close to an inner transcendence which enables both absolute approval and absolute disapproval of each and every moment of life. His poetry keeps being born and dying at a locus where all distinctions between approval and disapproval are obliterated and obliteration itself is lost. I see a monk moving like water, like a cloud, on his serious yet light-hearted journey of discovery. He aspires to reach the greatest freedom by letting go of both transmigration and emancipation. The grave traditions of Korean Buddhism have given birth to a monk-poet.
Ko Un was born into a farming family in 1933 and grew up in Kunsan, North Cholla Province. Kusan, the gateway to the wide plains known as the 'granary of the Korean Peninsula,' was sadly enjoying prosperity in those days, since it had become the main port from which rice was exported to Japan during the colonial period. After Independence (1945) Kunsan went to ruin. Ko Un, after witnessing the historico-political turmoil of those years-the division of Korea, its northern half occupied by Russia and the southern half by the United States (1945), the establishment of mutually exclusive gorvernments in the North and the South (1948), and the establishment of the People's Republic of China (1949)-turned his back on the world to become a Buddhist momk in 1952, in the middle of th Korean War (1950-1953). The Korean War served as a first turning point in the young poet's life and was the womb for his poetry. The War, which began as a civil war between the North and the South, grew into an international conflict. However, even toward the end of the war, when it began increasingly to revolve around the interests of America and China, the main victims were the Korean soldiers from the North and the South. As the whole population came to be involved, the Korean War was truly a costly history lesson for Koreans. The war revealed the ways in which national history relates to the world history. It finally came to an Armistice, bringing the country close to the pre-war state of division into two halves. the subsequent Cold War affected the rest of the world. Ko Un's escape from such a hell to Buddhism, a year before the Armistice, was his own way of struggling against the evil of the Korean War, a struggle attempted at a fundamental level. He returned to the world in 1962.
In a sense, his return to secular life had already occurred four years before, when he made his debut as a poet. His poetry can be chronologically divided into three periods. The early period includes the poems written in the 1950's and 1960's, when he was experiencing a deep crisis between the "the Golden Tree of Life" and the grey world of a Son (Zen) monk, in a word, the era of Modernism; the middle period includes poems written in the 1970's when he presented himself as a poet of radical resistance, engaging in the anti-dictatorial democratic movement and rejecting Modernism; the later period includes poems written in the 1980's, when he tried to reach a state of great freedom through a marriage between the poetic and the political. His poetic pilgrimage, begun in 1958, has continued into the new century, ever marked by a great earnestness and an eagerness to find a new poetic territory; his work has become a mirror of the history of modern Korean poetry.
The Period of Modernism
It is important to look at the general context of modern Korean poetry at the time Ko Un made his debut. The agricultural community that had already been in decline since the 1930s had finally collapsed. The South was flooded by waves of capitalism after the Korean War. In such social chaos, popular poetry receded to an undercurrent and the approach known as Modernism once more became the mainstream. Modernist poetry had been one of the dominant streams in the 1930s, but the colonial modernism which had arisen and the propaganda poetry which had flourished diminished as the Great Depression ended, with the appearance of Japanese imperial fascism. It was this same modernism which returned in the 1950s. However, in the late 1950s, when the dictatorship of the anti-communist President Syngman Rhee was at its height, Modernism began to break down again, in the face of urgent calls for democracy, adumbrating the events of the April Revolution(1960) when the students led a revolt that finally toppled the Rhee regime. As the poetry of Kim Su-yong shows, after that some Modernist poets cautiously began to raise self-critical voices.
Ko Un made his debut at this complicated, transitional point. His version of Modernism was unique, although it was still located within the magnetic field of Modernism as a whole. The uniqueness was primarily shaped by the particular socio-political situation of the moment and by his being a monk-poet. He was in a Buddhist context which basically objected to the westernised ideas dominating modernist poetry in the 1950s. However, he cannot easily be categorised as a member of the "Traditional Group" of poets. In the 1950s, the traditional Group, whose leading poet was Midang So Chong-ju, enjoyed equal importance with the Modernists. While the "Western Group" pursued a westernised form of modernisation, the Traditional Group indulged in romantic transcendence, inclined to err through the forests of the classical like 'birds of heaven'. However, when we consider that So Chong-ju had been deeply affected by Modernism in the 1930s, the Western Group and the Traditional Group could not be far apart. In some sense, each was a subversive imitation of the other. The earliest poetry of Ko Un might be seen as straddling the border-line division between the Western and the Traditional poetics that were enjoying a happy co-habitation in the 1950s.
One of his poems that clearly show border characteristics is 'Ode to Shim-chong'
Indangsu sea, shine dark blue,
come rising as a cloudlike drumbeat.
The waters, the sailors who know the waters, may know
the dark fate of the world beyond
that lies past the path that sometimes appears,
the weeping of children born into this world,
and the sailors may know my daughter's path.
How can the waters exist without the world beyond?
has now become the most yearned-for thing in the world,
and my daughter's whimpering stillness in the lotus bud will be such;
might love be a bright world and my eyes be plunged in utter darkness?
Daughter, already now the waters' own mother,
advance over the waters,
advance over the waters
like the mists that come dropping over the waters.
My daughter, advance and travel through every world.
Shine dark blue, Indangsu. Weep dark blue.