Joel Weishaus, Poetica Critique: Ko Un, "Himalaya Poems"

Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Ko Un, Himalaya Poems.
Translated by Br. Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha.
Green Integer: Kobenhavn & Los Angeles, 2011.


Born Ko Un-Tae, in 1933, in what is now North Korea, Ko Un grew up under Imperial Japan's iron grip on the Korean People, which lasted from 1910 until 1945, after which his country was bifurcated into an oppressive Communist government in the North facing an oppressive Capitalist government in the South.

At age 19, having seen members of his family murdered by the regime, and himself forced to carry corpses, the tramatized boy took refuge in the Zen (Sŏn, in Korean) Buddhist Heinsa Temple, meditating and reciting sutras for the next 11 years. Not able to reconcile formal religious practice with an unquenchable thirst for modernist writing, in 1963 Ko left the cloistered life for the complex unrehearsed world outside. Severely depressed from the difficulty of such an adjustment, he still managed to begin a career as poet, essayist, novelist, and author of children’s stories.

By 1974, living in South Korea, Ko had already published several books of poetry and fiction. He also became active in the pro-democracy movement, for which he was jailed four times, tortured and severely beaten, for speaking out against successive American-supported dictatorships. "This military prison special cell / is a photographer's darkroom. / Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool. / One day it was a coffin holding a corpse. / One day it was altogether the sea. / A wonderful thing! / A few people survive here."(1)

In her introduction to Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems, Clair You calls Ko Un, "A man of wantonness and spiritual yearning, with outbursts of creative energy, an irrepressible distaste for oppressors, an insatiable appetite for the unknown, a wary sense of humor."(2) To which the Buddhist writer, Gary Gach, adds:

"Ko Un is like a force of nature. To date, he’s published more than 135 books. Yet each of his poems is universal in its vivid particularity, each has its own teaching. Poem or brush drawing, whichever the moment calls for, each is unpremeditated and unrepeatable, born from the core of creation available within each moment. Tapping into the active imagination. The wellsprings of art."(3)


In the popular imagination, Tibet is "where, if anywhere on earth, wisdom is to be found, and we anticipate that our sojourn will be a long one. Possibly we shall not return."(4)

In July 1997, the then 64-year-old poet whom his friends call "great mountain peak" began a sojourn through the high country of the Himalayas. "That forty days' journey to the North of the Himalayas was a bitter experience," he wrote in his preface to Himalaya Poems, "well matching my reckless foolishness."
Tibet has a long history of foreigners drawn to it by tales of "magic and mystery," in the words of the intrepid 20th Century French spiritual quester, Alexandra David-Neel.
(5) In the 8th Century, the magician/saint Padmasambhava brought from what is now Pakistan a form of Tantric Buddhism that is still practiced in Tibet. In the 17th Century, Portuguese Jesuit priests entered Western Tibet, followed by British, Russian, French, and Swedish — Sven Hedin toughening himself with cold baths and naked plunges into snowdrifts—adventurers.
In 1904, Francis Younghusband, who would later become president of the Royal Geographical Society, with a few thousand soldiers battled his way to the fabled Lhasa. After forcing the Tibetan government to sign a treaty, he wandered off alone to a mountainside...from which he returned "insensibly suffused with an almost intoxicating sense of elation and good-will...Never again could I think evil, or again be at enmity with any man."(6) Tibet had worked its magic on him, as it would on other foreigners, until 1959, when Maoist China invaded en masse, claiming Tibet has always been province of China. Fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama escaped to India, and from there to the rest of the world, spreading the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

There have been many arduous treks made by poets, as their legs tend to be as restless as their imagination. There are two such poets, both Japanese, of whom I have written about many times: Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), and Taneda Santōka (1882-1940). Bashō, who made what we call haiku into a genre of literary art, is mainly remembered for his last journal, Oku no Hosomichi ("The Narrow Road to the Deep North."), although he did many long walks before this final masterpiece.(7) While Bashō, for reasons of security, dressed like a monk, Taneda Santōka (1882-1940 ) was a Zen priest who left the temple he was given to manage for a life on the road, writing haiku, and when he had some money, tippling sake—

a drink
would be nice now
sunset sky

During long days of walking, his lungs damaged years before from undiagnosed tuberculosis, it was "the ascetic monks of ancient times, who would walk five or ten kilometers every day along barren paths," of whom Ko thought. After all, he playfully traces his former lives back to 1125 B.C., when he was born as a mare by the Caspian Sea; with subsequent incarnations that include a teacherless monk, and a deaf farmhand who drank too much. Now, leaving the frenetic industrialized world behind, he began to write, "A slower pace, a somewhat slower pace will do."(9)

With so many kinds of foolishness left back home,
I gazed up toward a few peaks
brilliant at eight thousand meters, their golden
        blades piled high.
Before that, and after,
I could not help but be an orphan.

Earlier in this poem, Ko wrote that Tibet is "A place where I'd never been born / and must never be born—." Here we are in the spirit of Zen Buddhist "unborn mind," but also Jesus telling his disciples that to follow him they must first leave home, an untold distance from present-day conservative Christianity's "family values!" Distance is what Ko faced as he entered the vast Tibetan tableland that averages fifteen to sixteen thousand feet above sea level, with mountain peaks over over 25,000 feet. Here the great sacred rivers of India—Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yamuna—rise from the depths of chthonic earth. Here, also, are the 15,000 or so glaciers, whose store of fresh water that supplies Northern India is shrinking from global warming. Here we also encounter innumerable stories of the hermit/saint, Milarepa (1052-1135), whose "hundred thousand songs, / were all that existed / beyond this village / and that / and the mountain beyond." (11)

His father died when he was nine, and his mother's cousins robbed her inheritance, making mother and child eat scraps at their table. The boy, Thopaga, learned the Black Arts of the ancient Bon religion, which, at age fifteen, he used to murder thirty-five of his greedy uncles. Leaving home, then, "For six years and seven months / he did penance deep inside the mountains / guided in ascetic practice by the monk Marpa."(12) Marpa, the Translator, a disciple of the Indian scholar, Naropa, had the boy continuously build, tear down, and rebuild a house, until his body and psyche both disappeared. Thopaga became Milarepa, who sang his songs of enlightenment overflowing with such joy that, at age eighty-three, "Milarepa turned into water,"(13)

Literary critic Choi Won-shik wrote of Ko Un: "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." (14)

Poverty, dirt, children, "their stiff hair heavy with dust." (14) Stories frozen into myths, repeated and repeated around yak dung fires whose sparks fly through "the roof of the world" to be doused by rivers of stars. And of course there is Yeti, the Abominable Snowman—

Neither man's nor beast's,
there are footprints
whose plodding can be heard."

Sasquatch, as it's called in the Pacific Northwest of North America, is the shadow who walks behind us because if a few genes had mutated differently we'd be "Dzuteh, Meh-teh, O-mah, Alma, Yeti, Ban Jhakri, Skunk Ape, or Upslope Person...

In a clearing, he emerges as a trace of the enormous being we are when we are the missing link. Is Sasquatch our longing to retrieve an innocence lost when we learned how to slaughter or domesticate animals for food, magic, and anthropocentric love?"(16)


We finally reach Kailas, which has "traditionally been regarded as the holiest of all mountains...

it was the handle by which Brahma, the Creator, lowered the earth from heaven; it was the birthplace of Siva, the central figure in the Hindu pantheon. Buddhist tradition has it that on his death Gautama returned to dwell on Kailas so as to remain in the world to be of aid to mankind,"(17)

Ko, who calls it by its mythical name, Mount Sumeru, wrote:

If you make a full prostration at every step,
one complete circuit
takes a month
or more.

We have forgotten how to "walk in beauty," as the Navajos say; how to speak to and listen to the world we call natural because it is natural to us. In our mad dash to remake the world in our own image, we are forgetting that "passing away" means joining the elements of which our bodies are made: the earth which is our flesh, the stones which are our bones. The poem continues:

On the west side of Mount Sumeru
at the foot of a cliff a thousand leagues high
a withered blind man was sitting.

I did not address him,
I addressed the rock he was seated on.

Corpses floated down the rivers, others were expertly cleaved for birds to devour, death was in evidence everywhere he looked. If there were no death, there would be no religion. "Odd," Ko writes. "Tibet has no need for religion / yet it's nothing but religion."(19) He entered monasteries, at least those not leveled by the Red Guard during China's genocidal Cultural Revolution. He also visited Lhasa, Tibet's capitol. Its Potala, the former palace of a secession of Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet, and continue to reign over its heart and soul, is now a museum in whose gloomy convolutions Ko tried to find himself reflected in its shadows. Finally, "I threw the mirror away, once and for all / Smashcrash! Jjengkurang! / I was on my way back."(20)

"Yet strange as it may seem, once the journey is completed, the reality which has hitherto been an inner and hidden one turns out to envelop, surround, or contain that which at first was outer and visible. As a result of internalization, one has moved out of external reality. Henceforth, spiritual reality envelops, surrounds, contains so-called material reality."(21)

Suffering from dysentery "so violent / that time itself spasmed,"(22) he returned to his house outside Seoul, to his family (At age 50, Ko married Lee Sang-Wha, a professor of English Literature and co-translator of this book. They have one daughter.) and friends, to slowly recuperate. Three years later he would begin the drafts of this book's sixty-five poems, the first of which is aptly titled, "Your Pilgrimage." Indeed, I feel as though I can walk with this book forever.



Note: Quotes not numbered are from the Poet's Preface in Himalaya Poems.

1- Ko, U. From, "New Year's Full Moon." Br. Anthony of Taizé, Translator.
2- Ko, U. (2006) The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems. C. You and R. Silberg translators. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
3- Gach, G. (2006) “Pointing Beyond Words.” Bodhidharma Online. (Sept 1).
4- Haggard, R. (1971) She. London: Hodder.

5- See, A. David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet. New York: Dover, 1971.
6- Younghusband, F. (1910) India and Tibet. London: John Murray.
7 - See, D. L. Barnhill, Bashō's Journey. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
8 - Santōka, T. (2003) Burton Watson, Translator, For All My Walking. New York: Columbia University Press.
9 - Ko, U. From, "Your Pilgrimage."
10- Ko, U. From, "The Himalayas."
11- Ko, U. From, "That Name."
12- Ko, U. From, "A Life."
13- Choi, W. (2003) ”Ko Un’s Place in Modern Korean Poetry.” Conference on "The Poetic World of Ko Un." Stockholm University, Sweden.
14- Ko, U. From, "Children."
15- Ko, U. From, "Snowman."
16- Weishaus, J. (2003-4) "The Silence of Sasquatch."
17- Blakeney, T.S. (1979) "Kailas: A Holy Mountain." In, The Mountain Spirit, M.C. Tobias and H. Dresdo, Editors. Woodstock: The Overlook Press.
18- Ko, U. From, "The Blink Man of Mount Sumeru.
19 - Ko. U. From, "Tibetan Night."
20- Ko, U. From, "Leave-Taking." This refers to This reflects on the famous story of Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. When he was a lowly monk in the Fifth Patriarch's monastery, the Master asked the monks to write their understanding of Buddhism. Shenxiu, the Head Monk, was the only one to reply:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a bright standing mirror.
At all times polish it diligently,
Let no dust alight.

Hearing this read aloud, Hui-neng, as he was illiterate, Hui-neng asked someone to write a reply:

Bodhi is without any tree.
The bright mirror doesn't stand.
As not a single thing exists,
Where could any dust come from?

Even though he was the low monk of the totem pole, this gained him (in secret, because of Shenxiu’s jealousy) the Fifth Patriarch’s robe and bowl.

21- Corbin, H. (1972) “Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal.” Spring Journal.
22- Ku, U. From, "Confession."