Poetry Vastly Apart from
The Poetic World of Ven. Jo O-hyeon
Mun Tae-jun | Poet
The Venerable has now entered nirvana,
but his poems, far removed from conventional truth,
remain here, as clear as the moon on a frosty night.
Thus, when I read his poetry, my mind cools
down like the sky in midwinter
“A guy knowing nothing of the joy of life
Won’t possibly know the joy of death.
After all, am I not a crawling worm?
For birds abiding in the forest of another time
I will come back as their food.”
This poem is To Extinction by Ven. Jo O-hyeon (1962−2018; hereafter “the Venerable”). His Dharma name was Musan; his Dharma transmission name was Seorak, and his secular name was Jo O-hyeon. The poem reveals his vast perspective. No life in this world is small, trivial or worthless. Therefore a “crawling worm” is not a trivial creature. Rather it is a sacred life whose value is equal to a human being. Had the Venerable praised human beings greatly, they could have become more horrible and evil, and so he put humans on the same level as crawling worms. The phrase in the fourth line “forest of another time” is exquisite. It may refer to a “next life” but also a life of perfect interpenetration one has to reach in the future which is complete and without hindrances. Thus, it is a realm where the hierarchy of predation does not exist. This poem was written after the Venerable had penetrated all aspects of the human condition, and thus, it is a thundering cry for all-inclusiveness.
Often called the “last unhindered sage of our time,” the Venerable composed excellent sijo, traditional Korean three-verse poems. He started his literary career in 1968 on the recommendation of Sijo Munhak, a literary magazine. He eventually published two of his own sijo collections titled Simudo [Ox-Herding Pictures] and Adeukhan seongja [Distant Holy Man]. He received several major literary awards, including the Garam Sijo Literary Award, Modern Sijo Literary Award and Gosan Literary Award. Literary critic Yu Seong-ho said his works were the result of “frequently crossing over between the Seon realm and poetry realm.”
An elder poet of Korea’s literary circle, Lee Geun-bae, praised the Venerable’s poetry, saying it was “a revitalization of sijo literature that embodied the Korean spirit,” a “realm of the Buddha” and the “peak of Korean literature.”
The Venerable was born in 1932 in Miryang, Gyeongnam Province; entered a monastic order in 1939; received the novice precepts in 1959 from Ven. Seongjun at Jikjisa Temple and full precepts in 1968 from Ven. Seogam at Beomeosa Temple. He served as the abbot of Gyerimsa, Haeunsa, Bongjeongsa and Sinheungsa Temples, and as a councilman on the Central Religious Council of the Jogye Order; he received the title of Daejongsa, the highest rank for monks in the Jogye Order. He also taught junior monks by serving as the Guiding Teacher (Josil) at Sinheungsa and Baekdamsa Temples, as well as at the Special Seon Center of the Jogye Order.
His Dharma talks were said to be both “simple” and “breaking from convention.” At the closing talk of one three-month winter meditation retreat at Baekdamsa Temple, he roared: “Without sentient beings, there are neither Buddhas nor enlightenment. Therefore, when we take on the suffering of sentient beings as our own, when we look at sentient beings after releasing all pride, ambition and craving from our body, when the nails of our hands and feet soften and fall out, only then does the suffering of sentient beings become ours.” At the closing talk of one summer retreat, he faced the people gathered there and said, “I look at you and you look at me. Then I have finished what I have to say and you have heard what you came to hear. As the weather is hot, if we look at each other once, then all the words to be said and heard are complete. This concludes today’s talk.” And he descended from the Dharma seat.
“My age approached the setting sun,
My thoughts, too, are revealed like my stooped backbone,
Today I touched the tree stump standing askew.
The other day I visited Ven. Hancheon at his temple,
And asked him where his fun in life was.
He said it is ineffable and told me to ring the cloud-shaped-gong.
Now really the days living on the mountain:
One day chirping like a bug in the grass,
Another day smiling like a flower in the field,
Only to see the flow that has fulfilled the flow.”
The above is his poem titled Days Living on the Mountain, which expresses the serene joy of a mountain monk. In his poem Mark Time, he said, “Less than a step / Is a lifetime / One goes and goes / But still marks time.” The work of a lifetime in this world falls short of one step, and although one tries to live and live, they still find themselves at a standstill. This sounds like a lamentation, but instead I sense his spacious character which is vastly open without any hindrance. As his age ripens, his inner intentions are revealed in whole like his spine. There is no trace of anything personal in his mind. The trunk of a cut tree, standing askew as if it may fall any minute, does not look dangerous. He just sees it as it is, cut and stooped. Each day has no wondrous functionality, and he abides in equanimity. He laughs and he cries, but never waivers. He has severed all ties to “variegated joy and sorrow.”
About a month before he cut his karmic ties to this life, he summoned his attendant and left a death poem: “Having made a headlong rush, my head held high, and making empty boasts, hairs grow all over my body and a horn grows from my forehead, Aauuk!” Reading this poem, I was reminded of a passage in his poetry collection Distant Holy Man: “The words I’ve spewed till now are all gibberish / I open my mouth at last: Tread neither on earth nor on stone / This body, after an intake of brass, is in a molten fire.” These words, uttered as he humbled himself as much as possible, express his humility, and they hold his teaching that in this life of ours, it is very difficult to shake off desire, and therefore, we should be on guard. The Venerable was also very humble in introducing himself. In one of his books, his profile simply said: “A monk residing at Baekdamsa Temple who only listens to flowing waters due to his blindness.” This humble attitude is also revealed in his poem Distant Holy Man: “Today, this one day, / on this one day called today // I saw the whole of the sunrise / and the whole of the sunset. // Nothing more to see—/ a swarm of mayflies lay eggs and die // Long past my time to die / I am still alive, / but I don’t feel as if I’ve lived even one day or this single day. // He may live a thousand years, / but the holy man / is but a distant swarm of mayflies.”
The Venerable has now entered nirvana, but his poems, far removed from conventional truth, remain here, as clear as the moon on a frosty night. Thus, when I read his poetry, my mind cools down like the sky in midwinter.
Mun Tae-jun started his literary career in 1994 in the Literary JoongAng quarterly. His Korean poetry collections include Barefoot and Halibut. Currently he works for the Buddhist Broadcasting System (BBS) as head of production in the radio division.