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Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim
Translated by Ian Haight and Taeyoung Ho
White Pine Press (2013)
ISBN# 978-1-935210-436

Review by Yearn Hong Choi for the Korean Quarterly

I am an old Korean poet, but have never been exposed to the poet Hyesim, so the collection Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim has enlightened me. 

Hyesim (1178-1234) was the first Zen Master in Korea who was dedicated to poetry; the tradition of Zen Buddhist poetry is frequently considered by Korean literary critics to begin with this poet's writings. The term "Zen" is a Japanese word, so it may not be the best word for Hyesim. The term Sŏn in Korean is synonymous with the now-English term Zen. In Chinese, the term is referred to as Chan. 

Hyesim's secular name was Sik Choe (last name Choe). He was born in Hwasun, Cholla Province, and he studied Confucianism and Buddhism. He became a scholar-literatus and became a high-level government official as his mother wished. After his mother passed away, he entered a Buddhist temple to start his life as a monk. He received the title of Sŏn Master from Koryo King Kojong in 1213. Three years later, he received the title Grand Sŏn Master from the king. He was recognized as the highest monk-the Chingak Kuksa of the so-called Buddhist Dynasty. 

I am already attracted to the poetry of Hyesim through the first and second poems in the book. The poetry is attractive, peaceful, and beautiful. It discusses the principles of Sŏn and the journey of the person who is pursuing Sŏn.

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.

Spring Day on a Mountain Retreat

A sublime day of blossoms—
strolling, my mind embraces complacency.

On a sun-drenched hill, I pick fern brake—
in a shadowed valley, I seek ornamental stones, and a wellspring.

Water drips from a marbled mountainside; mist dissipates—
azaleas line a stream; their royal petals low among pines.

I sing a cheerful song—
walking, I love the quiet solitude.

The translators organized Hyesim’s poems into four categories: the rules of Sŏn Buddhism and self-discipline; the representation and enjoyment of nature; an interest in a topic or object that expands into the understanding of Buddhist practice; and accepting and responding to reality, works that tell of life as it is. The first two poems quoted above belong to the first category, but all are beautiful, reflecting his mind and nature, and the Buddhist idea of “no mind” inside the nature. Another short poem in the first group is:

To My Reflection

I sit alone by a pond,
see a monk at the bottom.
Silently we smile at one another—
I know his voice will not respond.

This short poem may well represent his happiness and his world of Sŏn.

Hyesim was a product of his time, and his writings were a distinctive mix of Buddhism and Confucianism, two different philosophical principles which were interwoven in the fabric of the society of the 12th century. He balanced Confucianism, as an ethical conduct standard, and Buddhism, as a way of salvation and spiritual tranquility.

His serenity permeates his writing, a more effective mind control than any anti-depressant medicine. The reader does not need to be a Buddhist to enjoy this poetry book. Absorbing Hyesim’s careful and sensitive words, we may, even from our perch in 21st century time and space, imagine a poet-monk in the 13th century, and appreciate Hyesim’s life a thousand years ago in a small country named Koryo. Poetry was his life, letters were his way of communication with Buddha, and with friends and neighbors. As a modern day poet, I appreciate his poetry book as a guide to my meditation. I am sure that I will read this poetry book often on my journey to peace and solitude.

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