Chin’gak Kuksa Hyesim was the first Zen Master dedicated to poetry in Korea. As translator Ian Haight explains in his introduction to Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim (White Pine Press, 2012), the tradition of Zen Buddhist poetry begins with his writing.

Translating poetry by a revered monk of Korean antiquity has its challenges. Very little is known about Hyesim’s life as a recluse. We do know that he opted to study Confucianism and Buddhism over pursuing a career, which suggests that he came from a family of good social position. After only three years of studying under the influential monk Pojo Kusa Chinul, he was named a Master.

When Master Chinul died five years later in 1210, Hyesim was made Chief Abbot by Royal Order. He received the title Zen Master and Grand Zen Master from King Kojong, and was given a golden robe by the general of the king’s army, an honor bestowed on only the most highly respected monks.

Magnolia and Lotus is drawn from the only known book of Hyseim’s poetry, Poems by Muuija, a transcript kept in the archives of the University of Kumasawa in Japan. Translators Ian Haight and T’ae-Yong Ho worked from an original Chinese manuscript, also using Korean language scholarship and translations for reference and context.

The book is an important text in Korean letters. It is only the second collection of poetry by a Buddhist Master in Korea, and the poems, though often about Buddhism, are not only about this theme. Hyesim also writes about friendship, departure, and what it means to be Chief Abbot at a temple. “One can easily find a common thread of humanity throughout Hyesim’s writing,” explains Haight.

Here is the title poem from the collection…

 

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,” says Haight.

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.

“Plantain” is one of my favorite poems in Magnolia & Lotus and is a good example of how Hyesim uses nature to contemplate the ideal. The simplicity of this poem avoids sentimentality in favor of expressing a deeper truth: that art can’t always improve upon reality. Certain things, such as plantains, are perfect just as they are.

In other pieces, the poet focuses on various objects. Hyesim believed that an individual who was free of illusion could perceive the beauty, truth, and the abstract qualities of an object through poems that prompted clarity and understanding.

Hyesim’s writing embraces paradox, as well—paradox ”between large and small, material reality and emptiness, nothingness and fullness, and existence and non-existence.”

His language also works on multiple levels. According to Haight, the description of “boiling tea,” to give one example, can also be seen as a metaphor for meditation.

“The poems in this book are built around an imagined life of Hyesim and his purpose for writing poems,” says Haight.

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—utilizing metaphor, rhythmic language and imagery—invites a reader into relaxed companionship with Hyesim and his life.

Bridging the gap of time and culture can make it challenging to understand all of the layers of meaning contained in these short poems, and yet there is much to appreciate about the language, simplicity, and ideas in these works.

At the center of Hyesim’s poetry is the notion of awareness. Language, sound, nature, art, and the acknowledgement of life’s paradoxes can be aids to clarity and human consciousness. The Buddhist idea of letting go of attachments and seeing the world as it truly is is the central theme in Hyesim’s writing. “Their bedrock is thusness,” writes the poet Jane Hirshfield, “their images’ beauty is pellucid and new, their view with