Book Excerpt! For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems by Cho Oh-Hyun

September is National Translation Month. On Saturdays throughout the month we will be featuring our translations of poetry. Today, we are focusing on selections from For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems by Cho Oh-Hyun, including section 2 from Kwon Youngmin’s introduction “On Musan Cho Oh-Hyun’s Sijo” and several poems translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl.

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On Musan Cho Oh-Hyun’s Sijo

During the Joseon Dynasty, the great monks such as Hyujeong and Yujeong left many Zen poems, but they did not compose a single sijo. If one looks through Professor Jeong Byeong-uk’s The Dictionary of Literary Sijo, among the hundreds of sijo poets during the Joseon Dynasty, there is not a single monk. Manhae wrote sijo after his enlightenment, but not a single sijo is included in The Silence of Love. In that context, the fact that Master Cho began his writing of poetry in the sijo form is not to be taken lightly. Master Cho embraced the sijo form fatefully and confronted it along with the numerous hwadu—the koan-like spiritual “head word” problems—of Korean Zen. His “Musan’s Ten Bulls” depicts the realm of the ineff able, and his use of language in works like “Speechless Speech” and “Wordless Words” is a paradox. Like Zen hwadu, these works deconstruct language because Master Cho does not regard the poetic form of sijo as an innate ontological necessity.

In Master Cho’s sijo, written under his Buddhist name, Musan, one initially discovers an emphasis on the beauty of restraint. To readers attuned to poetic sentiment, this sort of sijo teaches emotional restraint, which we can see is Musan’s imperative for writing sijo. Indeed, where language is concerned, Musan is the great master who pioneered the genre of “Zen sijo” by elevating the language of sijo to parallel the hwadu of Zen.

While maintaining the three-part structure of sijo, which is one of its defining characteristics, Musan gives attention to its internal dynamism. The ultimate beauty of his sijo as a poetic form is that it aspires to an effect that only it can achieve. There are, however, many kinds of aesthetic self-regulation that are necessary for this form to be realized.

Musan is the great master who pioneered the genre of “Zen sijo” by elevating the language of sijo to parallel the hwadu of Zen.

First, Musan’s sijo are characterized by a regulation of speech. He eliminates unnecessary words for maximum economy, supplying in their place a minimal number of absolutely necessary words, thereby calming the reader’s emotional exuberance and moderating the aesthetic impulse. The restrained diction in Musan’s sijo is not meant to constrain language or to shackle it; it is restrained naturally within the structure, and the freedom that emerges within these constraints is integral to its unique beauty.

As Musan elevates the sijo form into the realm of Zen, he transcends the typical qualities of the convention, deconstructing it while creating a new poetic form. This new form, which interweaves diff erent voices into one poetic expression, gives rise to a dynamic poetic tension and can be termed iagijo, or “story sijo.” This new form of sijo goes beyond the aesthetic of symmetry and balance that sijo has traditionally featured; it establishes a broader and higher inclusive aesthetic.

Much as the spirit of sijo is to discover one human value within reality, Musan’s story sijo includes the speech and sounds of all social classes. The voices rendered here in the conversational space are the voices of Buddhist monks in their temples, woodcutters deep in the mountains, and also common folk such as the street blacksmith. Because these voices refl ect the condition of living speech, they are not expressed in a uniform vocabulary; the words are inherently in a dialogue, and as the dialogic quality inherent to these distinct voices emerges, it continually shapes the poetic moment.

For example, in “Speaking Without Speaking 1,” Musan opens up a dynamic dialogic space poised in the formal structure of the sijo. Unlike a conventional sijo, which is characterized by an overarching point of view, “Speaking Without Speaking 1” includes diverse voices as part of that internal dialogic space. The poetic moment is transformed from static to dynamic, and this dynamism is made integral by the commonplace language used in the poem. The language in this work is not simply a matter of clashing diction—the collision and conflict of those levels of diction work like a catalyst. Musan gives that discursive action a concrete form by incorporating words from one vocabulary into a discourse with those from another; the diction of common speech constantly engages the other, higher, level of diction, catalyzing questions and answers.

Human speech and the sounds of nature are precisely the marks that indicate that reality is alive.

“The Seagulls & the East Sea,” which depicts an internal dialogue, represents a new kind of narrative poem—a form of sijo whose poetic space plays on the reader’s presumption of narrative. The layered voices—which are immediate, realistic, and straightforward—interweave to create a unique kind of narrative that advances the text’s the poetic sensibility. It is not an objective story that exists in objective reality, and it is not mediated by the poet’s voice, yet it does not neglect the inflection that permeates the inner consciousness. And so, even while being the most prosaic of stories, it evokes a poetic mood—and by evoking a mood associated with the aesthetic of poetry, the poem becomes a new form: the “story sijo.”

One could say that the extreme directness of Musan’s sijo is due to the influence of Zen. Human speech and the sounds of nature are precisely the marks that indicate that reality is alive. The absence of sound signifies death. A human life gives rise to speech, and nature gives rise to sounds that signify its vitality; thus the perpetuation of life is human speech comingling with the sounds of nature into a single story. Musan composes sijo containing this speech and these sounds, these very living things, while as a poet he embarks on the path of a “Distant Holy Man.”

Today, this one day,
     on this one day called today

I saw the whole of the sun rise
     and saw it all set

Nothing more to see—
     a swarm of gnats laying eggs, dying

I am still alive,
     long past my time to die,

But consider—today, I don’t feel
     as if I’ve lived even this single day

He may live a thousand years,
     but the holy man

Is but a distant cloud of gnats

Language and sound cannot escape the constraints of time. But the poet, using the sounds of human speech and embracing the sounds of nature, can escape the bounds of time. What possibilities are there beyond the themes of beginnings and endings evoked by the words “the whole of the sun rise” and “saw it all set”? Musan, having already created a story sijo that refl ects the sounds and voices of humanity, makes this question moot because, ultimately, it is in the place beyond existence that words become what we know as poetry. . . .

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Three poems from For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems by Cho Oh-Hyun, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl.

“Speaking Without Speaking 1”

Eoseongjeon, Gangwon province, on
the funeral day of the potter, Old Man Kim:

There was no funeral ceremony or mourners, but there was a rumor
that his wife, who had died thirty years earlier, appeared with her
hair down, and holding onto his bier, she cried, Look here, look
here! Leave me, leave me, at least your fi ery anger when you go! and
the dead Old Man Kim replied, All of my anger, anger, I made into
pottery, pottery.

Actually, this was
a tale told
by the bier-bearers.


“The Seagulls & the East Sea”

     Tales from the Temple 2

     It happened some time ago. There was an elderly man, not
especially holy-looking, but with a certain grace to his old age. He was
sitting across from Mt. Nakson, on the very end of the cliff that faces
it, a dizzying and precarious place. He was sitting astride a rock all
day, looking out at the waves on the surface of the East Sea.
I asked him, “Where are you from, old man?”
He said, “I’m sure I saw two sea gulls fl ying over the horizon this
morning, but they don’t seem to be coming back.” It sounded like he
was talking to himself.
The next day he was at that same spot again, sitting in that same
pose, so I asked him, “Did the two sea gulls return?”
He said, “The sea was crying yesterday, but today it’s not.”


“Weekend Scrawl”

As he departed last weekend, having rested for the night,
an old man said,

The world
is like an unraveled thread,
like the skin on a fan,
like the splayed wing of an insect.
His body spread with moxibustion wormwood in the bright blood,
he left,

navel plenty red.


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