Enlightenment as a process: what might it have been like for a Korean Buddhist monk who lived hundreds of years ago?
If enlightenment is an unfolding of wisdom, what progressive awareness is suggested by that unfolding?
Imagine, then, this same monk becoming the leader of the nation’s most important Buddhist Order: the Chogye. Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim suggests what Hyeim might have valued in life; as a monk; and as an early founder of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect.
Despite his achievements, this collection asks, did Hyesim eventually relinquish his position? If so, why? What were Hyesim’s 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.
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The Footsteps I Follow: Authors I Admire
One of the things aspiring writers of literature are told is that they should “read widely and vociferously.” I was told that by Laurence Goldstein, a professor of poetry I had at the University of Michigan. And I heard the same thing later from a number of different writers at workshops I took on different continents, so I’d like to believe it’s true: as a serious writer one should read widely. As a translator of Korean classical poetry some of the writers I admire and have read might seem strange, but here are a few genres, authors I admire in them, and the reasons why.
First an easy one most people will know from the genre of horror: Stephen King. What I like best about King is his use of simile. The scene in The Shining where a dead body’s sexual organs are said to “bob in the water like kelp” or in “The Afterlife,” how all the pain and suffering in a man’s body leaves and “pours out like slop from a bucket.” King’s characters are also memorable. Protagonists are not necessarily perfect, but their human imperfections come off as ennobling because they are surrounded by figures so fatally flawed. I suppose it’s a character’s ability to make human decisions and live by them while existing in a world much less than heaven that makes King a worthwhile read.
A student of mine named one of the things that make George Martin so good: Martin’s ability to create characters, circumstances, and settings that are so real. And Martin is writing in the genre of fantasy, no less. There’s very little in the first book of the Game of Thrones series that feels implausible. The opening prologue seems disconnected from the rest of the book in that the wight-like “others” have almost nothing to do with unfolding events. As readers, we begin to care very much for the plight of the Starks and their protagonists, and we realize the inevitability of Daenerys’ return to Westeros. It’s only in subsequent books that dragons, magic, and “the others” rise to prominence in the story, but by then, as readers, we have bought into their presence. Why is that? Masterful plotting, characters, and description.
When I was young Robert Heinlein was an author I spent some time with. People may recognize Heinlein as the author of Starship Troopers, which was made into a movie still in rotation on television. I admired Heinlein’s plotting and fantastical stories; his sci-fi books were compelling reading. When people think of Heinlein’s best book though, often they will name Stranger in a Strange Land. The best science fiction—or speculative fiction as the genre now seems to go by—will approach literature. At its best, speculative fiction takes on challenging human dilemmas that tell us something about what it means to be human. Stranger in a Strange Land does this. We question religion, power, love, language, and how human beings think. The book does this by telling a story that seems as if it could be real, but openly admits to being fiction. Stories like this always will earn my admiration.
My first book publication was a book of poetry in translation, so it probably would be good to name something about works in translation I admire. I’ve always been attracted to world literature or writing from other cultures. When I was in college the poetry of Wang Wei and Han Shan I found to be really exciting. I loved how the poems were short, but also strikingly dense in meaning. The idea of talking about or suggesting mystical experiences in poetry I fell in love with, and Wang Wei and Han Shan were wonderful exemplars for this motif. But to be able to write poetry like Wang Wei or Han Shan—at least according to Wang Wei’s story—one had to be a kind of “gentlemen poet.” The idea of cultivating a rich inner life—one of moral rectitude and spiritual practice for the sake of changing inner and outer worlds—became important. This point of view about writing is a little different from the west where we tend to see the writing as a product different from the person, and certainly there’s plenty of evidence to justify that approach. Even so, perhaps for the same reason that serious writers should read vociferously, what a writer does or puts into his/her own body can impact the writing.
Looking back over the writers I have named, several of them were writers I read when I was young—like King and Heinlein. Martin I read now, and am very much looking forward to his next release after A Dance with Dragons. Wang Wei and Han Shan I come back to fondly and easily become engrossed in whenever their poetry crosses my path. But when I put them all together, it’s how I think now as I writer that matters most to me: emphasis on image, prose fiction that is plot and character driven, realistic narrative, omniscient voice, and a sense that my own mental state and how well I treat myself will have a direct impact on the writing I produce. It’s been years or even decades since I’ve read with earnestness some of the authors above, but I admire them still for their influences upon me.
ABOUT IAN HAIGHT
Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He has been awarded 5 translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, the translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ (2009) both from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s Chronicle, Barrow Street and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications.
For more information, please visit ianhaight.com.
His latest book is Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim