The Buddhist Poetry of Joanne Kyger

It’s April and that means it’s also National Poetry Month.   An opportunity to remember the Buddhist inspired poetry of Joanne Kyger, who passed away March 22 at age 82.

Kyger became interested in Buddhism when she was living in San Francisco during the late 50s and involved in the Beat Generation poetry scene there.   Her obituary in the NY Times quotes her as saying,

“My own interest in Zen came about because I had been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger in Santa Barbara. Their philosophy just comes to an end saying you just have to practice the study of nothing.”

She met fellow poet/Buddhist Gary Snyder in 1958, and in 1960 they went to Japan and got married.  They also went to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky and met with the Dalai Lama.

Upon her return to the U.S., she published her first book, The Tapestry and the Web.  Kyger went on to publish more than twenty books of poetry and prose during her life.

Her work was a mix of dharma and the Beat Generation scene that became a part of the whole counter culture scene during the 1960s, including experimentation with psychedelic drugs.

Robert Creely said of Kyger, “There is no poet with more whimsically tough a mind… She’s the best of the west.”  And David Meltzer:  “No other poet of my gen­eration has been able to make the pleasures and particu­lars of the ‘everyday’ as luminous and essential and central.”

Basho Says Plants Stones Utensils
     have individual feelings
     similar to those of humans   
 
A zillion little butterfly thoughts
      simultaneously flap.

You are the sum
      of all you ‘know’
        and the more you forget
          the more ordinary
             you are really nothing
                 special   so why
                    all the anxious push-push
                      just hang

the clothes on the line
   Put the black ones
       in the washer
         Feel the myriad little bits
             of sensation
               that make up emotion

                            As the Sun
                           rises high
                         in the sky
                     so does the arrogance
         I’m still  waiting
           for the ‘Buddhist’
              poem to arrive

                 Darn it takes so long
                      for the Dharma
                      Up in arms
                  on the moral high road
              wanting to sum it up
          and END it

April 2002

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Meditations of the Lover

Just everything I know about Korean Buddhism comes from a couple of books I’ve read, one of which, Tracing Back The Radiance is by Robert E. Buswell, a Buddhist scholar I met briefly many years ago. His book is about Chinul, the founder of Korean Zen and his methods of meditation, which were based on the idea of “tracing the radiance emanating from the luminous core of the mind back to its source, restoring the mind to its natural enlightened state.”

I don’t know much about Korean Buddhism beyond this. I’ve found Koreans to be rather insular, and somewhat suspicious of Westerners interested in Buddhism. This is just based on a few limited attempts to gain some first-hand experience with Korean dharma here in Los Angeles, so perhaps it is not representative of Korean Buddhists as a whole.

Recently, I became aware of another interesting figure in Korean Zen and I bring him up today because he was born on this date in 1879 (died 1944).  His name was Han Yu-cheon, but he is best known by the name given to him by his meditation instructor, Han Yong-un (or Han Yong-woon), and by his pen name, Manhae. Han Yong-un was a reformer of Korean Buddhism, a poet, and from 1905 until his death, he was active in the resistance movement to Japanese colonialism.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information about him available in English, which is a shame because he seems very interesting. Exactly how, Han Yong-un set about reforming Korean Buddhism is not clear to me, but apparently he was a believer in Maitreya Buddhism, a populist and faith-oriented movement similar to Pure Land. Perhaps it was his efforts to support this movement which intended to move Buddhism out of the domain of the elite and make it available to common people. Maitreya is the future Buddha, and historically, Maitreya movements have tended to be messianic, as this Buddha, like Jesus, is prophesized to arrive in this world someday and offer some ultimate salvation. In the meantime, believers pray faithfully to Maitreya. Discussing Korean Maitreya movements in Korea, writer Sang-Taek Yi, in Religion and Social Formation in Korea: Minjung and Millenarianism, states, “Whereas the rulers used Buddhism to teach the mingjung [masses] to accept their fate, Maitreya Buddhism promised an end to the present world order and to the troubles of the mingjung.”

Han Yong-un was born in the southern part of South Korea. It’s said that he began to meditate and study Buddhism at the age of 16. He was 26 when ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1905, the same year the Japanese occupation began. His Buddhist name, Yong-un, means “Dragon Cloud,” while his pen name, Manhae, is “Ten Thousand Seas.”

Yong-un’s poetry dealt with the themes of harmony between human beings and nature, and love: spiritual love, sexual love, and, because he was a patriot, love of country.

In 1925, he wrote a book of poetry, Meditations of the Lover, suppressed by the Japanese Military Government and published underground. One translator of this book, Yong-hill Kang wrote,

What a learned treatise could be written on WHO IS THE LOVER? He or she, and there are two voices, male and female, are the truest of true lovers, forced into a perennial cosmic parting in which the dark forces of the world have taken a seasonal hand. There is sorrow hardly to be endured, and tears. But tears are not “idle tears” as to the Victorian poet Tennyson. Tears have their own cosmic purport and meaning, in Han Yong Woon tears are dynamic. They are going somewhere.

Ah ah when do we create
a world of love
and fill up time and fill up space
with tears?

Han Yong-un has been compared to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (who coined this blog’s title “the Endless Further”), owning to the often mystic and lyrical quality of his work. Here is a lovely, short poem by Han Yong-un called “Parting Creates Beauty”:

Parting creates beauty.
There is no beauty of parting
in the ephemeral gold of the morning;
nor in the seamless black silk of the night;
nor in the eternal life which admits no death;
nor in the gorgeous celestial flower that never fades.
O love, if there is no parting, I cannot come back
to life in laughter after tearful death.
O parting!
Parting creates beauty.

English translations of Han Yong-un’s poetry can be found in two collections Love’s Silence & other Poems (Yong-Un Han and Jaihiun Kim) and Meditations of the Lover (Younghill Kang & Frances Keely), which is currently out of print.

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