- The Way of Translation
One of the kongan (koan in Japanese) that sŏnsa (Zen masters) frequently assign their students is "What is your original face?" Would it be farfetched to think that poets too should question the ground of their poetry? Because the ground will determine the essence of their poetry.
As there are countless ways to enter truth, there are also countless ways or reasons a poet writes poems. I enter the world of poetry as a traveler on the Way, and I have always thought that my poems are signposts on my journey toward the unknown or the absolute, which cannot be named or described but only grasped intuitively. Poems come to me as a gift mostly when I am at work in the garden, taking a walk, or meditating, and I am like a midwife who delivers poems from the quiet heart. So each poem I receive tells me where I am and how far I have to go on my journey. My teachers or guides in this travel are those sentient or insentient beings who quench my thirst or who awaken my longing for the state in which I am free from the world of discrimination.
What would this mysterious ground of poetry be? What makes any creation or creative activity possible? I thought about this for a long time, and one day an answer came to me: the ground of all creation is impermanence. Our life, which is the result of creation, and our creative activity depend on impermanence. Why didn't I think of such an obvious answer before?
What is the significance of impermanence as the ground of poetry? Impermanence means that nothing is unchanging, including time. It frees us from self, which is the product of time. Without impermanence, no-self is not possible. Impermanence is the world of the Flower Garland Sutra, where, as Blake said, we can perceive the universe in a grain of sand, and each moment becomes eternal, because eternity is only possible in the absence of time. Time is the territory of the known, and we are able to see the unknown only when we go beyond time. That is why the poems that come from this unknown territory cannot but be wild, fresh, and alive, like a leaping carp. Perhaps this state is what Gary Snyder calls "the practice of the wild."
In his essay "On the Path, Off the Trail," Snyder writes that "There are [End Page 90] paths that can be followed, and there is a path that cannot—it is not a path, it is wilderness. There is a 'going' but no goer, no destination, only the whole field." He also writes that "Off the trail is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where—paradoxically—we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild." After reading this essay, I realized that I am a traveler on the pathless path, where, as Dōgen said, "practice is the path," and I have chosen the way of poetry as my practice. Although this essay is about translation, I feel that how I happened to make my choice influenced the way I translate poems into English.
When I was growing up in Korea, I wanted to become a poet. I was deeply inspired by the lyric beauty of hyangga of the Three Kingdoms period and kayo of the Koryŏ period. The longing of the women in these hyangga and kayo for their lovers, and of monks for Amida Buddha, touched my heart deeply. And, reading modern poems by Seo Jung Ju, the most accomplished living lyric poet in Korea, and Kim Nam Jo's devotional poems, I also wanted to become a poet.
Not being sure about my ability as a poet, I studied chemistry instead and came to America to pursue graduate work in pharmacy at Columbia University in New York in 1963. However, I didn't give up my desire to be a...