As Allen Ginsberg has remarked of this singular quasi-beat poetic mingling of cosmic perception and the ordinary life, Ko Un's Son poems are as "hard nuts to crack--yet many seem immediately nutty and empty at the same time." While in prison and thinking of the lives of all the people he knew, Ko Un decided he would write a poem about every person he had ever met. He would call this work Ten Thousand Lives: I agree with Robert Hass's suggestion that "This project itself, just the idea of it, should be enough to put him on the short list for the Nobel Prize."
By way of some context, Ko Un was born the son of a farmer in 1933 in Southwestern Korea, Cholla Province (a region that prides itself on its relentless antagonism to the party politics of Seoul). A precocious scholar from the start, he studied Chinese classics as a youth and learned to read and write Korean from a neighbor's servant (when Korean was prohibited as a public school language by colonial Japanese). In his late teens, marked by his experience during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. After 10 years and after becoming an abbot at Haeinsa Temple, he quit the monastic life and returned to the worldly world, but with a deeply nihilistic attitude that culminated in a suicide attempt in 1970.
On the relationship between Son (zen meditation) and poetry, Ko Un has written: "Before I became a disciple...I was very knowledgeable about western philosophy, sutra study, and the teachings of the old Son Patriarchs. In fact, I was pedantic and loved showing off; seeing this, my master said, "Be patient in everything. Let go of everything and only meditate on "mu" (emptiness). Mu is your breath, your farts, and your father. Let go even of emptiness. Flee from words.' I began to fly, and from this freedom I met with language again. Like some crazed Wallace Stevens, his poetry does seem to come out the other side of ordinary language and habitual perception.
On the other side of being a zen monk., Ko Un also met with political activism and the will to resist government domination in Seoul. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became a leading spokesman for the artists and students opposed to military dictatorships and was among the people arrested when Chun doo Won took over and suppressed the Kwangju Democratic uprising. Since that time he has married, and published prolifically; his interests and reputation continue to mount and he has been translated into many languages. Indeed, he has written over 100 volumes in Korean poetry, several novels and short stories as well as essays.
His works in English translation include Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems (Parallax Press, 1997) and The Sound of My Waves (Cornell East Asia Series, 1993), both collections I commend to your attention. For the political and the natural orders often collide in his earthy poetry, come wryly together, mingling wit and compassion. As he wrote in a poem set in the DMZ from Ten Thousand Lives , called "Kin Shim Muk" ,"The road between Tongduchon and Uijonbu/ stretches glorious, not a yank in sight!"
Ko Un is still writing this one long poem and turning his own one life into an exemplary planetary life of action and meditation, poetry and compassion, deeply expressive of Korea and the global soul of the world.