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Little Pilgrim , by Ko Un

Little Pilgrim: A Novel - Ko Un, Young-Moo Kim, Brother Anthony of Taizé


Ko Un


Sudhana took his morning meal of fruit and water, then ran out in search of freedom in the marvelous beauty of the high pure mountain.



When the Korean poet Ko Un was born in 1933, he drew his first breath in a Japanese colony, a colony in which it was forbidden to teach the Korean language in school as part of a campaign by the Japanese imperialists and their Korean quislings to replace the inferior Korean culture by the infinitely superior accomplishments of the Japanese. Too malnourished to be drafted into the army during the Korean War, he nonetheless witnessed much of it (the war swept over essentially the entire peninsula) and lost many family members and friends. In 1952 he entered a Son (Zen) monastery but left a decade later dissatisfied with the "self-centeredness" he encountered in the order. After a period of inner torment and self-destructive behavior during which he twice attempted suicide, he found a purpose in the pro-Democracy movement in the early 70's. This earned him prison and torture. 


Despite these experiences, Ko's poetry is generously life-affirming without a hint of bleakness. I've read three collections of his poetry so far and particularly recommend Ten Thousand Lives, which is written with a direct clarity and remarkable empathy. But Ko also wrote a novel, and this is the focus of my discussion today.


Ko may have been disappointed with his monastic life, but he was not lastingly disappointed in Buddhism, which clearly informs most of his work. Little Pilgrim - which began to be published serially in 1969, was published as a book in 1974 and then re-published in expanded form in 1991 - is a very Buddhist text. In fact, it is based on the character Sudhana from the final chapter of the enormous Avatamsaka Sutra, which is reputed to be one of the most complex holy texts of Mahayana Buddhism. This is not necessarily very appealing to most Western readers, which is why the publisher of this translation claims in the liner notes that Little Pilgrim is a "spiritual adventure tale in the tradition of Siddartha and Lord of the Rings,"(!!) and supplies the book with prefaces and postfaces that try to convince Western readers there is something in the text for them, drawing analogies with the Divine Comedy and Pilgrim's Progress.


Instead of trying to bend this text into a familiar form, I preferred to try to understand it on its own terms. 


Let it be clear that I have not read the Avatamsaka Sutra, nor is it likely that I ever shall. But because of its length and complexity, neither have almost all the Korean readers for whom Ko wrote this book. It is not specialized knowledge one needs to appreciate this text. And one should definitely avoid the expectations suggested by the above-cited texts going into this tale. In fact, one should avoid the expectations usually suggested by the word "novel" in the West. Realism? Forget about it.


Set in India at the time of the historical Buddha (who never directly appears in the novel), Little Pilgrim consists of a series of short episodes in which a little boy, Sudhana, who has lost his family in a war, moves about the country and meets wise men and monks, but also men and women in ordinary professions as well as wondrous animals gifted with speech and insight. In the original sutra, each of these imparts a long, abstract philosophical teaching to the boy, and he moves on to the next. Many fantastic events occur and marvelous sights are seen. Ko keeps the fantastic events and marvelous sights but suppresses most of the explicit philosophizing, preferring instead to suggest what he saw as the core ideas of the sutra. 


One of these is that enlightenment does not require going through an accumulative process and certainly not piling up knowledge, but rather having an openness of spirit to the omnipresent possibility of enlightenment.(*) Another is that because this Buddha spirit is everywhere and in everything, all things in the universe interpenetrate: the all is in the one, and the one is in the all. So one can be stimulated to enlightenment by anyone and anything, not only by wise men. One just needs an openness to the possibility. (Evidently, this is not as simple as it sounds.) Yet a third is that enlightenment is the release from deterministic necessity, from the interminable revolutions of the Wheel of Life; the Enlightened who remain because of their compassion for the living - the Bodhisattva's - seem to be central to this sutra. 


So, though there is much apparent motion in the boy's travels, there is a strange immobility in the text due to the repetitive structure that is necessitated by Sudhana travelling to and briefly interacting with 53 interlocutors; and though at times it appears that many, many years pass, the boy does not age.(**) It is no spoiler to reveal that the boy does experience a sudden enlightenment and that he then meets another little boy who has lost his family. The wheel has made one cycle and begins another...


Of all the modern novels written in Asia I have read to this point, Little Pilgrim is certainly the most traditionally Asian. Moreover, it is clear that Ko wrote this text over a twenty-two year period: the beginning sections are more lyrical, the middle sections are more engaged with social issues, and the last are more philosophical. This all makes Little Pilgrim a very unusual read. Some of you know by now that I relish that.



(*) This is a central tenet in Ch'an/Son/Zen Buddhism. It stands in direct conflict with the fact that the Indian Buddhist philosophers loved to systematize and classify, and so the original Sanskrit and Pali texts that were translated into Chinese and then Japanese and Korean contain lists of stages and qualities that seem to contradict this central tenet. At one point Ko stands back and speaks of stages through which Sudhana has passed, but this seems to be a formal gesture to the sutra and not an expression of his own view.


(**) Sudhana ages only in dreams, but in Buddhism life itself is but an illusion, a dream.