In an earlier review
where I provide a bit of the backstory of Korean poet Ko Un (b. 1933), I mention that he was a Son (Zen) monk for a decade but left the church deeply disappointed. His disappointment was directed at the institution and some persons, but he did not renounce the teachings of Son Buddhism, nor did they stop informing his stance towards life and the world.
108 is a significant number in Buddhism, and it is the number of beads in a Buddhist mala, the string of prayer beads used to keep track of the many kinds of repetition involved in various aspects of Buddhist practice. The 108 short poems in Ko's What? 108 Zen Poems are strongly, but certainly not exclusively, Buddhist in topic and expression. Like the more secular collection Flowers of a Moment, the poems range from 15 lines down to haiku-like distillations of 2 or 3 lines. There are even a few poems of one line in this volume.
Ko is not following the lead of the haiku aesthetes in these poems but instead that of the early "mad" Taoist and Ch'an Buddhist masters, who used contradiction, paradox and (even an occasionally crude) humor to get across their point.
With simple and colloquial language Ko is able to summon much of life's richness onto the pages of his books, and the rhetorical range of these 108 little poems is wide. After reading three collections of his poetry, I see Ko's flexibility of spirit as one of his finest features. Any choice of a few poems from this book will be necessarily unrepresentative.
One recurring theme is that of the uselessness of words in grasping the essential, a basic tenet of the early Taoist and Ch'an masters, which was turned against even the holy writings of the Buddhist church by these masters. In this poem, Ko turns it against the least verbal of all verbal expressions - the koan used by Zen masters to shake their students out of their received ways of thinking and perceiving.
I stood facing the horizon over the East Sea.
What had become of the seventeen hundred
The sound of waves
the sound of waves.
Playing with you I threw them away.
There is the slapstick abuse of one of the holiest texts:
The Lotus Sutra
The Lotus Sutra. Ultimate reality.
you've been bashing me badly.
I'll cudgel you, bastard.
You're made for bashing.
The Lotus Sutra dashed away
Fields open wide,
once the farmers have gone.
Quite different is this poem, by a man who suffered a great deal from the "wind":
Never beg the wind for mercy.
Tall wild lilies and such
scented white lilies and such
one-day lilies and such
once all your stems have snapped
produce new buds. It's not too late.
And what about this updating of a standard theme in Asian poetry:
I've never been an individual entity.
Sixty trillion cells!
I'm a living collectivity.
I'm staggering zigzag along,
sixty trillion cells, all drunk.
Since I mentioned the mala:
Angulimala was a devil of a cutthroat.
sliced off the fingers of the people he killed
and wore them
strung dingle-dangle around his neck,
including his father's fingers.
That was a real hundred-eight bead rosary.
Every bead on the string
There are such things. I straighten myself.
The poems in the collection Flowers of a Moment are closer in nature and expression to more standard presentations of poetic moments, and though they are enjoyable, they do not compare well with those of the best poets, in my view.