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Subject TRANSLATOR'S AFTERWORD ON TRANSLATING THE UNTRANSLATABLE Musan Cho Oh-hyun's Poems as Hwadu Practice Heinz Insu Fenkl
Name   관리자 Hit 637

Translator’s For Nirvana



Musan Cho Oh-hyun's Poems as Hwadu Practice

Heinz Insu Fenkl




MY INITIAL TRANSLATIONS of Master Cho's poems were done in the "traditional" way, that is with an eye toward both lexical correspondence and equivalency of meaning in the target language, which happens to be English in this case. Several of the poems in this volum(e.g.,"As I Look Upon Myself") follow this method and also represent how I applied the syllabic constraints of sijo form to English in order to parallel the original structures.1


But I soon found that a traditional rendition in the target language could not do the poems justice. The approach I had to take was more like Zen archery. The issue wasn't just the linguistic complexity of the original poems, it was that even underlying all the layers of wordplay and superposition of imagery, Master Cho's poems were fundamentally a part of his practice-they were Zen poems. To try understanding them in Korean koan (gongan) is generally built on a hwau(話頭)-a "word head," that is to say a point on which the koan spins-or, I think more accurately, a seed crystal upon which the meaning of the koan crystalizes and blooms. A koan is notoriously difficult-it is not a test of one's rational intelligence(despite the many commentaries, cribs, and solution books one can find these days). A koan engages the full being, and its comprehension is reflected in the full being of the student-what appears as the verbal solution is merely an epiphenomenon.


Master Cho's poems have a similar quality. Their surface is easy to read and comprehend-very smooth in the source language. Their narrative quality, their allusions, and their use of understood tropes allow one to arrive at an "apparent" poem without requiring deep reflection. They can be appreciated aesthetically on this first pass. But the first pass only reveals a single layer or facet of the poem, which then leaves a kind of resonance-an image, a word, a phrase will inger naggingly in memory, like an echo. This brings one back to the poem to read again and to discover another narrative, theme, or poem in superposition. Then the process happens again. Each layer of this process would produce a different translation because the associative layering of words and images works differently in Korean and English.


One could say the above about poetry in general, but it is amplified to a remarkable degree in Master Cho's work. One must remember that Zen poetry is inherently ironic, as the basic tenet of Zen is antithetical to text. Zen is the direct transmission of the Buddhist teaching without reliance on words or symbols. But Zen practice also understands the ironic necessity of language as a means of communication-it is, after all, the finger that points at the moon. One does not want to focus on the finger, but it is a useful pointing device. In Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a part, one common analogy is that the teaching of the Buddha-including texts based on his sermons-are like the boat that one rides to the other shore. Once across, one does not need to-or want to-carry the boat around any longer. It becomes an unwanted burden.


So I have approached Master Cho’s poem’s as a kind of hwadu practice. I have read them and reread them many times, but I have willfully made it a point not to memorize them either in the original Korean or in the translation. I have looked up many words-as translators are wont to do-but I did not memorize the etymologies or the definitions, and thus I have often looked up the same word numerous times in both Korean and in corresponding Chinese characters, as if I were seeing it again for the first time. This allowed for the discovery of new association in new contexts, something that would have been unlikely to happen if I had simply memorized corresponding words and taken for granted that I knew and understood them.


I consider all of these translations both provisional and ephemeral. When I look at my translations now, I am reminded that in Buddhism the self is an illusion. These poems were translated by another self-an earlier ego self of an earlier time. I can often see into the workings of that earlier consciousness engaging with the emergent consciousness that wrote the initial poem in Korean, and the confluence of those various minds 2- their interpenetration(tongdal in Korean)-is what Master Cho’s poems illustrated for me. Me: Multiple facets of the poem, in both original and translation, emerge and interpenetrate, thereby demonstrating the interrelation of minds.




These translations came about in a rather unexpected way. I had not known about Master Cho’s poetry until I was invited to participate in Harvard University’s fifth-annual Sijo Festival, held in the spring of 2010. I had arrived late the first night just after all the events had concluded. Luckily, I was able to obtain a program package before I checked into the hotel for the evening. It was around midnight when I finally went to bed after browsing through the enclosed booklet, which included five translations of Cho Oh-hyun’s poems by David McCann and seven others in their original Korean.


Master Cho’s poems struck me as especially challenging. He was lucky to have someone of David McCann’s abilities offering his work in English. McCann, a gifted poet in his own right(and having translated major Korean poets like Kim Chi-ha, So Chongju, and Ko Un), was able to convey far more than the surface of sijo he had chosen to translate. But when I looked at the original texts I saw that they were, almost by definition, impossible to translate. They had the sensibility of casual koans, the same confounding of language. Coming from a Zen tradition, that was to be expected, yet it was not the kind of challenge a translator would typically have to face. I knew Master Cho was scheduled to be at the conference and was expecting to meet him at breakfast the next morning, where I was looking forward to taking with him and David McCann about the challenge of translating his work. After quickly reading through the booklet and the program, I went to sleep.


A couple of hours later I bolted upright in bed, awakened so suddenly from a dream that I didn’t initially recognize where I was. I was entirely disoriented until I noticed the red LED alarm clock, which read3:33. The dream had been especially vivid and semi-lucid, so I remember it as if it were walking life.


I had been walking in the mountains. From the trail I was on I could look across a valley and see a range of snowcapped peaks in the distance stretching across the horizon. I had been travelling for some time and was tired-I could feel the sweat on my body and even the cool breeze of that high elevation. The air was especially crisp but also oddly dense as it often is in dreams. It had a palpable quality to it, the kind of viscosity one feels in the air while doing qigong. I was aware that I was in a dream, and I knew I was a monk. I was wearing black robes and carrying a simple staff. I approached the mountaintop inn, which had the typical wine-seller’s banner flapping out front, and I went inside. The place was empty except for one customer. he was sitting on an elevated floor at a low table, also wearing black robes, which I recognized as those of my own order. But he was wearing a straw rain hat and I couldn’t see his features. As I stood over him he tilted his head back until I could see his face. He was a relatively young monk, perhaps in his late thirties, but I instantly recognized him as Cho Oh-hyun. I greeted him and introduced myself. He had been expecting me, he said. He asked me to join him at his table, but as I began to unsling my sack, he looked up at me and said, very clearly: “You-it’s time to receive the language of Korean Buddhism.” As he spoke those ten words in Korean, he raised his right hand and pointed at my chest with his first two fingers. A sudden bolt of energy leapt from his fingers into my solar plexus. It was like a tremendous electrical shock, and that is what made me bolt upright in bed and wake up.3


I was swearing. I had slept with the window open a crack, so there was a cool breeze coming into the hotel room. As I recalled the dream, the first thing I wondered was why Cho Oh-hyun was so young. I had heard he was in his early eighties. And why he wearing black robes and not gray Korean robes? It made sense to me that my dream self was wearing black robes because I was wearing a black Tibetan jacket, but I would have expected a Korean monk to be wearing gray.


My body was still full of that strange energy, and I knew I could not get back to sleep. Even if this was simply a message from my unconscious, I took it to mean that I should try translating the remaining poems in the program booklet before meeting master Cho at breakfast.


So I stayed up and translated three of Master Cho’s sijo before snatching an hour of sleep and learning, when I got up again, that he had not come. That was the time of the H1N2 pandemic, and he had been concerned about the possibility of getting sick on the airplane. He had sent a proxy instead. I read my translations at the festival, where I was also privileged to meet Professor Kwon Youngmin and the sijo poet Hong Sung-ran for the first time.


Later, after the Harvard Sijo Festival, while I was doing research for my new translation of kuunnmong, the seventeenth-century Korean Buddhist classic by Kim Man-jung, I was looking into the history of Chinese Buddhism and I learned that some Chan monks wore black robes.4 The mountains in my dream were like the Seoraksan range in Korea, but they were also much taller, as if they were simultaneously Seoraksan, the mythic Five Sacred Mountains of China, and the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism. If the monk I’d met in the dream was of the same order, we were perhaps part of a lineage that went back to a Tang Dynasty Chinese Chan order. What the monk had said to me was very specific and full of multilayered wordplay in keeping with the nature of Master Cho’s poetry. In Korean, it was “Janae han bul mal talttaega dwesso.” Every word had multiple meanings, and even today, five years later, those layers of meaning continue to shift for me.5 My initial understanding was that he was telling me it was time to learn the language of Korean Buddhism-figuratively, it was time for me to “ride the horse” or “receive the word”(i.e.,mal tada) of “Korean Buddhism”(i.e., han bul).

Master Cho is of the Gusan or “Nine Mountain” Zen lineage,6 which traces back to the great Tang Dynasty monk Huineng(638-713, the sixth and last Patriarch of Chan Buddhism), through Nanyue Huairang(677-744), Mazu Daoyi(709-788), and three others.7 Mazu Daoyi was of particular interest to me because in Korean his name is Maio Doil(馬祖道一). He was known for his “strange words and extraordinary actions, ”just like Master Cho. The readings of the Chinese characters was quite a shock to me.


=ma=horse =jo=grandfather/ancestor

= do=Tao =il=one


The cho(jo) in Master Cho’s name Cho Oh-hyun(曺五鉉) is a surname character(interior of a room, or a room), but in Korean it sounds the same as the character for “grandfather” or “forefather.” The oh() in his name is the Chinese character for the number five, which is homophonous for the sign of the horse 8 and also for “awakening.”


My dream almost seems to have been an exegesis of Master Cho’s name from a time before I had investigated its underlying associations. He singns his poetry 雪嶽霧山(Seorak Musan), or “Musan of Seorak,” whose Chinese characters are snow/peak/fog/mountain. In keeping with the multilayered nature of his poetry, the name Musan written in alternative Chinese characters-霧山-can be read as “to dissipate like mist.” The fog on the mountain is not obstructive-it clears itself. Another homophonous reading of Musan-無山-makes the mountain itself disappear; it means “No Mountain”!


Two other readings of the mu in Master Cho’s Buddhist name were hidden among the secondary and tertiary homophonic readings of the Chinese character, but they were also related to my dream. There is a mu that means “to be on fire,” or “fire”: (bultal mu or bul mu in Korean); and another mu, which includes the horse radical in it, meaning to run swiftly:(dallil mu).




After my surprise at not seeing Master Cho at breakfast the next day,9 I understood my dream meeting with him to be one of those fateful and ironic synchronicities. The blast of energy in my solar plexus had done its job, and the need to translate his poetry stayed with me so profoundly that I applied it as a form of meditative practice. I read his poems in Korean and then reflected on them while doing Vipassana meditation so that I could retrace their associative trajectorise through the skandhas.10 I monitored my bodily sensation along with the associative connections, in keeping with body-scanning process of Vipassana and the feeling of the energy body in qigong. I tried to maintain those networks of associations and sensations as I re-created the poems in English. The process was not so much that of translating a word or element but the “deep structure”-the relationship among the elements in the poem, then the relationship between the words and the reader, and then the relationship evoked by the words in both contexts.


In some ways I was not entirely sure of my translation method, born of a dream meeting with Master Cho and applying the kinesthetic “reading” of my reading process via Vipassana. But in my research, I learned that the great Tang Dynasty monk Yongjia Xuanjue(665-713), known in Korea as Yongga Hyeongak, had said:



Neither try to eliminate delusion nor search for what is real.

This is because ignorance, just as it is, is the Buddha Nature. This

worldly body itself, which appears and disappears like a phantom,

is nothing other than the reality of life. When you actually wake

up to the reality of life, there is not any particular thing to which

you can point and say, “This is it.”


I found validation in Hyeongak’s words. Likewise, I could see that Master Cho had resolved his own deep engagement with the incompatibility of Zen and language by applying and transcending binary distinctions, which often collapse into something absolutely commonplace in his poems. I was reminded of the one called “ My Lifelines”:



what I’ve been seeking all my life

are the mainlines, the venis

of Zen

& poetry


the conclusion I reached today-

poetry is woodgrain, knotted,

& Zen is wood‘s grain, straight 12


The imagery of this poem left me in between the straight and the knotted, thinking of wavy woodgrain, or grain like water, and it took me to the image of waves swirling into a circular knot and unwinding again. It took me also to one of Master Cho’s prose pieces, which he later chose as the preface for this book.

The epigraph that begins the preface-The moon in the water-is Master Cho’s allusion to The Song of Enlightenment by Yongga Hyeongak.13 To provide a context for the epigraph, let me quote a few additional lines:



It is not hard to see forms in a mirror


* * *



One moon is reflected in all waters-


All moons in all waters are that one moon.


Master Cho’s preface is one of his story sijo (as discussed by Professor Kwon Youngmin in the introduction), and its use of the allusion to the moon on the water is a poetic illustration of two of the most important principles in Korean Buddhism: muae and tongdal. Muae(無礙) is generally translated as “non-obstruction,” and tongdal(通達) is usually translated as “interpenetration.”4 Written in hangul, without the Chinese characters, tongdal sounds like “whole moon.” The water reflects but does not obstruct(i.e. muae) the whole moon (i.e. tongdal). At the same time, the Gwaneum Pond is both an illustration of and a play on the concept of tongdal as well-it is a tong(container) for the dal(moon), in other words, a daltong for tongdal.



A man trying to grasp the moon in the water penerates it. He is likewise penerated by the moon's light, which itself is an illusion, since it is the sun's light reflected. He cannot grasp the moon, but the man can realize its light has penerated him, There is also some poetic humor here, a lighthearted warning about trying too hard to grasp the moon. The great Tang poet Li Po drowned trying to embrace the moon in the water. Fortunately, in Master Cho's story sijo, the man leaves through the temple gate after his realization just as dawn is breaking. The sun -the source of the light reflected by the moon-is coming up. This story sijo is the perfect preface for Musan's Zen sijo, which, just like the ungraspable moon in the water, point you at the original source of light.


I hope my translations have helped his poems do the same for you.




This essay, in an earlier and shorter form, was presented as a keynote address at the Korea on the Global Stage Symposium, Sound of Human Spirit: Musan Cho Oh-hyun, held at David Browner Center at the University of California, Berkeley, March 20,2015, sponsored by the Center for Korean Studies and the Institute of East Asian Studies.


1. Applying syllabic parallelism in English to Japanese haiku tends not to work well, but the more open and flexible structure of Korean sijo makes this possible<