Christopher's River

 Poems by Ku Sang

 Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taize

Copyright 2000 An Sonjae, Brother Anthony
(Now out of print, these translations may not be republished without the translator's permission. They are made available online for the private pleasure of readers otherwise unable to see them.)


Like you, I have chosen the river
as a place for conversions of heart.

But still, to hoist people up
onto my back, as you did,
and carry them over the water,
or to make a simple boat
and row them across,
why, I have neither the strength nor the skill;

and to do things for people, like you,
with a pure heart,
I admit I possess neither aim nor resolve.

Besides, even when I am out by the river, I find
no way to renounce the whole world, as you did;
I am so caught in the cords of normality
that as they are tugged, like a puppet I turn
round and round, round and round.

As I am, I follow you
out to the river.

And I hope and believe that if I go,
though only mimicking your simple self-discipline,
then, as at the weary end of a certain day you
met long-awaited Love's Incarnation,
so my poetry too may see the light of salvation:
in that hope and belief
I follow you out to the river.


lies thick
over the morning river,

Sailing it seems to the world beyond,
a ferryboat glides away
wrapped in vast whiteness.

In a poplar's branches up on the bank,
one solitary magpie flaps

The submerged sand
shines bright
like a woman's secret flesh.

Swarms of tiny fish
full of inborn joy
drift by.

Golden sunbeams striking down
create a garden, a dream.

And I too, in the midst of all this, am
surely no mere rice-eating brute. 


The hills, wrapped in monks' sombre robes,
draw near, settle down.

The silence of a shrine flows round.

The grass-green river waters
flushed with a ruddy glow,
are patterned with silver, with gold,
then become a snowy waste,
then put on a black veil.

The village across the river
like an altar
sends up incense smoke

and from a jetty,
in a fragile bark lit by a lantern
a lonely soul sets out. 


The river is holding its breath.
It flows on submissively,
as if covered with oil.

In its bright polished mirror
the sky stretches cloudless,
infinite and deep.

From the river plunged in meditation
I too grow bright within,
I gain peace. 


No breath of wind, yet the river
is extremely restless.

And in this silent hour
from the deepest heart
a shudder rises.

Mutability makes us weep, of course,
but is tranquillity too so intolerable?

Just as in our lives
there are always ripples,
the river too has its eddies,
large and small. 


Wind rises on the river.
Dark green ripples
furrow the surface,
sending waves slapping
onto the sandy shore.

Can it be that the river too bears
a grievance it cannot express?
It chatters as if complaining
and makes such a fuss.

The sky disgorges inky clouds,
and the wind is entangled in linen shrouds.

From off the pale cowering sands
clusters of jackdaws fly up and away
over hills wrapped in a misty rain. 


Into the river fall silver strands
of rain.

Touching the water, each drop,
like a ballerina taking a bow,
rises once more, gleams
then disappears for ever
into the vast flow.

And from the river applause rises. 


Into the river half concealed by haze
a silvery light melts and flows.

A ferry-boat draws in, carrying a cow
with a child straddling its back.

On the sandy shore opposite
a single post
sticks up alone.

A dragon-fly is clinging
at the tip of a fishing-rod.

From a distant bridge
a locomotive
whistles hoarsely.

Perched on a stem of grass,
a little green frog
stares fixedly upwards. 


Those clear spring-waters
that rose in May-time forests
now flow here, a coal-black river.

Sun and moon and clouds too
have lost their splendour,
the fresh green woods and hills
are cliffs on an ink-painted scroll.

Where the excrements of greed
issue from the sewers,
you can see, spread like a sheen of oil
over the foaming rocking water, such obscenity!

When will the day come
for our river to flow out into the blue sea?

A single flower of compassion
floats, a lotus. 


Watching how the river waters flow
around red mountain slopes,
I bring to mind that moment when
a single drop of dew, long seeping
through the crust of earth, sprang out,
a tiny spring high up there on a desolate peak.

Watching how the river waters wind
across the verdant fields,
I picture when at last they reach
their destined ocean's waiting vastness
and flowing into the billowing waves
leap beyond the bounds of time.

Watching how the river waters flow
with perfect ease before me,
I imagine when at last
this river, now all transmigration
with its repeated evaporations,
and I, the carcass of Karma-destiny then thrown off,
will meet again upon this spot as living beings. 


Laid along the valleys here and there,
having cast off their carcass of flesh and blood,
nothing but a handful of earth,
here now the ancient dead flow by.

Thus the river clasps to its breast
the desires and sorrows of every person
and flows.

So one day, soon, as I flow by,
shall I not encounter
the unthinking gaze of my youngest child
now fishing here,
of his son or grandson at least?

And then one day,
all turned to praise,
I shall sit here again myself! 


It was merely water.
It was a great mass of water.
That great mass of water
flowed indifferent on.

Flowing on, it always
stayed in that same place.
Staying in that same place,
it was constantly renewed.

Renewed, although the past
continued steadfast there.
The past continued steadfast,
but the future too was there.

Past and future, thus united,
became one single present.
And that single present moment
showed many faces there.

It showed so many faces,
spoke in many voices.
Speaking many voices,
its heart was indifferent to all.

Always to all indifferent, it suffered,
and suffering it was still indifferent.
Indifferent, one day it died
and dying returned to life. 


Holding its breath, it flows.
Out of breath, it flows.

With a broad smile, it flows.
Sunk in gloom, it flows.

Like silent protest marchers
shouting silent screams
it flows.

Like a funeral procession,
pausing in its laments,
stifling the sobs in its breast,
it flows. 


In the river
in springtime
springtime flows.

In the river
in summer
summer flows.

In autumn, autumn,
in winter, winter

In the river,
if a happy person passes,
joy gurgles

and if someone lonely passes,
sorrow broods,

if lovers pass,
love melts and flows.

Within the river
both nature and our hearts
find their own image. 


The river flows on,
without a filthy heart,
all pure of body,
it flows like time in Eternity.

The river flows on,
without a paltry body,
all pure of heart,
it flows like Eternity in time.

The river flows on,
neither heart nor body,
it flows, an essence of nothingness.


Here and there
mercilessly exposing its entrails,
behold, the Han River!

And above its putrid stinking
coal-black flow
the smoke-filled sky
holds a sick sooty sun
that gleams like sewage.

Scattered near the north bank
dredgers and diggers
showing off their strength like so many thugs
emit thunderous roars

and over the bridges and overpasses
vehicles are lined up nose-to-tail
all full of crowds running after golden idols
and other crowds in quest of a new Moses
all speeding crazily along.

From a marshy spot between meagre weeds
a single water bird clears its throat
but then interrupts its grieving song
and flies off in a sweeping curve

and beyond this flow of despair
now too weary even to lap the shore,
while I long for the river remembered from days gone by
which gurgled and leaped

to my vacantly wandering eyes
Nam-San Hill seems to glower in disgust. 


The river
continues the past,
is not imprisoned by the past.

The river,
while living today
lives the future too.

The river,
though innumerably collective,
keeps unity and equality.

The river
makes itself an empty mirror
in which all things view themselves.

The river
at all times and in all places
chooses the lowest place.

The river,
unresisting, accepts
every violence, every humiliation,
and never denies itself.

The river
gives freely to all that lives
and looks for nothing in return.

The river
is its own master,
free despite all bonds.

The river,
caught between generation and extinction,
reveals Eternity within impermanence.

The river
every day in its Pantomime
teaches me many things. 


The village, with its ancient study-centre,
had flowing through its very heart
a little stream.

Beneath the split-log bridge that spanned it,
on either bank
laundry-stones were laid
and in the old pine trees rising above it
could be seen magpies' nests of former years.

In the pools
where willow branches trailed the surface,
frogs splashed
and in the shallows where ox-carts forded it
swarms of minnows swam against the stream.

The paper boat my cousin made
that I sent floating down that stream
as if innocent of shipwreck
today floats on still down this other river. 


Beneath the river bed
that our human eyes can see
there flows another river,
deep and wide.

Piercing downwards and sideways,
forming eyes for the lace-like strata,
sparkling like the dawn
in the deepest darkness,
it flows.

And down that silver river
petrified beasts and plants
float like sailing ships,
with at times a human corpse.

And all around those dead things,
like a thick mist, float
those dreams
and loves
and tears
and grudges
and prayers
that alive they kept within.

My poetic thoughts are there too,
the things I can neither express nor represent. 


In my studio, which I call
'Study for contemplating water',
hangs framed a calligraphy by Kim Ung-Hyon:
'To contemplate water is to cleanse the heart.'

In the coal-black stream of the River Han
that I can look out on from my study window
I daily rinse my turd-like heart
but far from growing whiter
it only grows blacker and more putrid day by day.

So I invited the Buddhist monk known as 'Dirty Mop'
and asked to be introduced to his faith
then on a sheet of white paper
he drew the two breasts
of a naked woman.

For a time I concentrated,
gazing at the breasts of our conversation,
but day by day my little turd
only smelt worse and worse.

And then, one day, I paid one of my rare visits
to Saint Francis of Assisi:
 --   'My dear brother Turd!
  Why, a turd has to smell and rot in order
  to become a flour-bag, plastic at that'
A penetrating statement.

Still tingling from that blow,
it is not yet my mind,
but it seems that my eyes have just a little unsealed.

Note: Kim Ung-Hyon is a famous calligrapher.
  'Dirty Mop' is a nick-name for the artist-monk Chung-Kwang also known as 'the Mad Monk'. Trans. 


I have spent today,
that source of mystery, today,
wallowing in the dirt.

Along the sewers of my soul,
so full of stench and running muck,
the spirits of all purity
have foamed and died.

Tomb of Time turned to a muddy slough!
Just a trickle of tears flows from the drain
and drips into the coal-black stream.

Sun and moon, and time too, have lost their shine,
and all those things that once bloomed flowers of grace
reciprocate now with a wilting look.

Ah! When will that day come
when my life and all its meaning
will flow into the distant sea
and recover eternal freshness? 


Like a great snake's back,
glistening and flowing:
the river.

In the darkness veiling
the forms of this world's ups and downs
flowing like the very spirit of Mother Earth:
the river.

In this night devoid of stars,
shedding gray blood,
watchful as a curse, and flowing:
the river. 


And within my head
another great river

In hours of silence
I listen to the murmur
of the drops as they
compose that river.

Within the chirping each one makes,
I hear my mother's lullabies, sixty years ago,
and I unload my heart, encountering old stories long forgotten,
and am entranced, as well, by life's mysterious symphony.

At one end of the river in my head, too,
there lies a tiny secluded spring on a mountain-top
and at the other lies the vast, vast sea, but
what lies beyond those, as Fountainhead and Other Shore,
remains utter mystery. 


The river, too,
day by day, depending on the moment,
puts on different airs.

One day
beaming brightly
it is full of joy.

Another day
it lies grim.

At times
it cowers.

At other times
it gets excited.

Other times
it sighs

Some days
it weeps.

Is then the river
like my heart? 


This river facing me today
is not yesterday's river

That river I shall greet tomorrow
will not be today's river

And while we every day meet
a new river and new people
we mistakenly believe we are meeting
the former river, and the former people. 


The morning river
lies thickly wrapped in mist.

The water,
its flowing,
and the horizon, too, all are unseen,
the river is an island of ancient nothingness.

But in my eyes, the river flows,
and in my head, the river flows,
and in my heart, the river flows,
and that distant horizon, too, is not invisible. 


An early winter sunset:
the River Han flows on.

The roar of vehicles speeding
over the bridge between bank and bank
renders the river more desolate than ever

while the declining rays of sunlight
trailing along the fringes of the main stream
reveal more than ever its utter exhaustion.

Just like a traveller on a long journey
the river, now visibly weary and haggard,

is longing for that day, some day,
when it will flow into the sea and be restored fresh blue,
so, though it clutches its belly and limps along,
it does not linger here but flows on its way. 


Snow flakes fall into the river.
Just as a woman glimpsed in a dream leaves
no trace in my breast but a touch of warmth,
the snow too vanishes without a trace.

Is perfect beauty
such a short-lived thing?

To reveal what truth, then,
is the white snow falling soundlessly
metamorphosed in a flash into water?

And the hundreds of millions of thoughts
which have blossomed and vanished within my heart,
where have they all gone? What has become of them?

From far off can be heard the siren
of a boat that has lost its harbour. 


I gaze out at the river
as if spell-bound by music,

As I forget myself
and cease to be myself, this moment, now,
this oh so marvellous state!

Now I, one drop of water
within the rhythm
of that widely sprawling flow,

without desire
without temptation
without discernment

becoming one with the transparent Real
become a calm child in the cradle. 


The river frozen hard
lies rigid like a corpse.

Rising pale above hard reaches of ice,
scab-like here and there
sandbanks appear.

Straws can be seen like scars
caught in the ice;
like grass in the mouth of some fossilized beast,
see, there, a scrap of cabbage leaf.

Was it dug by fishermen?
From a hole in the ice like a cavity in a lung
ripples shimmer bright.

Even in the nuclear winter of 'The Day After'
will humanity survive
like the water that flows on deep beneath this ice?

As I look out at the River Han,
lying with skinny limbs outstretched
like a skeleton in an open bier
staring upwards with empty eyes,

I can neither hope nor despair.

Note 'The Day After' : a TV drama about the nuclear winter. 


The river bearing within itself
unceasing tensions stored
seems so serene.

The river overcoming within itself
unending hardships endured
seems so at peace.

The river bestowing gifts on all who live
and expecting nothing in return
seems so detached.

Within, a sweating
within, an aching
within, a weeping


Only smiling to the outside world
a secret smile of knowledge,
the river flows. 


Off they fly
Flocks gather and off they fly
Rending the plastic-clad winter wind
the milky void, veering from side to side
off the birds of passage fly.

The birds of one flock, like acrobats,
go soaring up, then nosedive down,
soar up again, and curve into a ring,

while another, like the line of a farmers' dance,
winds around, then scatters wide,
scatters, then winds back in on itself again,

sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs,
sometimes all of the flocks together rise up,
from river's midst to the zenith, a stage
where they perform their ceaseless dance.

Here at last is the river's mouth, where
two hundred miles of Nakdong stream and the surging tide
meet and embrace like long-lost kin,

and by luck, as the sun lingers on Kadok Island heights,
on the sandy shores of Eulsuk island all covered in reeds
like fallen, scattered heaps of flowers
flocks of swans are scavenging for food,

and by Taema-tung where snow still lingers,
scampering like sprites among the clumps of rushes,
wild ducks go scurrying here and there,

while down near the ferry a barrage is rising,
resolved to mangle this natural splendour,
where dredgers and cranes, with a criminal air
roar out their wickedness.

Note : The places named are in the Nakdong estuary near Pusan, a famous nature-reserve ravaged in recent years by the construction of a tidal barrage. Trans. 


Dividing snow-covered field from field,
and so forming an image of our Korean land,
the frozen river has melted and flows.
From the shade of the river's divided waist,
ice still sparkles fitfully,
sparks flaring from the muzzle of a cannon or gun,
or the edge of a sword;
while the midstream sandbanks form Korean flags,
or outline islands: Cheju, Ullong, in the Southern Sea,
and along the river's banks rise Northern ports:
Chinnanpo, Shinuichu, with Wonsan, Sohojin, and Chongjinhang too.

The southward willows among the fields
have silvery catkins on every branch
already beginning to swell and open
while the trees to the north, on the other shore,
stick up fierce branches
with still no sign of sap.

Suspended from the sky on golden threads
baby suns dangle in the water, flickering,
and reeds tremble in the stream.

Yet only a few days before, these fields
were nothing but dead-lands, frozen hard!
Just as our hatred has passed away,
now, like our love,
all melts and flows

and that infamous 'Bridge of No Return'
set up there in times gone by
now flowing floats away.

Note: The Bridge of No Return stands unused between North and South Korea. 


since long ago
a single river flows.

No other eyes can see
that stream
only my eyes alone.

Yet even for me that river
having flowed then vanishes
and having vanished then flows again.

Frankly speaking, that river's appearing
is not mine to decide
it withdraws too as it will from the scene.

Nonetheless that river
tells me much.
Mostly it talks
of the unseen world
or the hidden secret of the visible world.

But since its language
is trope made object
I cannot discern if what I see
is or is not those words' reality.

And today, in that stream
like a sailing ship stands
a 63-storey skyscraper too;
what that might mean
I am carefully pondering. Now... 


The river bathed in spring's golden sunbeams
displays the radiant face of a bride
and as it bares the silken designs on its breast
it windingly extends
a fresh nakedness.

And as I gaze at that river's beauty
my heart, that had been like frozen ground,
explodes into green like a barley field. 


Young springtime sunlight gleams
with a sparkle of silver fish leaping
from the early-morning river
as white water-fowl fly up like
baby angels.

A shaggy-faced hill
shakes off slumber
and approaches the river's brink
while from the tip of an accompanying poplar
a single magpie cackles.

In the village, plum-blossomed like a victory shout,
from chimneys perched on toy-like thatched cottages
the morning smoke rises like incense,

from the barley-fields a breath of green comes wafting
like the scent of fresh chicken droppings

and as I wash my coal-black heart
in this child-fresh river
it conjures up rainbow dreams. 


This yearning, this longing
which I here send adrift like
paper boats down the river
will somewhere find meeting
some day fulfillment will come.

Out in the heart of that boundless sea
up in the vastness of that stretching sky
or set reborn on this earth again
or within the divine Mystery, who knows?

But once become an immutable form
within the eternal Garden of Life

this yearning, this longing
which I here send adrift like
paper boats down the river
will somewhere find meeting
some day fulfillment will come. 


As I stroll along the riverside in Seoul
my eyes are struck by several young couples
down in the meadow at the foot of the embankment.

One pair has bowed heads
one pair is giggling wildly
one pair is gazing out
at the river's distant flowing. 


Somewhere between Paldang and Yangpyong, an elderly couple
sitting on the gunwales of an empty boat on the river bank,
I to one side,
my old woman to the other,
is gazing out at the river, rippling though breezeless,
each plunged in private thoughts:

And what comes into my mind?
Just two days ago, with a million catholics in Yoido Plaza,
throned high on a splendid temporary altar,
the figure of Pope John Paul the Second,
and, glimpsed in a woman's magazine several months ago,
the figure of the Buddhist Patriarch, Song Chol,
sitting on a rock in Kaya Mountain,
those two:

one of them in the cheers of a vast sea of people,
one of them in the solitude of nature,
with no doubts about the sincerity of either,
so what can be the meaning of this contrast?

One of them in utter devotion to his task of human action,
one of them at the zenith of his task of complete inaction,
the circling of the mystery is just the same for both,
so what can be the sense of this disparity?

Those two men's figures, set together,
embody truth indistinguishably!
So this is what it means to say
that being and non being are identical!
So this is what it means to say
that stillness and motion are the same!

Seeming to hold their breath with the evening twilight,
gazing at the now calm river,
the old couple, deep in thought,
is quite unable to rise. 


When from you I received new awareness,
all the whole world became new for me.
Thanks to your selfless sacrifice, I perceive
the mysterious forms of things that are still being born
with all my childhood's wonder, astonishment,
and praise.

In saying this, do not mistake me as meaning
I have entered some state of rapturous trance.
And do not misunderstand me as saying, either,
that I have got worked up into some aesthetic frenzy.

Those trees along the embankment edge
are just the same trees as yesterday,
the people walking along the path
are quite the usual people there;
river, you and I as well, then and now,
not the slightest scrap of change.

Only now within my panting breath
you are flowing along as well,
my eyes can see your formless motion,
my ear can hear your silent words.

In thus coming to know you,
I have come to know myself,
and now, though late, I see at last
why baptism is a symbol for being reborn. 


  There is a place in Wonsan Bay where a river flowing down from far inland enters the East Sea, and it is a cursed spot, where the sand is never smooth and the currents swirl strongly, that every year claims  several lives. Yet it was also a fine place to wash off our naked bodies, salty from bathing and covered in sand.
  One day they held an exorcism there, beside the river's mouth. The Shaman used a chicken to represent the lingering soul of someone who had fallen into the water and drowned; she flapped around in the water, screaming wildly as if possessed and giving a laudable imitation of someone drowning, then when the ceremony was over she went off, leaving the chicken lying there at the water's edge.
  Among our class of Minor Seminarians, the most good-natured and most mischievous boy, one Simon, having checked that the other onlookers had gone off, picked up that chicken, borrowed a pot from an isolated house there on the shore, boiled it, then put it ready and said, "This is the flesh of an evil spirit, so let only those who are going to become saints eat it; those who cannot become saints must not eat it, so go ahead as you think best." The class was a little horrified at these words, but yielding to a healthy appetite that was gnawing inside, all took part in that feast of saints so that in no time at all the spirit's legs and breast were all devoured.
  So those happy days went by, until one day just two or three days before term began. We had spent that whole day too by the sea and now it was time to go, so we went to wash in the fresh water of the stream. Simon, who was a step ahead of us and already in the water suddenly cried, "I'm falling, I'm falling!"  He was smiling happily  --  I remember this quite clearly  --  gazing at him, I said "Another joke!" and went on drying myself, but he dipped his head in the water a couple times, like someone swimming, and then he was gone!
  At that I screamed, while some fishermen who had been working on the hull of their boat nearby were up in a flash, looked stunned for a moment, then went to the rescue, but it was no use and his body was taken from the water five hours later, at midnight.

  That was my first direct experience of death, so there was not only fear but also a feeling of guilt at having just looked on while my friend was dying, and for a while I could not bring myself to show my face in the village. In addition there was the secret of the Shaman's chicken added to my own insecurity, so that I said nothing to anyone, to the very end. 


I now have become one drop of water
and flow into the stream.

I now have awoken from the dream
that served as the very thread of life,
I now have emerged from all the real
that served by yearning to attach me to life

now I am released from time
now I am released from me.

I now have lost the form of me
there is no I to call me me
this river that shows no beginning no end
is simply I.

Now as I freely flow along
within an immutable order,
I experience the origin and end
of all created beings. 


  When the poet Kong Cho was nearing his end, I longed to encourage him once to "believe in God" but felt it would be presumptuous, so one evening as I was sitting there tongue-tied, I began:
  "In the very middle of a muddy yellow stream that had burst out and was flowing down from a dam, you were struggling naked until I stretched out a hand from where I was sitting on the bank and you grabbed me just there, and with great efforts you managed to extricate yourself; then, as you lay gasping against my knees, I said, 'Now, that's enough! Don't go on languishing in quagmires of Non-being, lean back against Being.'
  To which you replied, glaring, 'You know, making distinctions between Being and Non-being is something I cannot endure!'"
  With the story of my dream I reached the end of my useless advice, but he, although he did not directly link up with the thread of my dream-story before his death, did one day say, as though revealing to me a hidden secret, "Why, freedom has shackled my whole life!" and left me those extravagant words as his legacy.
  He has been gone these twenty years and then, one night this summer, he came, in the form of a mountain wizard, walking like Jesus of Nazareth across the water of a river brimming full like that above Paldang Dam, and said, "Ku Sang! Being comes from Being and what comes from Being is imperishable." With that admonition he vanished.
  What class of dream can it have been? A child's dream? A Zen dream? In any case it makes me happy that at least in dreams our meditative conversations continue.

Note Kong Cho was the nom-de-plume of the poet O Sang-Sun 


In this autumn river
unforgotten eyes, the pupils of those eyes,
are still alive.

The sorrowful eyes
of my mother as she saw me off,
coming out as far as the highway
on the day I fled my North Korean home,

my father's affectionate eyes,
as he said to this willful youngest child,
"to live a little less
is to live a little more nobly,"
putting his finger on a line from the Chinese Proverbs
one day before he left this world,

the oh so compassionate eyes
of my one elder brother, a priest
surely martyred in a communist prison,

the violet eyes so widely white of Yumi-jang,
the mixed-race girl of White Russian stock
in the "Etranger" coffee-shop down the lane from my boarding-house
in Tokyo, my heart's first attachment,

the narrow reddened eyes of my maternal cousin
when, four days after her wedding
she gave me, then a child, a set of coloured thimbles
and set off northwards, as the train whistled hoarsely,

and the eyes of the foreign sister in the catechism class,
the eyes of the Japanese policeman who once beat me up,
the eyes of the artist Lee Chung-Sop,
of the poet Kong Cho,

unforgotten eyes, the pupils of those eyes,
innumerably many, are still alive. 


Yes indeed! River, you and I
were born of a single origin
but you preceded me by far
yet still you are closer than I to that source.

River, you and I within that source
are living together now,
will be living together for ever,

I myself because of you,
you yourself because of me,
fulfilling one another
we embody what that source contains:
the good, the beautiful, the true.


All that lives is born of water
grows by water
changes with water
and is imperishable with water.

The traces of our love
and our tears as well. 


In the river
the spirits of the water
going up to the sky and falling to earth
that brought forth and nourished all that lives
are whispering to one another
countless millions of tales of things endured
in the course of that great task. 


  At the end of the first day of the Tokyo Asian Poets Meeting, I joined a few Japanese poets of my own age in a near-by bar.
  As the gathering got merrier, one not-so-old poet sitting beside me, already a bit tipsy, began: "I miss the River Han. I so much miss the River Han with its blue flooding flow. The Han River, the cradle of my youth! I miss its boundless (that was the word he used) flow."
  His voice was trembling as he spoke. At once I replied:
  "Come to Seoul some time, come and see that River Han!"
  Even as I spoke, I was filled with anxiety: how could I ever give him any glimpse of that "boundless flow" he missed?
  "No, for me to say I was going to see that River Han again would be an offensive thing for you Koreans, a shameless act, just like me daring to call that Seoul where I was born and grew up my home town."
  His expression was one of utter distress. I am quite unable to make any response to this kind of "poet's sharp conscience" but just then the Korean poet who had prepared the party and was sitting opposite, spoke up:
  "Ah, you! That old Han River Ballad again! And since when have poems and rivers asked nationalities? Or race? Only those who love are owners of such things; poems are written for those who have tears, and rivers flow for them too, so hurry up and snuggle down in that breast. Go and lie down in the rays of the setting sun, and contemplate the dark red hues of the River Han at nightfall with tearful eyes.!"
  "Thanks, but I mustn't go. This `foreign bastard' mustn't sully that river again. It mustn't happen!"
  And as he spoke, he seemed to be gazing out at the flowing River Han, to be contemplating that twilight, staring into the distance.
  Today too, as I stroll along the banks of the Han, living as I do in Yoido Island, and look out at the river, piled with heaps of sand, banks flooded like paddy-fields, hacked, emaciated, devastated, with here and there its entrails gaping open, my heart alternates between wishing I had told him never to come back to Seoul, in order to safeguard his memories of the Han's "boundless flow", and the thought that in springtime I should invite him to let him visit his 'home'. 


I as a single drop of water
become the river and flow
so now there is no more I.

That I which made me dream so
which made me despair so
which made me so restless
which made me so lonely
which made me so unsure
which made me so mad

that I has vanished and gone,
only the flowing remains.

Now at last I enjoy
the order and freedom
and peace of the natural heavenly state. 


A chilly December morning, early.
Like others who go to daily worship,
I have come out to the river today too.

Unruffled, the river seems to be holding its breath,
the opposite shore looks overcome with the cold,
all the boats are drawn up on the bank,
as a few white water-birds kick down at the river
and fly up towards the frozen sky.

And yet, from within the season's tomb-like dreariness,
what is this miracle-like ceremonial music?

From that corpse-like river, no, from within my breast,
a bamboo flute's melody drifts across,
from tiny sources here and there high on distant mountain peaks
the sound of a single drop of dew piercing through the earth's crust,
the sound of a valley stream making a way through rocks and woods,
the sound of cascades tumbling headlong from towering cliffs
the sound of the river once become a great stream, rolling on
after flowing foaming between field and field,
the sound of thunder, the sound of rain, the sound of the blizzard,
the sound of countless separate drops of dew
being born, dying, meeting, embracing, uniting,
that wonderful sound, all these sounds ring out,

and now that melody, like the river flowing here before me,
concealing its distant, far-off traces,
changed into 'The Spirit Mountain Music' drifts across,
as my past, and today, and the future too,
melting into that heavenly melody, flow on.

Note: 'The Spirit Mountain Music' is a composition attributed to King Sejong (mid-14th century). 


The river

So, indifferent, the water
rises unnoticed to the sky
and becomes mist, becomes a cloud,
becomes dew, becomes rain,
and once again returns to the ground.

And this time soaking into all that lives
it becomes grass, becomes a tree,
becomes a flower, becomes fruit,
becomes a bird, becomes a fish,
becomes a beast, becomes a man.

But when that creature's
life is done,
all that water then comes out and
becoming once again a river
here, like this,
flows unceasing 


The river flows,
winding its way, near and far,
round lofty and lowly mountain spurs.

A river as clear as that
in which long ago Ho Yu washed his ear
and from which the herdsman led again the cow he'd brought.

On the thickly reed-grown bank
one old man, bare to the navel,
with a white beard reaching down to his chest,
carrying a fishing rod over one shoulder,
a fish-basket in one hand,
looking as if he has nothing to envy the world for,
gazes out at the river's distant flow.

'Shall I exchange peaceful retirement in the bosom of nature
for a General's charge?' is the sense of Chinese characters
written on a scroll that hangs in this study
where an equally white-bearded poet,
not involved in the seething world's election turmoil,
is writing poems on "St Christopher's River".

Note: The reference is to a classical Chinese legend in which Ho Yu rejects the decision of King Yao to name him as his heir, and washes his ear in a river to purify it; upon hearing this, a cowherd says that the water in such a river is too polluted for a cow to drink. Trans. 


Suppose that on this earth
there were no water or river:

like the moon floating
in that boundless sky,
just a rock with the form of a dead bear,

this earth too,
unable to bring forth a single living thing,
would be just another cursed rock-piled, clay-heaped


From Seoul Bridge to Wonhyo Bridge here and there
dredged-up sand has been piled
in mountain-like mounds,
making embankments that enclose,
cut off, shut in
the River Han,

neither a river,
nor a lake,
nor a pond,
nor a rice field,
the River Han.

A pigeon quenches its thirst
in a pool of rain-water on one such mound,
gazes intently out at the river,
then glances at me where I stand nearby, as if to say:

"What on earth do these humans think they are doing?"

it cocks its head from side to side
and I too nod
as together we gaze at the River Han. 


The river flows.
Above the ground, beneath the ground,
above the sky, the river flows.

Now apart from the river
there is nothing I can see;
now all things to me
appear as river.

The river within my field of vision
flows down from a place without beginning
flows on towards a place without end
and after this earth has been destroyed
and even the cosmos has ceased to exist,
still it will flow on, flowing still.

I may be just one drop in the river's flow,
but without me the river can never rise,
and surely it cannot vanish,
and surely not be compared with anything
as an image of Eternity

for that is the way
it flows. 


One morning unexpectedly in the newspaper I saw
a colour photo of the lake at the top of Paektusan;
and as I gazed at it, and read the mountain-climbing article,
I cried aloud like a startled beast:


And murmured:

is where
it is


Towering basalt, 10 miles round,
dark green water, 300 yards deep,
still preserving the mystery of distant ages,
still brimming with the dreams and ardour of our founding fathers,
there precisely is where it is!

Just so this people and nation that still preserves,
so vastly high and wide and deep, the fountain-head of heart,
will neither fade nor thirst.
At last it will shine out bright across the whole world. 


A springtime high noon,
the river is blazing flames.

Detached, icy river,
were you then thus keeping
this clear blue fire
stored up within your breast?

I was not unaware, of course,
that the source of all being was undivided,
but fire appearing in water
is something I see for the first time today,
so I rub my eyes, then rub them again,
and gaze in fascination
at the blue blazing river. 


In the night's dreams
the river appears:

in the deep darkness
the river begins to glisten,
twisting its body from side to side
crying aloud and groaning,
wailing, and hurling itself down.

So, like me, the river too
bears within itself
some inexplicable anguish!

Then the river suddenly surges up,
as if hurling defiance at the heavens,
and splashes down again.

At that sound I wake and open my eyes;
lo and behold, the river has perfectly purged its fury
and has become a silent flow,
in a silence not even this silent night can match. 


A spring evening, Yoido Island,
the River Han

blocked, confined,
divided by the banks men have made,
the River Han

and over each separate stream
there hangs one full moon:

"The moon sets its stamp on a thousand streams"
they say, and that is exactly what I see.

At this same hour this selfsame moon
in the Nakdong River
the Somjin River
the Yesong River
the Kum River
the Soyang River
the Imjin River

and why, in the North as well,
in the Amnuk River
the Yalu River
the Taedong River
the Changjin River
and the Songchon River
is floating too!

And every person who sees this moon
must be feeling surely the deep emotion I feel?

This night alone on a deserted embankment
I sit draining the moon's glass again and again. 


Bright as the monstrance at Vespers,
the sun shone down on the morning river, and from midstream
suddenly, walking across the water,
lo and behold, my master, St Christopher!

And coming up like some powerful spirit
to where I stood confused with surprise and joy,
he called out a question, like a Zen master:

"Brother John! It's been several years
since you chose this river for your place of work;
what have you seen in the river?"

"I have seen mystery."
Unexpected, that was my reply.

"Brother John! It's been several years
since you chose this river for your place of work;
what have you learned from the river?"

"I have learned mystery,"
I blindly replied.

"Brother John! It's been several years
since you chose this river for your place of work;
what have you discovered from the river?"

"I have discovered mystery," I replied,
considering the repeated questions to be a sign
of the rightness of my answer, and swelling with pride.

But the next moment my teacher,
making as if to wield the magic staff he was clutching,
glared furiously and thundered:

"You thief! You fraud! Doesn't that mean
you haven't seen anything, haven't learned anything,
haven't discovered anything?"

My head bowed with fear,
was all I could reply.

"Yes?! That sound is salvation, that alone.
Begin again with the river, untiringly!"


After a while, I lifted my head,
St Christopher was gone,
and the river was flowing on, untiringly. 


A single drop of water, joined with others,
becomes a river
so the river is just
one huge drop of water.

Then if one single drop of water grows murky,
by that much the river grows murky too,
and if one single drop of water grows clear,
by that much the river too grows clear.

In this human world
each person's fault
each person's love
have just the same effect.