Love’s Silence and Other Poems (Ronsdale $14.95)
Little-known in the West, Yong-un Han was born 200 km. south-east of Seoul in 1879. Married at 13, Han joined a revolt of peasants suffering from extreme poverty when he was 18. It was the start of his role as a poet/scholar, political activist and Korean patriot. Han fled to a Buddhist temple to escape the government forces. After visiting Vladivostok, he returned to Korea’s mountainous Kangwon province where his first son, Po-quk, (meaning ‘defend the country’) was born in 1904, but Han later left home to work in the kitchen of another Buddhist temple in order to become a monk. At age 29, he went to Japan to study Buddhism and Western philosophy. At the end of that year, he returned to Korea and founded an institute to preserve private as well as Buddhist properties, which were in danger of being taken over by the Japanese.
Han became a controversial figure in the Buddhist community when he wrote an article in 1910, advocating the marriage of monks. In 1911 he established a society to promote Zen Buddhism. Frustrated by the annexation of Korea by Japan, he again took the path of exile to Manchuria.
Returning to Korea in 1912, he compiled a populist dictionary of Buddhism, a task requiring him to go over 1,511 documents and 6,802 Buddhist tablets. The Dictionary of Korean Buddhism was published in 1914. In deep meditation, Han attained a sudden awakening at the sound of an object blown to the ground by the wind. He became the editor of The Spirit, a Buddhism magazine. Han joined forces with other patriots to restore Korean sovereignty in 1919 and became an influential figure in the March 1st Movement for Independence. The document of independence, made public on March 1st, was drafted by Namsun Choe but was revised and supplemented by Han. After signing and promulgating the historical document with 32 other patriots, Han was arrested by Japanese police and was declared guilty on August 19th.
In jail, the Japanese government failed to make Han apologize for the March 1st Independence Movement. After three years of imprisonment, he was set free in 1922. At the age of 46, in the Paek-dam temple of Kangwon Province, Han completed Love’s Silence, a eulogy of 88 poems. In these poems, his love moves beyond individuals and objects to embrace country, truth, liberation from worldly bondage and Buddha’s compassion for suffering humanity. Love’s Silence and Other Poems (Ronsdale $14.95), translated by Jaihiun Kim and Ronald B. Hatch, contains sixteen additional poems selected from Han’s complete works.
Bridging ancient Zen traditions and 20th century free verse, Han, whose pen name ‘Manhae’ meant Ten Thousand Seas, took over the magazine Buddhism and became its director. He married a second time, and in 1933 his daughter Yongsuk was born. In the same year, financed by a group of his friends, Han purchased land in Songbuk-dong where his house was built facing north so he woudn’t see from his window the Japanese governor’s residence. His house was named ‘Ox-searching Hall’. On the occasion of the 18th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Han resumed the publication of the magazine Buddhism in 1937. A year later he was arrested by the Japanese police as one of the leading members of Korean Buddhism. While in prison, he undertook the compilation of the history of Buddhism during the Koryo dynasty from 918 to 1392. On his 60th birthday, Han started translating The History of Three Kingdoms, which was serialized in the Choson Daily. In 1940, he launched a protest against the Japanization of Korean family names. In 1943 he opposed Japan’s policy to send Korean students to the Japanese war-front.
Yong-un Han died of cerebral hyperemia in his home ‘Ox-searching Hall’ in Seoul in 1944. He was cremated according to Buddhist practice, and his remains were buried in the public cemetery in Mang-u-dong on the outskirts of Seoul. 0-921870-62-0
[BCBW AUTUMN 1999]