Odosong – Poems about Enlightenment

One day, I went to Chuncheon (춘천) to the Northeast of Seoul to see Cheongpyeongsa (청평사, pictured above), a buddhist temple originally erected in 973. It is a very tranquil little experience to take the fair to cross the Soyangho (소양호) lake, hike up to the temple and wander around with the scenic, multicolored forest surrounding the whole area. This post, however, is not about the temple, but about a little sign I found on the way up to the temple: A small poem, looking a little bit like this, with an English translation added as well:

심생종종생 (心生種種生) : 마음이 일어나면 모든 것들이생겨나고
심멸종종멸 (心滅種種滅) : 마음이 사라지면 모든 것들이 사라지네.
여시구멸이 (如是俱滅已) : 이와 같이 모든 것들이 사라지고 나면
처처안락국 (處處安樂國) : 곳곳이 모두가 극락세계로구나.

When the mind arrises, everything does,
and when the mind disappears, everything else disappears as well.
When everything disappears as such,
everywhere will be paradise.

I later learned through a Korean friend of mine that this is a relatively well-known poem from Ambassador Wonhyo (원효), a Silla period statesman, and has a pretty interesting backstory that you can read about in the linked article if you can read Korean or know how to use a translator. Weirdly, the version of the poem usually distributed is different from the one I found on the sign. In any way, the sign also informed me about the “subgenre” of the poem: It apparently is a certain type of buddhist poem written when the poet finds enlightenment: an “Odosong” (오도송, 悟道頌), which literally also just translates to “enlightenment ode”. I liked the poem a lot, it seemed to me to be a beautifully written portrayal of what is basically an idealistic approach to epistemology, the question of how we know things. What I mean with that is that the poem, in alignment with buddhist teachings that are also still common today, expresses that, basically, everything is in our head – what we see, feel and know arises from ourselves, the world is a projection if you will. This is not a thought exclusive to Buddhism: Plato described a similar understanding of epistemology with his famous Cave Allegory, and Immanuel Kant kick-started German Idealism with his very influential book “Critique of Pure Reason” (Kritik der reinen Vernunft). Just because I don’t get many chances to mention it, I also want to say that one of my two favourite philsophers, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a contemporary of Kant (and Hegel), who is considered one of the founding figures of German Idealism, had a very interesting “radically idealistic” approach, and said that literally everything is made up by us, which he tried to prove with, basically, maths. I loved that, and his main work “Foundations of the Science of Knowledge” (Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre) influenced me heavily as a teenager. Sadly, he is very much not as relevant today as many of his aforementioned contemporaries still are.

In any way: You might see that I am very invested in this type of thinking, which is why I was kind of happy to find a poem from a seemingly talented poet dealing with this sort of idea, even though I am not a Buddhist myself. It is nonetheless a beautiful poem. I have since tried to find more of such “Odosong”, but quickly realized that information on it in English is very sparce. At the utmost, I could find some Odosong mentioned in a few journal articles about some Buddhist poets. That’s okay I guess, Odosong are not a specific “genre” per se after all, nor are a special collection: “Odosong” is just a commonly used title, basically. What bugs me about the whole ordeal is that there are almost no translations of these poems to be found, really. So, because I really like some of these poems and I equally like translating poems, I decided to collect and translate some of them. I will, of course, also write some stuff whenever I feel like it, just like I have done up until now.

A little disclaimer: There might be some translation errors that someone well versed in ancient Korean could spot. I am not a native Korean speaker, nor have I spent decades analyzing ancient Korean texts (although I hope that I can say the latter some day). I am just a student with spare time and an interest in Korean Buddhist poetry. I try to do my best, but mistakes happen, you know. Also, I will take some liberties with some poems, as they can be rather hard to really translate literally. Basically, I want to translate them and convey their feeling and meaning, and at the same time create poems that can be enjoyed on their own in English, which means that, sometimes, some expressions might need to change a bit. I do hope, though, that I do not “destroy” the meaning while doing so. With that said, enjoy!

Just another picture I made in Cheongpyeongsa. It’s nice, isn’t it?

七日關中亦有言 (칠일관중역유언)
威音雷若震乾坤 (위음뢰약진건곤)
欲聆無說傳千古 (욕영무설전천고)
秋夜寒鐘掛寺門 (추야한종괘사문)

During my seventh day in Guangzhou, I listened to Buddha’s preaching;
dignified thunder clapping shook heaven and earth.
I wanted to know the unspoken truths of the first hour,
but only the bell stuck in the temple’s door in this cold autumn night.

萬里青天 (만리청천)
雲起雨來 (운기우래)
空山無人 (공산무인)
水流花開 (수류화개)

On the blue sky spanning ten thousand Ri*,
clouds are forming and rain is coming.
Even with no people on the empty mountains,
water flows and flowers bloom.

(*A “Ri” is an old Korean unit of length, spanning about 500 metres.

This is one of the cases where I had to take some liberties with how I wrote the translation. Let me tell you a bit more about this poem in detail, as the original is written in a painfully simple way that’ll makenit considerably easy to understand it even if you know neither Chinese nor Korean. I will first give you the literal translations of each of the Hanja (Chinese characters used in Korean):
“萬里青天 (만리청천)” [Malli’chŏng’chŏn] – 10.000 Ri blue sky
“雲起雨來 (운기우래)” [Un’gi’urae] – cloud growing rain coming
“空山無人 (공산무인)” [Gongsanmu’in] – empty mountain no person
“水流花開 (수류화개)” [Su’ryu’hwagae] – water flowing flower blooming
These are not actual sentences, and definitely do not convey as much meaning as I have interpreted into them in my translation, but you can see how interpretation is necessary to actually turn it into a “readable” English poem. You can contextualise it in several different ways, of course. Maybe you will understand the raw literal translation slightly differently from how I have done it.
As I understand it, the poem conveys how “insignificant” humans are for the course of nature. No human needs to be around on the mountains for everything to go its way. Everything is “one”, humans are not the masters that create and change everything, they are merely part of something big; something that is, as the poem also succeeds to convey, quite beautiful.)

吾心似秋月 (오심사추월)
碧潭清皎潔 (벽담청교결)
無物堪比喩 (무물감비유)
如何敎何說 (여하교하설)

My heart is like the autumn moon,
the pond clear, white and clean.
Nothing compares to this.
How could you ask me to beg to you?

(I was a bit unsure how to properly express the last line in a nice and consise way: It expresses a sort of resistance against some authority, asking “How can you dare asking me to beg to you if you cannot compare to ‘this'”, with “this” being the enlightenment the poet experienced in this very moment.)

秋山疎雨過 (추산소우과)
霜葉落庭苔 (상엽락정태)
白犬通消息 (백견통소식)
罷禪御鶴來 (파선어학래)

In autumn, rain passed through the heart of the mountains,
frosted leaves fall onto the moss in the front garden.
I deliver the news to the white dog,
and in Samadhi, “it” comes to you on a crane.

(This poem does need some context: The “white dog” referred to in the third line is the actual dog and longtime companion of Monk Buhyu (부휴선사), who wrote this poem. “Samadhi” in line 4 is basically the state of consciousness during meditation. The “it” that comes on a crane is, I would presume, enlightenment. “It” does not arrive on a literal crane, though – Cranes are a symbolic animal, standing for immortality. So there is a quite abrupt change from literalism to symbolism which made it rather hard for me to understand this poem properly (if, of course, I actually did understand it properly). Still, I like the poem the way I interpret it.)

靑山疊疊彌陀窟 (청산첩첩미타굴)
滄海茫茫寂滅宮 (창해망망적멸궁)

The green mountains that rise above one another are Amitabha’s den,
and the vast, deep, blue sea is the palace of Nirvana.

(A very concise poem. It does pack some meaning, though: Monks, in order to find enlightenment, leave behind great distances and travel to places untouched and unbothered by humanity. This is where they can find what they are searching for. Amitabha (a Buddha, often said to “live in the silence”) has his den in the deep, untouched, green mountain ranges, and the vast ocean is where you find Nirvana. In such places you will find Buddhist temples, usually. I have visited many of them, and the silence you can enjoy there, outside of the busy city (I got this feeling especially back when I lived in Seoul and went out to the less developed outskirts), is truly magnificent. Even though I wasn’t (and still am not) Buddhist and not trying to reach enlightenment, I found it to be wonderfully calming, just so tranquil. Now that I am back in Germany, too, even though there are no Buddhist temples to hike to, I love to just walk deep into forests outside the city I live in, and even though it is much smaller and so much less busy than Seoul was, I wouldn’t want to miss the time off the grid from time to time.)

春有百花秋有月 (춘유백화추유월)
夏有凉風冬有雪 (하유양풍동유설)
莫將閑事掛心頭 (막장한사괘심두)
便是人間好時節 (변시인간호시절)

All kinds of flowers in spring, the autumn moon,
the cold breeze in summer, winter’s snow.
When you take it leisurely, when there’s nothing troubling your mind,
suddenly, there are good days in the world of humans.

(This is, besides the one from the beginning I found in Chuncheon, probably my favourite Odosong. It is very simple to understand and doesn’t require any understanding of Buddhist “lore” (which I am trying to avoid as much as I can in this little collection). All the natural beauties there are to be found in the difference seasons, it poses, can be so enjoyable if you don’t let yourself be troubled by life too much. Suddenly, your day is not hecticness and anger or whatever you are concerned with today, but just some pretty flowers. I do very much believe that, if everything you can think back to on a certain day is “the snow looked pretty”, then it couldn’t have been a bad day, wouldn’t you agree? There are certainly more things to enjoy outside of that, too, but the shear simplicity of the various simple beauties the poem is able to convey makes it worthwhile to me.)

靑山綠水眞我面 (청산녹수진아면)
明月淸風誰主人 (명월청풍수주인)
莫謂本來無一物 (막위본래무일물)
塵塵刹刹法王身 (진진찰찰법왕신)

The green mountain and the crystal-clear water is his true face.
Who could be the owner of the bright moon and the silent breeze?
Don’t say he has nothing to do with one’s life.
Is not every cloud of dust in the world Buddha’s body?

(I think this poem is, again, easy enough to understand, but I want to mention something related to it: In “Journey to the West”, one of the four classic Chinese novels (and certainly an amazing book), there is a scene that this poem veey much reminds me of. When Sun Wukong, one of the protagonists, fights his way through the heavenly kingdom, unable to be stopped even by immortals, he is stopped by Buddha with a funny little trick. Buddha dares him to defeat him in a challenge he poses to decide who wins, and the challenge was to jump over Buddhas whole hand. Sun Wukong, in his characteristic hybris, immediately takes on the challenge, jumps as high as he can, even reaching the very pillars of the world, peeing on them to mark that he was there, and lands behind Buddha (and therefore his hand), seemingly wining the challenge. But, allas, Buddha notes that he did not succeed, showing Sun Wukongs markings on his fingers and a wet spot. The “pillars of the world” were nothing else but Buddhas fingers. Sun Wukong wasn’t able to jump over Buddhas hand, and was thusly defeated, leading to him being imprisoned for countless years for his crimes in heaven until he is “forced” to unite with the other protagonists to go on a holy “Journey to the West”. It is a great story, and I can only recommend reading the book. But the book is like 2000 pages long (at least the German Reclam translation is), so maybe a synopsis is good (and time consuming) enough. And a small funfact: Sun Wukong is the inspirational basis for Dragonball’s Son Goku.)

溪聲便是長廣舌 (계성변시장관성)
山色豈非淸淨身 (산색개비청정신)
夜來八萬四千偈 (야내팔만사천게)
他日如何擧似人 (타일여하거사인)

The sound of the stream is just like Buddha giving a talk,
and isn’t the colour of the mountains also like his clear and clean body?
The winds blowing at night are his 84.000 teachings.
How can I ever describe this feeling?

(We do have some lore here to explain as well. Similar to the poem before, this poem describes the “unity” of Buddha with the world. When you listen to the stream flowing, you can hear Buddha preaching, and the beautiful mountain ranges look just like Buddha’s body (“clear and clean body” is kind of a compromise of a translation because the original term 清淨身 (청정신, Chŏngjŏngshin) is a common phrase to describe Buddhas body as “impeccable”, as “uncontaminated”, so to speak, so however you phrase it, it sounds a bit strange), and the wind at night is like his 84.000 teachings, also a common phrase to describe the totality of Buddhas work (it is also often said that there are “84.000 doors to enlightenment”). But, allas, the poet asks himself how he will ever be able to adequately put all of this into words. All the wisdom and beauty to be found in the world, and he can only give you allegories when he found enlightenment. It is an almost sad way to spin the narrative of the enlightened monk and literati: Someone who has found what he searched for, but is ultimately unable to convey it to others, bound by the limitations of human language.)

I will leave it at this for now. These have been some Odosong that I really like; beautiful, short poems that I hope were not just able to show what an “Enlightenment Ode” is, but also convey basic Buddhist beliefs in various ways and how Buddhist poems generally create scenic views with just a few words and pose interesting questions to think about, wether you are Buddhist or not. I hope I was able to translate them properly and create nice to read poems in their own right. It was basically a translation exercise for me, and I could learn some more Hanja while I was at it. It was fun. Thank you for reading.

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