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.
Dear Friends in the Booklikes Universe,
You might be in Turkey, or staying in a Syrian refugee camp, standing in line for bread and water. Maybe you are afraid to leave your apartment in Kiev. No matter where you are, we have books in common, and where ever there are books, there is hope.
Can life get any worse for my fellow human beings? I hope not, as I pace with anxiety, urging you to read, to become inspired, and to care for all life, no matter where or what that life is.
This was a nice short book with a focus on making sure that we enjoy every moment. Each short chapter at its basic level asks the reader to stop worrying about the past or future, and take full enjoyment in everything we do. I think I needed to read this book at this time in my life, and while not easy, I will surely make efforts to incorporate its message into my life.