born August 1, 1933 in Gunsan in North Jeolla Province, under Japanese occupation of Korea, he is a respected poet, essayist and writer of tremendous achievement (some 135 books!) and extraordinary biography. At eight, he studied classical Chinese texts; at twelve, he started writing poems. Forced to join the army in 1950, during the Korean War, he suffered from a nervous breakdown culminating in a suicide attempt. Before the war ended, he joined a Buddhist monastery, becoming the disciple of the great monk Hyo Bong. He practiced Zen meditation for ten years, travelling around the country continuously. He founded The Buddhist Newspaper in 1957 and began to publish poems and essays there. In 1962, already a famous man in the Buddhist circles, the chief monk in the Chondung and Haein temples, to general astonishment he published his “resignation manifesto” in the press and left the Buddhist community.
The years 1963-66, devoted to the teaching of the Korean language and art, were marked by more crises and suicide attempts, insomnia and alcohol abuse. Following a time of nihilism evident in many poems, novels and essays, 1973 saw another sharp turn: Ko Un committed to the current political and social affairs, spoke publicly against the authorities and joined the human rights movement. When the Association of Writers for the Building of Freedom was founded in 1974, he became its first secretary general. Kept under surveillance by the security service and repeatedly arrested, he was imprisoned for long periods and tortured. Two years after receiving a life sentence in 1980, he was pardoned and released from prison. He barely managed to survive the famous Gwangju massacre of May 1982.
His life took a new turn: with his new bride Sang-Wha Lee he settled in the country, in Anseong, where his daughter Cha Ryong was born. At that time he was unusually prolific as a writer, publishing many books of poems, novels and essays, the first part of his collected works, a five-volume autobiography and a 20-volume work Ten Thousand Lives. In 1989 he was imprisoned for the fourth time.
He served as the president of the Korean Artists Association (1989-90) and the Union of Writers of National Literature (1992-94). In the years 1994-98 he was resident professor at the Kyonggi University. In 1999 he taught at the Yenching Institute at Harvard University and lectured on contemporary Korean poetry at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1997 he spent forty days on the sacred Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. In 1998 he visited North Korea, with the government’s permission.
Recently he has published the poetry collections Dokdo Island (1995), Stone Statue (1997), Whispers (1998), South and North. The Himalayan Poems (2000) and the essay collection At the Living Plaza (1997). The year 1999 alone saw the publication of the epic poem Far, Far Journey, a novel in two volumes Sumi Mountain, a book of travel writings My Mountains and Rivers and a volume of critical writings Morning with Poetry.
Ko Un is the recipient of many awards, such as the Korean Literary Prize (twice, in 1974 and 1987), the Buddhist Manhae Literary Prize (1999), the Swedish Cikada Prize (2006), the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Canadian Griffin Fund for Excellence in Poetry, the Korean Academy of Arts Prize (2008), as well as Norway’s only medal for literary achievement, Bjørnson Order for Literature (2005).
His books have been translated into the major European languages and into Japanese and Chinese. In the United States his Buddhist long poems were published with introductions by Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. In Poland a selection of his poems Raptem Deszcz (Suddenly Rain) appeared in 2009.
Ko Un travels a lot, teaching and reading his poetry in Mexico and the United States, Japan, Australia, France, the Netherlands and Germany. He visited Poland for the first time during the Meeting of Poets in Krakow “Poetry: Between Song and Prayer” in 2000. He lives in Anseong, a two-hour drive from Seoul.