The Nine Cloud Dream

The Nine Cloud Dream


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Korea’s most prized literary masterpiece: a Buddhist journey questioning the illusions of human life—presented in a vivid new translation by PEN/Hemingway finalist Heinz Insu Fenkl

*Named one of the year's most anticipated books by The New York Times, The Millions, and i09*

Often considered the highest achievement in Korean fiction, The Nine Cloud Dream poses the question: Will the life we dream of truly make us happy? Written in 17th-century Korea, this classic novel’s wondrous story begins when a young monk living on a sacred Lotus Peak in China succumbs to the temptation of eight fairy maidens. For doubting his master’s Buddhist teachings, the monk is forced to endure a strange punishment: reincarnation as the most ideal of men.
On his journey through this new life full of material, martial, and sensual accomplishments beyond his wildest dreams, he encounters the eight fairies in human form, each one furthering his path towards understanding the fleeting value of his good fortune. As his successes grow, he comes closer and closer to finally comprehending the fundamental truths of the Buddha’s teachings. Like Hesse’s Siddhartha, The Nine Cloud Dream is an unforgettable tale that explores the meaning of a good life and the virtue of living simply with mindfulness.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,800 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143131274
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/12/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 379,365
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Heinz Insu Fenkl is a writer, editor, translator, and folklorist. His first novel, Memories of My Ghost Brother, was a PEN/Hemingway finalist. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY New Paltz. He also serves on the editorial board of Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture, and is a consulting editor for Words Without Borders. His fiction has been published in The New Yorker, and his story collection, Skull Water, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

Kim Man-Jung (1637–1692) is generally accepted as the author of The Nine Cloud Dream (Kuunmong), often considered the greatest classic Korean novel. He is said to have composed it in exile as a comfort to his mother. A member of the yangban (ruling class) literati, Kim Man-Jung rose to become the head of the Confucian Academy. His other works include The Record of Lady Sa’s Journey South (Sassi Namjeongg).

Read an Excerpt


The Reincarnation of Hsing-chen

There are five great mountains beneath Heaven. To the east is T'ai-shan, Grand Mountain; to west is Hua-shan, Mountain of Flowers; to the south lies Heng-shan, the Mountain of Scales; to the north another Heng-shan, Eternal Mountain; and in the center stands Sung-shan, the Exalted Mountain. These are known as the Five Peaks, and the highest of them is Heng-shan, south of Tung-t'ing Lake, encircled by the river Hsiang on three sides. Upon Heng-shan itself there are seventy-two peaks that rise up and pierce the sky, some jagged and precipitous-blocking the paths of clouds-their fantastic shapes evoking wonder and awe, their auspicious shadows full of good fortune.
Among the seventy-two peaks, the five tallest are called Spirit of the South, Crimson Canopy, Heaven's Pillar, Stone Treasure-House, and Lotus Peak. They are regal, crowned by the heavens, and veiled in clouds, their bases obscured in mist. They are imbued with divine power, and in the haze of the day they are occluded from human view.
In ancient times, when YŸ restrained the Great Flood that inundated the Earth, he erected a commemorative stone tablet on one of these peaks, recording his deed, and though many eons have passed, the inscription is still sharp and clear and one can still read the characters for "cloud" and "heaven" upon the stone.
In the days of Ch'in Shih-huang-ti, Lady Wei, having become a Taoist immortal, settled in these mountains with an attending company of fairies as decreed by Heaven. She was known as Lady Wei of the Southern Peak, and many are the strange and wonderful things she caused to happen there.
In the days of the T'ang dynasty a great monk arrived from India. He was so taken by the beauty of the mountains that he built a monastery on Lotus Peak, and there he taught The Diamond Sutra, instructed disciples, and banished evil spirits. In time people said that a living Buddha had descended to Earth. His name was Liu-kuan, and he explicated the sutras so clearly that they called him "Master of the Six Temptations," the Great Master Liu-kuan.
Among his five or six hundred disciples, there were some thirty who were advanced and well versed in these teachings, and the youngest of these was Hsing-chen. His features were fair and handsome, and a light shone from his face like flowing water. He had already mastered the scriptures, though he was barely twenty. He surpassed all the others in wisdom and mental agility, and all knew that the master loved him best and intended, in time, to make him his successor.
When Master Liu-kuan expounded upon the dharma to his disciples, the Dragon King himself-in the guise of a white-clad old man-would come from Tung-t'ing Lake to listen attentively. One day the master called his disciples together and said to them, "I am old now, and my health is failing. It has been more than ten years since I have been beyond the gates of these mountains. I must go and pay my respects to the Dragon King. Who among you will go in my stead to his Underwater Palace?"
Hsing-chen volunteered at once, and the master was greatly pleased. He had the young monk outfitted in new robes, presented him with a ringed staff, and sent him off toward Tung-t'ing Lake.
Just as Hsing-chen departed, the monk who guarded the monastery's main gate came to Master Liu-kuan to announce that Lady Wei of the Southern Peak had sent eight of her fairies to see him and they were now waiting outside.
"Let them in," said Liu-kuan.
And they skipped in through the gate, one by one, circled him three times, and bowed, scattering fairy flowers at his feet. Kneeling respectfully, they recited a message from Lady Wei:
Venerable Master, you live on the west side of the mountain and I on the east. The distance is not far, and we are near enough to be neighbors. Yet I am so busy that I have not had occasion to visit your monastery to hear your teaching of the sutras. So now I am sending my servants to pay my respects and to offer you heavenly flowers, fairy fruit, silk brocade, and other humble gifts. I hope you will accept them as a token of my respect.
With that, each of the eight fairies presented flowers and other gifts to the master, and he received them and passed them on to his disciples, who, in turn, placed them as offerings before the Buddha in the shrine room.
Liu-kuan bowed ceremoniously, with hands folded. "An old man like me hardly deserves such lavish gifts as these you have presented to me," he said, and he gave generously to the fairies in return before they took their leave and set lightly off.
They made their way out through the mountain pass, hand in hand, chatting as they went. "In the past, we were free to go anywhere among these mountains," they said. "But now that the Great Master Liu-kuan has established his temple, some of the peaks are forbidden to us, and for nearly ten years we have missed seeing the places of beauty that were once ours to view. We are lucky that our lady's order brings us to this valley at a beautiful time of year.
"It is still early, so let us take this chance to climb up to the top of Lotus Peak. Let us loosen our garments, wash our scarves in the waterfall, and compose some poems. And when we return our sisters will envy us!"
They set off, walking hand in hand along the high precipices, gazing down at the cascading streams and the rushing waters. It was springtime, and myriad flowers filled the valleys below like a pink mist. The air was fresh and alive with an untold variety of birdsong.
The eight fairies sat to rest on a stone bridge, looking down at their reflections where the streams met in a wide pool as clear as crystal. Their dark brows and radiant faces were mirrored in the water like a classical painting done in a master's hand, and they were so captivated they did not notice the sun descending into the western mountains.

Hsing-chen crossed Tung-t'ing Lake and now entered the Underwater Palace. The Dragon King, hearing that Master Liu-kuan had sent one of his disciples, personally came to the gate with an entourage to greet him. When they had gone inside the palace, the Dragon King took his throne and Hsing-chen bowed and delivered his master's message.
The Dragon King thanked Hsing-chen, and then held a great feast for him, full of fantastic delicacies he had never before tasted. But when the Dragon King offered him a cup of wine, Hsing-chen declined, saying, "Your Majesty, wine intoxicates the mind, and it is against my monastic vows to drink."
"Of course, I know that wine is among the five things that the Buddha forbade," the Dragon King replied. "But this wine is altogether different from the wine that mortals drink. It neither arouses passions nor dulls the senses. It instills calm and contentment. Surely you will not refuse it?"
Hsing-chen could not decline, and he had drunk three cups by the time he said his good-byes and left the Underwater Palace, riding on the wind to Lotus Peak. When he lighted there, he was already intoxicated and overcome by dizziness.
"Master Liu-kuan will be furious if he sees me this way," he said to himself. "He will scold me."
Crouching by the bank of a stream, he took off his robes and placed them on the clean sand. He dipped his hands in the clear water and was washing his hot face, when suddenly he noticed a strange and mysterious perfume wafting toward him. It was neither incense nor flowers, and it clouded his mind. "There must be flowers blooming upstream to put such wonderful fragrance in the air," he thought. "I must go find them."
He dressed carefully and followed the course of the stream upward; and there, quite suddenly, he found himself face-to-face with the eight fairies who were sitting on the stone bridge.
Hsing-chen dropped his staff and bowed deeply as he addressed them. "Ladies! I am a disciple of Master Liu-kuan and I live on Lotus Peak. I am on my way back from an errand for him. This bridge is not wide, and by sitting upon it, you are blocking my way. Would you kindly move aside and let me pass?"
The fairies returned his bow. "We are attendants to Lady Wei, and we are on our way back from delivering her greetings to your master. We have paused here to rest awhile. Is it not written in The Book of Rites, concerning the law of the road, that the man goes to the left and the woman to the right? Since this bridge is very narrow, and we are already sitting here, is it not proper for you to avoid it altogether and cross at some other place?"
"But the water is deep," Hsing-chen replied. "There is no other way to cross. Where do you suggest I go?"
"It is said that the great Bodhidharma crossed the ocean on a single leaf," said the fairies. "If you are, in fact, a disciple of Master Liu-kuan and you have studied the dharma with him, then surely you must have acquired some supernatural powers. It should not be hard for you to cross this tiny rivulet, so why do you stand there arguing with women over the right of way?"
Hsing-chen laughed. "I see from your attitude that you require some sort of payment for the right to cross, but I have no money. I am only a poor monk. Yet I do have eight jewels, which I will happily give to you if you will permit me to pass." With this he snapped off a branch from a peach tree and tossed it before the fairies. The fragrant peach blossoms that landed transformed into eight clear, sparkling, fragrant jewels.
The eight fairies laughed with delight. Each of them rose from her place and lifted a jewel, gave Hsing-chen a coy glance, mounted the wind, and flew away into the sky.
Hsing-chen stood at the bridge and watched for a long time looking in every direction, but he could not see where they had gone. Soon the multihued clouds had dissipated and even their fragrance was gone.
In a terrible state of dejection, Hsing-chen returned to the temple and delivered his message from the Dragon King. When Master Liu-kuan reprimanded him for his late return, Hsing-chen said, "The Dragon King detained me, Master, and it was not possible to refuse his generosity. That is why I have been delayed."
The master did not reply to this. He simply said, "Go away and rest."
Hsing-chen went back to his dim meditation cell and sat down alone. He could still hear the melodious voices of the eight fairies echoing in his ears, and his eyes still seemed to see their beautiful forms and faces as if they stood before him in the room. He found it impossible to control his racing thoughts-he could not meditate.
He thought to himself: "If a youth diligently studies the Confucian classics and serves his country as a minister of state or a general when he is grown into a man, he may dress in silks with an official seal upon his jade belt. He may look upon beautiful colors with the eyes and listen to beautiful voices with his ears. He may enjoy beautiful girls and leave an honorable legacy for his descendants. But a Buddhist monk has only a small bowl of rice and a cup of water. We read the sutras and meditate with our 108 mala beads hanging upon our necks. It is a lofty and profound endeavor, but it is terribly lonely. Though I may become enlightened, though I may master all the doctrines of the Mahayana path and sit in my master's seat to succeed him, once my spirit parts from my body in the flames of the funeral pyre, who will remember that a person named Hsing-chen ever lived upon this Earth?"
He tried to sleep, but sleep refused to come and the hour grew late. Whenever he closed his eyes, the eight fairies appeared before him, and when he opened them they vanished into nothingness. It suddenly occurred to him that the great purpose of Buddhism was to tame the mind and the heart. "I have been a monk for ten years," he said. "For ten years I have avoided the smallest fault, but these seductive thoughts will cause irreparable harm to my progress."
He burned incense, knelt, stilled his thoughts, and was counting his mala beads, visualizing the thousand Buddhas, when suddenly one of the temple boys came to his window and inquired, "Brother, are you asleep? The master is calling you."
Hsing-chen was alarmed. "It is unusual for him to call me in the middle of the night. It must be something serious," he thought.
He followed the boy to the main shrine hall, where all the monks of the temple had assembled. Master Liu-kuan himself was sitting in solemn silence in the light of many candles. His appearance inspired both fear and curiosity, and when he spoke it was with great care, with grave intonation.
"Hsing-chen! Do you know how you have sinned?"
Hsing-chen was kneeling before the dais. He bowed low, until his head touched the floor, and said, "Master, I have been your disciple for more than ten years now. I have never disobeyed you. I have tried to be pure. I am not hiding anything, and I do not know what offense I have committed."
Liu-kuan became angry. "You drank wine at the palace of the Dragon King! On your return, by the stone bridge, you flirted with eight fairy girls, joking with them, throwing them a branch of flowers, which you transformed into jewels. And since your return, you have turned away from the teachings of the Buddha and dwelt on worldly and sensual things. You have rejected your way of life here, and now you cannot stay!"
Hsing-chen wept, bent his head to the floor, and pleaded. "Master!" he said. "I know I have sinned. But I drank the wine only because the Dragon King himself offered it to me and I could not refuse. I bantered with the fairies at the bridge because I had to ask them to step out of the way. In my cell I faced temptation, but I came to my senses and controlled myself. If I have done wrong, you may whip me on the calves, but if you are so cruel as to send me away, how will I ever correct myself?
"I came to you to become a monk when I was only twelve, and so you are like a father to me. I serve you like a son. The relationship between master and disciple is deep and sacred. Where am I to go if I must leave Lotus Peak?"

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