The Legend of Tiger and Bear

Today I will share with you, in my own words, the creation story of Korea.

It starts with a man named Hwan-gun, the son of Hwan-in, the all powerful God of the heavens. He asked his father to let him live on Earth and build a new life there. Hwan-in sent him with 3,000 followers to help develop the Earth, and *”provide humans with great happiness.” Hwan-gun brought with him three spirits: the Wind General, the Rain Governor, and the Cloud Teacher. They were left under a sandalwood tree where he settled the city of TaeBaeksan, in North Korea on the highest point of the Korean peninsula.

One day a Tiger and a Bear prayed to Hwan-gun. They wished to become human. Hwan-gun thought very hard, and gave them a task to fulfil their wish. He gave them 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort and said to them

“Stay out of the light, and take only this food to eat for 100 days.”

The Bear and the Tiger left, they retreated into a cave. After 20 days the bear remained patient and endured many days, but the Tiger could not handle the task. The tiger left the cave and ran into the forest. When the 100 days was almost over, the bear began to lose it’s fur and grow legs, by the end of the 100th day the bear became a woman.

The Bear-Woman was very grateful and made many offerings to Hwan-gun. But she was lonely and wanted companionship. The Bear-woman prayed underneath the Sandalwood tree for a family. Hwan-gun happily married the Bear-woman and she had a child named Dan-gun.

Dan-gun later became the first ruler of Korea, he established the Choseon Dynasty, meaning “morning calm”. He ruled over Korea for a very long time, and stretched his kingdom as far as East China. Finally, when he was 1,908 years old he returned to Taebaeksan and became and a mountain god.



A Tree Growing on One’s Back

Tree on fish's backTree on Fish's backFish Instrument

One of Tim and mine’s favorite things to see are Korean Buddhist Temples. For us, they are some of the most peaceful places. They are quiet and thoughtful and often times thought provoking. Something about the mountain scenery, the soft hums of Buddhist monks chanting, and the colorful and serene art on the walls gives us a sort of calm that we long for when we travel around.

Above is a piece of art that I have seen quite a few times recently, and it got me wondering whats its story. Every painting has a story and I was so intrigued by this piece of art. The crying fish with a tree growing from it’s back. You could think of dozens of tales for how or why this fish is in this state. So I thought I’d share the story behind this sorrowful fish from Foreign Language Expertise reveals the tale. I hope you enjoy.

“A Tree Growing on One’s Back: A Tale About the Four Utensils Used in Buddhist Services

Once upon a time, a monk of high moral repute lived in a temple, teaching his disciples, one of whom lived a worldly life against the Buddhist commandments. He consistently disobeyed his master‘s teachings and did just what he wanted until, in the end, he died of a virulent disease. After his death, he was born again as a giant fish, and he was in great pain, for a large tree began to grow on his back. One day, when his master was crossing a river by boat, he saw a fish with a tree on its back weeping sorrowfully and putting its head under the side of the boat. The monk went into a deep meditative trance in order to learn about the previous life of the fish. He discovered that the fish was none other than his old disciple who had lived a dissipated life, died of disease, and was now suffering pain as retribution for the deeds of his former life. The monk felt pity for his former student and so he performed the rites for creatures of the water and of the land and for lonely spirits so that his disciple‘s soul might be released from the form of the fish. That night, the fish-disciple appeared to his master in a dream. He told his master that he was grateful for his kindness, and he assured him that he had resolved to study the Buddha‘s teachings diligently. He then requested that his master cut the tree from the fish‘s back, carve a wooden fish from it, hang it from the ceiling before the statue of the Buddha, and strike it. He said that its sound would be a good lesson for those practicing asceticism, and that it would also be a good cause and occasion for the fish of the rivers and the seas to be delivered from this worldly existence. Therefore, the master cut the tree from the fish‘s back and made a wooden fish as per his disciple‘s request.