Tag Archives: Buddha

Wonhyo and the Skull Water

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Seoul, Korea
Date of Performance/Collection: 3 April 2020
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English

Main Piece:

The following was transcribed from a conversation between the interviewer and the informant.

Informant: Korean culture is built on Confucianism and Buddhist teachings are very common. So a lot of proverbs, old sayings, and things like that nature are based on these concepts. A very famous story that’s even relevant today is Wonhyo. Wonhyo was an early Buddhist monk, a scholar, and a philosopher in Shinla dynasty, which is around like during the 600s. The story goes that he was on his way to China for essentially a study abroad. One night on his journey, he found a cave to take shelter in and decided to spend the night there. Inside the cave he found a bucket of water, and because he was thirsty he drank it all and it was delicious- tasted like water. Next morning, we woke up and realized that it was actually a human skull not a bucket, and the water was actually like some remnants from the brain basically. He learned from that incident that everything is up to your own beliefs, because like he believed the water to be good and his body in part made him to believe that, you know, so he decided not to pursue the study abroad and came back to Shinla (Korea).

Interviewer: Can you give me examples of how this story has become modernized? How do people nowadays use it?

Informant: It’s mostly like for comedic, or funny situations. Like for example, I saw this post on Twitter that basically this girl who works at Subway ran out of salt, so whenever a customer would ask for more salt she’d had to shake an empty salt shaker just to front. But apparently one customer complained that there was too much salt in their sandwich. In that situation, Koreans would describe it as the ‘skull salt shaker’, it’s like you add skull in front of the object in question, that makes the joke.

Interviewer: Why and how do you think a story that old stayed relevant even till this day?

Informant: I think with stories like these, the older the better, because they’re so distanced from any time specific things that it makes the story almost universal. And it’s just a relatable morale, everything depends on how you decided to look at it, that’s something that people can think about, no matter what year it is.

Background:

The informant is a student living in Seoul, Korea. She’s finished all her general education (from elementary to high school) in Korea, and now currently goes to a college in Seoul. She describes that the first time she read about the story of Wonhyo was through a history text book in 5th grade. Even though the informant isn’t a practicing Buddhist (she describes herself as atheist, like most Koreans), these beliefs and teachings are widely accepted and used disregard one’s religious beliefs.

Context:

The conversation took place over the phone, while the informant was alone in her college dorm, in a safe and comfortable environment.

My thoughts:

Upon doing some research, I learned that there are a few different versions of the story of Wonhyo. In the Japanese telling, Wonhyo went inside a cave only to learn next morning that it was actually a grave (so the water and skull is absent in this version). In another telling, it’s the combination of the two- he went inside a grave and drank the skull water. No matter which version of the story is the most faithful to what actually happened, the central morale of the tale remains the same.

Chinese Buddhism Myth

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 22
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 11, 2019
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

Informant: “The story is that Buddha is sitting under a tree and this eagle comes to him. The eagle is not normal eagle but is like a monster. Buddha sees that this eagle is evil and hungry, so he starts to cut flesh off his body and feed it to the monster. The monster is still hungry so Buddha cuts more flesh off of him. Eventually he has no more of his body to give to the evil eagle who is now full. He gave his body to stop the evil eagle from eating other people.”

Collector: “What do you take that to mean?”

Informant: “It is basically stating to be compassionate and always give. In Buddha teaching you should give away your body for other people and to always help other people.

Collector: “Why do you think it is an eagle and not a snake or any other animal?”

Informant: “I’m not sure. *laughs* Maybe like birds that eat old flesh? I don’t know.”

Context: This myth was gathered after a lecture at USC on Buddhism and its derivations in western culture. The informant was from China, attended the lecture, and had learned this myth reading many years ago while still living in China. Her English was broken which perhaps may alter the translation of this myth.

Collector Analysis: The mythology around the Buddha is complex and varied. There are many stories that this myth mimics like the story of Buddha throwing his body off to hungry lions for similar reasons as this myth. Although there are many different types of Buddhism, it is common belief that the poisons in humanity revolve around clinging/desire, rage, and ignorance. Each of these poisons are related to animals. The clinging relates to a bird, rage relates to a snake, and ignorance relates to a boar. This story which shows Buddha releasing his body to the evil eagle perhaps parallels to birds representing the poison of clinging. It may show that people should not cling to their bodies vainly, and to give it to the benefit of others.

Dreaming of Buddha

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese-American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Palo Alto, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/17/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: This is the story of an accident that happened to my roommate’s mother when she was young.

Dialogue: Um… I don’t remember how old she was, probably between, you know, 10 and 13. Um, she was playing hide and seek, and was in a two-story house, um, and she really wanted to be tough to find, so she climbed up out on the balcony, on the railing I think, and held on to the opposite side of the railing. Um… After that she accidentally let go and fell two stories and… landed on the ground, uh…

What happened after that, when she was unconscious. She had this dream where… uh, it was completely dark. She was looking around, and she could see these demons coming up everywhere, um, including the Devil I think, and so, her reaction was like, “What do I do, there’s demons all around me, there’s total darkness?!?” And then this light appears. I think it’s supposed to be the Buddha, is what she said, and it says, “Hey, uh… Don’t go towards those demons! Come towards me, that’s what you should do, that’s gonna be good.” Uh, so she goes on, she, you know, runs past those demons, heads to the light, and when she comes to, um, her whole family is, like, around her cuz she fell two stories, and they say she is completely unharmed. She gets back up, like, good as new, and, um… ever since then she’s been quite a bit more religious.

Analysis: I debated whether or not this deserved a “miracle” tag based on the fact that a two-story fall resulted in absolutely no injuries. I’m impressed by the fact that a single dream brought about a life-long change, but I suppose it is because views on religion in America and views on religion in Vietnam are different. It would be interesting to hear the dream told from the mother herself, though, just to get as much detail as possible on what happened while she was unconscious.

Long Ear Lobes, Long Life: Vietnamese Belief

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/12/12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Vietnamese

The informant is a 20 year old, Vietnamese American female. She is a junior at the University of Southern California, but was born in Boston, MA. Both her parents are Vietnamese and were born in Vietnam.

the informant described a particular folk belief in Vietnam where people think that if a person has long earlobes, then he or she will have a long life. I asked her where she thought this belief came from and while she wasn’t certain, she thought it might have to do with the Buddha, who is always depicted as having very long, stretched out earlobes and who is considered to be somewhat of an immortal or at least transcendental figure. This made sense to me because it was what I immediately thought of when I first heard this particular folk belief. The informant also made the point that this approach to the belief was indeed plausible because Buddhism is the main religion in Vietnam.