Tag Archives: monk

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.


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.


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.

The Story Behind Japanese Saying: 情けは人の為ならず (One Good Turn Deserves Another)

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Japan
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/17/19
Primary Language: Japanese
Other Language(s): English, Chinese

Main Piece:

“There is a common saying in Japan, in Japanese it’s: 情けは人の為ならず.

Original script: 情けは人の為ならず

Phonetic (Roman) script: Nasake wa hito no tame narazu

Transliteration: the good you do for others is good you do yourself.

Full translation: One good turn deserves another. 

It means when you do things for someone, it’s not for them, it’s for yourself. So, I mean it connects to the story about like, ummm like an old man walking to a winter mountain, then he finds like three stone, umm what do you call those? Like statues of Japanese monk. It’s like a tiny mini one, really cute. And he’s like: “Oh no, it’s snowing.” It’s statue right? Obviously it has no feelings or anything. But then the old man was like:”Oh my gosh. It’s snowing and it’s probably really cold.” So he makes these like three ummm straw hats for those three stone statues and then place it upon them. Then he will like, you know, get along his life. When he goes home, and the next morning, he wakes up and he opens the front door, and then he finds like this chunk of rice. At that time, obviously rice equals money. So what happen was those stone statue, like the monks kind of came to life and came to life to thank him, saying like thanks for the straw hats. Oh I think he makes like straw coats as well. You know, just like something to put on the statue. And like these rice is just to show gratitude and everything. So yea, this is where this saying comes from. So 情けは人の為ならず is just do something for someone, like yea you are helping them but ultimately you are helping yourself. Like it’s always gonna come back to you. That’s like the saying.”


My informant was born in Osaka, Japan. Both of her parents are very Japanese. So although she immediately moved to Hong Kong after she was born, she learned Japanese and Japanese culture from her parents. She knew this saying and the story behind it because her dad told her when she was at a kid. She feels a lot of the time when people do things for someone or even just make friends with someone, they think about benefit or cost they get. But in her mind, because of this saying and the way her dad teaches her, she deems that in order to live a happy life, people need to do things for each other. So my informant is always happy to give out her help and be kind to people even when they are mean sometimes. Growing up embedded with this mindset, my informant feels this saying shapes her action and life attitude.


She is a good friend of mine since we both lived in Osaka for a while. This piece was collected as we had lunch at the USC village. I invited her to talk about her culture and we were sharing thoughts while waiting for the food. The conversation was conducted under a relaxing environment and we both feel pretty comfortable sharing our childhood experience.


Personally, I really like this folk piece because it’s not like other sayings that only have one sentence, this saying has a story behind it, which reflects a lot of Japanese culture. For example, it talks about Japanese monks which are associated with Shinto and Buddhism religions which are the two major religions in Japan. Also, the straw hat and straw coat that are mentioned in the story are also representations of Japanese tradition. Straw hat is often worn by Japanese monks. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch Ikkyū-san, which is a Japanese anime about the life of a monk. In the show, I often see the character Ikkyū wears a straw hat. In addition, the straw coat, known as mino (蓑) in Japan, is a traditional Japanese garment that functions like a raincoat and is often used in snowy regions. Lastly, the gift of rice reflects the Asian culture as well. If it is a western story, it will probably be gold which is often seen in western fair tales. The presentation of rice shows culture difference between east and west.



The Monk and the Mouse

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 25, 2015
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

The tale: “So this monk was sitting on the beach when a kite fly, which I don’t really know what that is, but he saw a kite fly carrying a mouse and the mouse fell on the monk. So the monk wrapped the mouse with a leaf and took it home and prayed that the mouse would turn into a girl. And the mouse turned into a really beautiful girl, and the monk and his wife adopted her, so she like grew up and um, when she was an adult the monk told her that she should get married. And he told her to choose a man to marry, and the girl said she wanted like the most powerful man in the entire world. The monk thought she meant that she wanted the sun, so he went to like look for the sun and he found the sun and asked him if he wanted to marry his daughter. But the sun was like there’s someone more powerful than me…it’s um this cloud that covers me up during the day. So the monk left the sun and went to the cloud but the cloud was like there’s someone more powerful than me too, it’s the…um…oh yeah, it’s the wind. Because it blows me around. So the monk went to find the wind but the wind was like there’s someone EVEN MORE POWERFUL THAN ME, it’s the mountain, because it doesn’t move when I try to move him. So the monk went to find the mountain and the mountain says that the rat is more powerful because he can dig holes in me. So the monk finally goes to the rat and asks him to marry his daughter, but the rat says that he can only marry a mouse, right? So then the monk prayed that his daughter would turn back into a mouse, which God answered, and the mouse and the rat lived happily ever after.”


The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. When I asked her where she heard this story, she said “The story is from The Panchthantra, which is an Indian book of myths and stories, and I used to have a comic book version growing up.” So the story is clearly a folktale that was transcribed into authored literature, which then became many different versions, one of which was a comic book. It follows traditional oral tradition, the most prominent of which is only two characters in a scene. The monk only speaks to one person at a time. I think the message of the story is to remain humble. The young girl wants the most powerful husband in the world, but it ends up being a simple rat. And even then she cannot marry him unless she is reduced to her original state; so regardless of her transformation into a beautiful woman, and her wish for a powerful husband, she herself is humbled by her transformation and her final choice of husband. I think another message is that power is not where we’ll expect it, and there are many different forms of power. This tale is probably a good one to tell to children who become to over-arrogant.

Xuanzang and Journey to the West

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 21
Occupation: Engineer
Residence: San Francisco, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4.30.2014
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese


“I remember my grandma always talking about some Chinese monk and I never really pieced together until like… until I was much older that the show I watched was exactly that.”

The legend of Xuanzang, a Chinese buddhist monk who traveled from China to India on a pilgrimage, lead to many stories, authored works, and even some anthropomorphic tales that became prominent in popular culture. The informant grew up watching a TV show, Journey to the West, based on the legend. It covered the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, who was an anthropomorphized version of Xuanzang who went on a journey similar to that of the monk, but with obvious fictionalization for the purpose of the show.



For the informant, watching the show was a big deal. Being born in America but having only Chinese roots created a bit of a clash between cultures, especially at a young age. Hearing the story of Xuanzang from parents and grandparents, and then watching the show provided for her an entertaining connection to her culture. Beyond that, it was also a opportunity to talk to other 2nd generation kids about something they had in common outside of being just that.



It’s perhaps appropriate that the popularization and fictionalization of an authored work based on folklore is what it takes to connect some kids to the actual folklore in the first place. A TV show can captivate kids really easily, and then through curiosity they go about connecting with the actual folklore at the same time. Also, a lot of this comes from the 16th century novelization (also called Journey to the West) which can be found here.

Puri Ek Andheri Ne Gandu Raja – Indian Tale

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Indian
Age: 68
Occupation: Electrical Engineer
Residence: Carlisle, MA
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/19/2013
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Gujarati, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, French

Folklore Type: Tale


Informant Bio: Informant is my father.  He was born in Mumbai, India and moved to the U.S. when he was 22.  He still remembers many of the poems and songs from his childhood.  He is fluent in over five languages and provides the original folklore and translations below.


Context: I was interviewing the informant about childhood traditions, rituals, songs sung and tales performed.


Item: “પૂરી એક એન્ધેરી ને ગન્ડુ રાજા  “Poorii Ek Andherii Neh Gandoo Rajah

ટકે શેર ભાજી ટકે શેર ખાજા                   Taakeh sher bhaaji taakeh sher khajha

બધી ચીજ વેંચાય જ્યાં ભાવ એકે         badhi chija venchay jyan bhav aekae

કદી સારી બુરી ન વેચે વિવેકે                 kadi saari boori na veche viveke

ત્યાં જઈ ચડયા બે ગુરૂ એક ચેલો           Tyannh Jaai chaadya Bae Gooroo aek Cheloh

ગયો ગામમાં માગવા શિષ્ય પહેલો       Gaayo gaam-manh mahgwah sheeshya pahelo

લીધી સુખડી હાટથી આપી આટો           lidhi sukhadi haat thi aapi aato

ગુરૂ પાસે જઈને કહે ખૂબ ખાટ્યો                        guru pase jaine kahe khub khatyo

ગુરૂજી કહે રાત રહેવું ન અહીં                  guruji kahe raat rahevun na aahin

સહૂ એક ભાવે ખપે ચીજ ત્યાહીં              sahu ek bhave khape chij tyanhi

હશે ચોર ને શાહનો ન્યાય એકે               hashe chor ne shahno nyaya ekay

નહીં હોય શિક્ષા ગુનાની વિવેકે              nahi hoy shiksha gunani vivekay

ન એ વસ્તીમાં એક વાસો વસીજે           na e vastiman ek vaso vasije

ચલો સદ્ય ચેલા જવું ગામ બીજે                         chalo sadhya chela javun gaam bijay

કહે શિષ્ય ખાવા પીવા ખૂબ આહીં          kahe shishya khava piva khub aahin

તજી તેહ હું તો ન આવીશ ક્યાંહી            taji teha hun to na aavish kyanhin

ગુરૂએ બહૂ બોધ દીધો જ ખાસો            guru  ae bahu bothe didho ja khaso

નહીં યોગ્ય આહીં રહ્યે રાતવાસો                        nahin yogya aahin rahyo raatvaso

ન માની કશી વાત તે શિષ્ય જ્યારે        na maani kashi vaat te shisya jyare

ગુરૂજી તજીને ગયા ગામ ત્યારે               guruji tajine gaya gaam tyare

રહ્યા શિષ્યજી તો ત્યહાં દિન ઝાઝા         rahya shishyaji to tyan deen zaza

બહૂ ખાઈ પીને થયા ખૂબ તાજા                         bahu khai peene thaya khub taja

પછીથી થયા તેહના હાલ કેવા               pachhithi thaya haal tehna keva

કહૂં છું હવે હૂં સુણો સદ્ય તેવા                   kahun chhun haave hoon suno sadhya teva

તસ્કર ખાતર પાડવા ગયા વણિકને ઘેર Taskar khaatar paadva gya vanik-ne gher

ત્યાં ભીંત તૂંટી પડી ચોર દબાયા ચાર   tyan bhit tooti padi chor dabaya char

માત પ્રભાતે ચોરની ગઈ નૃપને ફરિયાદ           maat prabhate chorni gai nrupne fariyad

શૂળી ઠરાવી શેઠને ડોશીની સૂણી દાદ                shudi tharavi shethne doshini suni daad

વણિક કહે કડિયા તણો એમાં વાંક અપાર           vanik kahe kadia tano ema vank apar

ખરેખરી એમાં નથી મારો ખોડ લગાર                khare khari ema nathi maro khod lagaar

કળીઆને શૂળી ઠરી વણિક બચ્યો તે વાર          kadiane shudi chadi vanik bachyo te vaar

ચૂકે ગારો કરનારની કડીએ કરી ઉચ્ચાર                        chuke gaaro karnaarni kadi-e kari uchaar

ગારો કરનારો કહે પાણી થયું વિશેષ                  gaaro karnaro kahe pani thayun vishesh

પુરપતી કહે પખાલીને જો તું શૂળીએ જાય         Purpati kahe pakhalin-e jo tu shudi-e jaay

આજ પછી આ ગામમાં એવા ગૂના ન થાય        aaj pachi aa gam-ma e va guna na thaay

મુલ્લા નીસર્યાં મારગે મેં જોયું તે દિશ              mullah nisarya maarghe m-e joyun te deesh

પાણી અધીક તેથી પડ્યું, રાજા છાંડો રીસ          pani adhik tethi padyun raja chhando rees

મુલ્લાજીને મારવા કરી એવો નિરધાર               mullahji ne maarvaa kari e-voh nirdhaar

શૂળી પાસે લઈ ગયા મુલ્લાને તે વાર                shudi pas-e lai gayaa mullah ne te vaar

ફડ જાડું શૂળી તણૂ મુલ્લાં પાતળે અંગ              faad jadun shudi tanhoo mullah paatde ang

એવી હકીકત ચાકરે જઈ કહી ભૂપ પ્રસંગ           evi hakikaat chakray jai kahi bhup prasang

ભૂપ કહે શું હર ઘડી આવી પૂછો કોઈ                  bhup kahe shun hargadi aavi puchho koi

શોધી ચઢાવો શૂળીએ જાડા નરને જોઈ              shodhi chadavo shudi-e jaadaa narne joi

જોતાં જોતાં એ જડ્યો જોગી જાડે અંગ               jotan jotan e jadyo jogi jaade ang

બહુ દિન ખાઈને બન્યો રાતે માતે રંગ               bahu din khai ne banyo rat-e mat-e rang

શિષ્ય મુદત માગી ગયો ગુરૂ પાસે પસ્તાય shishya mudaat maagi gayo guru paas=e pastay

ગુરૂએ આવી ઉગારીઓ અદભૂત કરી ઉપાય      guru-e aavi ugario adbhut kari upaay

જોગી શૂળી પાસે જઈ કહે ભૂપ સુણ કાન jogi shudi pas-e jai kah-e bhup soon kaan

આ અવસર શૂળીએ ચડે, વેગે મળે વિમાન ah avasar shudi-e chad-e vegh-e mad-e vimaan

ચેલો બોલ્યો હું ચડું, ગુરૂ કહે હું આપ                   chelo bolyo hun chadu, guru kah-e hun aap

અધિપતિ કહે ચઢીએ અમો પૂરણ મળે પ્રતાપ adhipati kah-e chadhi-e amoh puran mad-e prataap

ગુરૂ ચેલાને ગામથી પહોંચ્યા ગાઉ પાંચ                  guru chelan-e gaamthi pahonchya gau paanch

રાજા શૂળી પર રહ્યો અંગે વેઠી આંચ”                 raja shudi par rahyo ang-e vethi aanya”




Translation: “There was a weird city with a crazy ruler

Where it cost penny a pound for veggies or delicacies

where all things sell at the same price

never differentiate between good and bad

there arrived two – a monk and his disciple

headed to town to beg, the disciple first

he traded flour that he got for sweets

returned and told the boss, look, I won big

guru said we should not stay here any longer

where everything is sold at the same price

they must have the same rules for both thief and victims

with no regards for fairness, robber and the victim must be treated alike

we shouldn’t stay in a lawless place like this

let’s go, dear disciple, to another town right now

disciple said what? leave a place full of so many goodies?

No, No, I will never go anywhere and leave this place

Guru did his best to persuade him to leave

and not spend another night here

when the disciple didn’t listen to anything he had to say

guruji left the place and moved on to next town

disciple said that for many many days

and kept eating the goodies and got fatter and fatter

what happened to him afterwards…

Listen and I will tell you what happened…

Robbers went to a rich man’s home to steal

there the wall caves in four thieves got buried

mother of the thieves went to King to complain

upon hearing the old lady’s complaint, king ordered the rich man to be hanged

rich man said it surely was mason’s biggest fault

truthfully, I am not to be blamed for this

mason was sentenced to be hanged and rich man survived this time

mason said it wasn’t me, but the guy that mixed the concrete – he put too much water

concrete mixer guy said it wasn’t my fault, the guy that adds water added too much

king tells the guy who adds water that if you are hanged then

this kingdom will not see such a crime ever

guy that added the water says, while I was working, a Muslim monk passed by and I looked in his direction

and that’s why more water fell in the mix, so king, please understand – it wasn’t my fault

OK OK the decision is made to kill the Muslim monk (said the king)

Muslim monk was brought on the hanging platform

noose on the hanger was too big to fit the thin monk

so reported the hang-man to the king

king said why do you keep bothering me with such silly matters

simply go find a fat guy and hang him

looking they found the fat disciple

all that eating had made him really pinkish and juicy

as a last wish the disciple went to the guru, repented and cried

guru returned with the disciple with an ingenious scheme in mind

guru approached the hanging platform and said listen to me, your highness

this very moment stars are lined up such that who ever hangs, is destined to go straight to heaven in an airplane

disciple say let me hang, guru said no, no, let me hang , me please…

king said I will be the one that will hang, so I can reach the paradise right away. I will not let this chance pass me bye.

guru and disciple went miles away from this place in a hurry…

… while the king lay dead on the hanger”



Analysis: This tale is a cautionary one against the government/authority figures seeking extreme equality of results.  Those who do are engaging in a futile act, and, worse, can end up doing more harm than good.  The king, who was a fool for presiding over such a system, ended up being tricked into death by a more rational man who did not like the equality-at-all-costs system.  The disciple, though he became sidetracked and lost his way, was eventually saved by the teacher when he realized he was lost and begged for forgiveness and acceptance by the teacher.  Many stories feature distractions and a character being sidetracked, and eventually being redeemed or choosing the right path, as seen in this story.


The Monk Joke

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student, Actor
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/21/12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Transcribed Text:

“So there was a little boy who lived with his mom. The mom loved the little kid, they got along pretty well and uh…for the kid’s fifth birthday, she got him a brand new shiny red tricycle. He loved it, it was the best gift he had ever gotten. And um..she told him, ‘now you can ride that tricycle in the yard, and in the driveway, but don’t go out on the sidewalk with that, I want you staying in the house!’ (he gestures his hand at an imaginary child, mimicking the mother’s actions). And the kid goes ‘ok..’ and he spends the day riding it around all around the yard, and all around the yard, but he just really wants to go out onto the sidewalk. And he does. He goes out into the sidewalk and gets run over by a Great Dane and breaks his leg. And..so, they take him to the hospital and he gets a cast on the leg and he’s like ‘aww..’ and the mother says ‘I told you, don’t go out on the sidewalk.’ And as they come back from the hospital, they pass by a monastery. uh..like for monks. And they, they’re walking past the monastery, or hobbling in his case, and they uh, the monk outside says ‘please, stay with us tonight, and you will be completely healed.’ And they feel something is right about this, and they do stay. And the monk says, you can stay, you’ll be healed, but you can’t ask me about the noise you will hear in the middle of the night. ‘ok…’ and so they stay, and hear a strange noise in the middle of the noise. But when they wake up, he is completely healed. So they’re like ‘ok, fine by me! Completely healed!’ Years go by, he’s forgotten this by now and he turns ten. And his mom gets him a brand new shiny red bicycle. It’s awesome, best bike, like a shwinn cruiser, delightful bike. She says ‘you can ride it all around the house, all around the yard,all around the driveway and up and down the sidewalk as much as you want, but just don’t cross the street and don’t go into the street.’ And he’s like ‘ok’ and he spends the day riding all around the block and all up and down his driveway, but he just wants to go out into the street. So he goes out into the street and gets hit by a door of a smart car as it opens and breaks his leg. And so, they take him to the hospital and the mom goes ‘come on, I told you! Don’t do that!’ and he’s like ‘I knooow.’ And as they’re coming back from the hospital, they pass by the monastery again and the monk says the same thing. ‘If you stay here tonight, you will be completely healed, just do not ask about the noise.’ And they do, and he’s completely healed. But that noise, they just have to know. It’s a noise, a noise unlike anything you’ve ever heard..It’s-it’s indescribable what this noise is. But again, they pay it no mind,  because he was completely healed. Now, years and years and years go by from that, and it’s, it’s the kids twentieth birthday. He’s away from home now, but his mom gets him a brand new shiny red corvet. Now this is a big deal, this is a very big deal. She says ‘ you know what, you can go wherever you want with this. But just please, don’t race it.’ And, and he spends the whole next week now, he has a little bit more ability to hold back. He spends the whole next week driving around, he takes it out on the streets, he takes it out on the freeway, but he gets a chance to race it. A guy revs his engine next to him at a red light and he races it, and he gets in a crash. And somehow miraculously, just breaks his leg. He goes to the hospital, this time by himself. On his way back, he remembers the monk from that time, ten years ago, and he shows up and the monk is there, ten years older! He says ‘ you can stay here, you just can’t ask about the noise.’ And he does, he stays there, he’s completely healed, but he just has to know about the noise. And he goes up to the monk and he’s like ‘what is that noise?’ And the monk says ‘I’m sorry, I cannot tell you. That is a secret reserved only for monks, and you are not a monk, so you cannot know.’ And the kid is like ‘rghhhhh, I really need to know.’ He goes like a month, but it’s eating him up inside. He needs to know what this noise is. He’s been healed by it, three times, by this power, in-in this monastery. He just needs to know. So, he goes off to Tibet and goes through a year and a half of training and becomes a monk. Certified, with the robes, and everything. Now, he comes back to that monastery in his hometown and he says ‘sir I am now a monk, you have got to show me what that noise is.’ And the monk gestures, towards a green door. And the boy, now a man, approaches the door, it’s locked. So he goes back to the monk and says ‘the door is locked’ and the monk hands him a green key. So he goes up, takes the green key to the green door, unlocks it up, and there’s a tall green staircase heading up further into the monastery. So he opens the green door, goes up the green stairs, and at the top, there’s a black door. And it’s locked (said in a soft, wondering voice). So he goes down the green stairs, through the green door and to the monk and says the ‘black door, it’s locked!’ and the monk hands him a black key. So he goes through the green door, up the green stairs to the black door, unlocks it, opens it up, there’s a loooong black hallway, extremely long with LITTLE point of orange light at the end. He walks down the black hallway, he thinks he’s walking five minutes probably. Gets to the end and sees an orange door with a slight glow. And it’s locked. So he turns around, he goes all the way down the black hallway, through the black door, down the green stairs, through the green door and to the monk and says ‘the orange door, it’s-it’s locked.’ And he hands him an orange key, glowing with that same ethereal light (every time the man runs back to get a key, informant does gestures of running and opening doors and going down stairs). And he turns back around, he goes through the green door, up the green stairs, through the black door, DOWN the black hallway and opens (says the word very softly) the orange door and the room behind it is vast and glowing with orange lava POWER. And he walks to the other side, and there’s a trap door in the floor. And this trap door, it’s…the most beautiful sapphire blue. It’s crystalline and delightful…and it’s locked. So he goes back across the orange cavern, through the orange door, down the black hallway, through the black door, down the green stairs, through the green door to the monk and says ‘PLEASE. So many hallways! Give me the key to the sapphire trap door.’ And he hands him the key, and this key feels special. It is also made of sapphire. So he goes through the green door, up the green stairs, through the black door, down the black hallway, through the orange door, across the orange cavern (increases speed of recital as each door is crossed) and unlocks the sapphire trap door. Creeeeeeaks (makes a creaking noise) open, there’s a ladder leading down. And he crawls down the ladder and in this room, there’s this sort of atrium, with light filtering in from the windows. It feels VERY magical. And in the center of that room is a huuuuge trunk, about this big (gestures arms about 5-6 feet apart). It is wooden and old and it looks like it is carved by the ancient monks. The monks that even the current monks don’t remember. And he goes down and he inspects it, and uh, there’s no lock. So, he takes it, eeeeeeergh (creaking noise), opens it, and inside that trunk, is a crate. It’s about the size of the coffee table (about 4 feet in length, 3 feet in height) and that- that crate, he pries open the lid and inside that crate is a briefcase. Now this is like a modern briefcase, he’s a little weirded out at this point, but he can tell. From this briefcase, emanating the sound which he heard so many years ago. And he opens the briefcase and within the briefcase is a cigar box. And the noise is getting louder now and he opens the cigar box and within the cigar box is a match box, and the noise is as loud as it could possibly be. And he opens the match box and do you know what he found?


I can’t tell you, you’re not a monk.”

The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. He says he first heard this joke when he was in elementary school from a friend. Once he heard the joke, he loved it so much that he started telling it himself with added emphasis and actions. He says that his friend told him that the informant performed it better than he could, and passed on the performance to the informant. The informant is therefore now the active bearer of this joke and performance. It is a joke that is frustratingly long, almost a narrative. It causes the audience to constantly keep listening, waiting for the punch line to appear so the joke can end and they can laugh. However, the joke drags out for a very long time, causing the audience to become more frustrated the longer that they cannot know the end of the joke. Therefore, as the joke does not resolve in any real way in the end, it is intended to leave the audience frustrated. The informant says that he performs the story with additional stages during the life (such as a bicycle and a car in high school, before the part where he turns 20) and with additional doors and keys depending on how long and frustrating he wants to make the joke. He says however, that he always has to have 3 stages of life minimum and 4 doors minimum when he tells it, or else the story cannot be told properly. He also says that every time he tells it, there are some fixed phrases that he uses and repeats throughout the story. This makes use of the oral formulaic theory, where he has beats and fixed phrases in his narrative to help him retell the story well and accurately.


「三日坊主」– Japanese Idiomatic Phrase

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Japanese
Age: 43
Occupation: Web Designer
Residence: Tokyo, Japan
Date of Performance/Collection: 2/13/12
Primary Language: Japanese
Other Language(s): English

「三日坊主」is a phrase in Japan that, translated literally, means “three days monk,” or “a monk for three days.” It is used in everyday speech to indicate someone that gives up at the first sight of difficulty, or gets so easily bored with something that they are always hopping around one thing or another. For instance, someone that can never keep a journal for longer than a few days is said to be a 三日坊主, as well as people who pick up a new hobby every month.

My informant spent most of her life in Tokyo, Japan, being exposed to all kinds of regional Japanese dialects. She cannot remember the first time she heard this, but thinks, because of its widespread use in Japanese society, that it must have been when she was a child living in Okinawa. 「何かいつも知ってたような気がする」She said, which, roughly translated means, “I feel like I’ve kind of always known to say that to describe someone.” This concept of “I think I’ve always known,” I feel, is always the most significant indicator that a phrase is very engrained in that particular society. My informant’s mother would often tell her that she was a 三日坊主 because she could not keep up the same sport for a very long time. She did not like to lose, and always wanted to move on to another sport as soon as she felt that she would have to work very hard to get better than the people on her team. She wanted, she said, to find a sport that would fit her in some way naturally (which she now knows is impossible) so that she would not have to try so hard to maintain her position within it. And so she hopped around, quitting soccer when when the team started incorporating two-mile runs in their warm-ups, quitting tennis after a newcomer toppled her from her position as the best player on the team. This was not, however, the only time the phrase was used–my informant said that she often fired back at her mother for being a 三日坊主 as well, for never being able to sustain attendance at her cooking classes. “One day she’d be obsessed with Indian food and there’d be curry and naan everywhere, and then two days later she’d say she was done with it and start trying to make pizza dough from scratch, and then there was this one time when she went through a Chinese food phase and said that she was going to be a Chinese food chef, which obviously never worked out, because she kept messing up and getting frustrated and quitting.”

When my informant asked me whether there was an American phrase that corresponded with 三日坊主, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t give her a set answer. The closest phrase I could come up with, “easily bored” doesn’t have that same sense of giving up at the first sign of difficulty, the sense of wanting everything to be easy, that 三日坊主 implies. 三日坊主 is a phrase with mostly negative connotations, yet many people use it to describe themselves, oftentimes saying jokingly something like, “Oh, I quit needlework classes a long time ago. I’m such a 三日坊主!” Using a phrase like “three days monk,” perhaps, has a humorous aspect to it that makes it okay to joke about what could otherwise be seen as a character flaw. This way, in fact, they don’t need to discuss and talk about the reasons behind why they are so keen on giving up–labeling oneself as a 三日坊主 seems to be enough explanation by itself, and probably the reason why people find so much comfort in the phrase. The fact that the phrase exists gives a sense of camaraderie to all those who are described such, making them feel part of a pre-packaged group.

The phrase 三日坊主 originates from the concept of “being a monk for just three days.” Becoming a monk is something that can be very character-building and spiritually rewarding, if only one possesses strong character and true intentions. It is something that takes a life-time of work, and a life-time of dedication to its society’s rules. Being a monk for just three days is someone who is keen on receiving the rewards immediately, who cannot see that hard work leads to improvement and betterment of the self, or of a certain skill. I thought my informant described it best when she said: “三日坊主 is someone that wants that money tree, but gives up once he hears that he needs to cultivate it himself, from the seed on, and that it takes years and years to grow. A 三日坊主 is someone that for the most part lives in the present, and will go searching and searching for a money tree, but will perhaps never find it, because he doesn’t realize that the money tree will only give him money if he gives himself over, and nurtures it himself.”