Hello, everyone. Welcome to “Korean Folktales.” This Monday corner takes you into the world of interesting Korean folk stories. I’m Jinny Na. Today, I’ll tell you a story about fish made of wood.
Once upon a time, a Buddhist priest and his students lived in a temple deep in the mountains. The students were given spiritual training under the instruction of the virtuous monk. But one of the students didn’t follow the teaching of the monk and always had his own way. He also teased his friends and harassed innocent animals. The head monk tried to correct his wayward behavior, but in vain. It is little wonder the unruly boy was called “Meotdaero(멋대로),” which means “getting one’s own way.” One day, Meotdaero saw a fish in a pond. The nasty boy began to bully the fish. “You stupid fish! Why do you open your eyes even in the water?” Then he killed the fish. The head monk scolded him for his brutal act, but Meotdaero showed no sense of remorse at all. On the contrary, he was laughing inside, thinking ‘What’s all the fuss about killing the little fish that can’t even talk?’
Before long, Meotdaero suddenly got sick and eventually died. After death, he was taken to the underworld, where he had to pay for his wrongdoings. As punishment, he was born again but this time as a fish. But he was not an ordinary fish. The fish had a big tree on his back. The tree caused him serious trouble and inconvenience. Whenever the wave hit him, he struggled with severe pain. He couldn’t control himself, only floating on the water helplessly.
Then one day, the tree on his back was hit by a boat. People on the boat gathered at the bow to see the strange tree floating on the water. The fish spotted one man among the crowd. He was none other than the head monk, with whom Meotdaero had lived in his previous life. Upon seeing the monk, the fish shed tears. He was unable to speak, but he shouted in his mind, ‘Dear Monk, it’s all my fault. Please forgive me and relieve me of this terrible pain.’ The monk instantly recognized the fish. He felt sorry for the poor creature and consoled it. “Oh, you must have gone through many hardships. Don’t cry. I’ll try to find a way to save you.”
Back at the temple, the monk prayed for the fish with all his heart and held a ritual for it. One night, Meotdaero appeared in his dream and said, “Monk, I realize how bad I was before. Now, I am able to escape this life as a fish, all thanks to you.” After expressing his gratitude, he asked the monk to cut the tree off his back and make a fish shaped like him so the wooden fish would serve as a lesson for practitioners. So, with the tree, the monk made a fish-shaped instrument that contained the boy’s wish and hung it on the pavilion of his temple. From then on, Buddhist monks came to the wooden fish every day and beat its empty belly with wooden sticks. The sound spread far and wide to deliver Meotdaero’s story.
This tale tells us that one should be punished for their wrongdoings but should be forgiven they repent sincerely. Today, anyone interested in temple decorations of Korean temples may notice a big wooden fish installed there. The fish, with its wide-open eyes, is regarded as a reminder for monks to always be alert and diligent when cultivating themselves spiritually. Some say that moktak(목탁), or a wooden percussion instrument used by Buddhist monks for chanting, is a small version of the wooden fish.
That’s it for today’s “Korean Folktales.” Thank you for listening. I’m Jinny Na. Goodbye, everyone.