Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Old Wu and the Eagle (Taiwan)

Many years ago there lived an old gentleman at the foot of a mountain on central Taiwan. His name was Old Wu, and he was a widower. Having no children or relatives, he lived alone in a little grass hut. He made his living by getting up early every morning to gather firewood. He would then trade the firewood for rice. The rice, along with a the few odd vegetables he was able to grow, enabled him to continue his lonely life.

One day, on a nearby mountain, Old Wu spied an enormous withered tree. As the tree appeared to be an excellent source of firewood, he approached it, ax in hand. As he was about to swing his ax, a shadow suddenly flashed over him.

It was a magnificent eagle, which then glided into a large cavity in the tree.

Old Wu, aged but still hardy, climbed up onto a branch and peered into the hole. There, he saw the eagle feeding its young.

The mother eagle's eyes glistened as Old Wu looked at them.

Old Wu smiled and, addressing the eagles as if they understood words, said, "No, beautiful ones, you have nothing to fear from me. Though I could get a mountain of rice for the wood from this tree, I wouldn't deprive you of your home."

He climbed down and was on his way home.

Before he had taken ten steps, a familiar shadow separated him from the rays of the sun. The mother eagle landed on a stump by the path and faced Old Wu as he headed down the hill.

"Grandfather," spoke the eagle, "you are a kindhearted, merciful soul. Allow me to show my appreciation for sparing the home of my babies. Please climb onto my back and close your eyes."
The stunned old woodcutter did as the eagle had asked and closed his eyes. "Now hang on tightly and don't let go of me until I say so. We have a long distance to cover!"

They were off!

At last, after what must have seemed ages, they came back down to earth. When Old Wu opened his eyes, he discovered he was in a chilly, gray land of pebbles, rock, and boulders. There were rocks in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The stones were spread out as far as one could see.

Old Wu climbed off the eagle and now had to slap his arms to keep himself warm.

"Look under each rock, " said the eagle, "and you will find a ginseng root. Take as many roots as you can carry. Whenever you need to come back for more, all you need to do is to tell me, and I'll gladly bring you back."

Old Wu scurried over the rocks, lifting as many as he could and stuffing his clothes with the precious roots. He had heard that ginseng, a root shaped like a person, was extremely valuable as a tonic preparation.

Within a short time, Old Wu opened his own ginseng shop. He became the only person on steamy, tropical Taiwan to have an unlimited supply of the root, which must be grown in cooler, arid climates, like those of Siberia, Manchuria, and Korea. He thus prospered and ended his days in comfort and with abundant wealth.


by Cang Dewu, Taiwan minjian gushi (Taiwan folktales); Taipei: Yongang Chubanshe, 1976: pp. 32-24.

For two other stories about, respectively, riding upon eagles and ginseng, see "The Gray Eagle," 8/16/07, and "The Ginseng Boy," 1/11/08.

Motifs: B375.3.1, "Grateful eagle"; B552, "Man carried by bird"; cB562.1.3, "Bird shows man treasure"; B580, "Animal helps human to wealth"; Q51, "Kindness to animals rewarded."

The Bell of Chongfu Temple (Fujian)

Which is more important--the cost of a gift or the spirit in which it was given? It might be very well said that there are instances in which a small gift, seemingly one without much value, may prove to be as worthy as a grand offering.

In the old trading city of Quanzhou stands Chongfu Temple, and it was here, several hundreds of years ago, a small incident took place.

The abbot of Chongfu Temple was a very famous man. He undertook a mission to raise money to purchase a huge bell for the temple, a bell for which all the monks and the residents of Quanzhou City could be proud. With begging bowl in hand, he personally set out to garner contributions from the faithful so that the temple could possess a bell which would be unlike any other. He left behind a little shami, a young novice monk, to look after the temple in his absence.

An old woman, her body gnarled like the branches of a banyan tree, hobbled into the temple courtyard one afternoon.

"Shifu, " she respectively addressed the young monk, "where is the abbot?"

"He is out gathering contributions for the huge bell we hope to cast for our temple" was the reply.

"Oh, but purchasing a bell is a good thing!" Her eyes brightened for a moment as she fumbled in her bag for something. "I too would like to make a small contribution. Unfortunately, I am now old and without much money. Please accept this small silver coin as a token of my devotion."

She then handed the young monk a silver coin.

The shami looked at the coin and smirked. "I don't think you fully realize the undertaking in which our abbot has involved himself. He is not soliciting for a mere toy bell. Our temple intends to purchase the biggest bell ever cast in our province. It's best for you to hold onto this coin. It certainly won't do us any good."

Three times did the woman attempt to donate her coin, and three times was she rebuffed. Finally, she took her coin and slowly made her way out of the temple courtyard. The shami then went about his business.

In time a sufficient amount of contributions was raised to pay for the casting of the huge bell. Strangely enough, once the bell had been cast, a defect was discovered. Along the rim of the bell, a gap about the size of a common coin was clearly seen. The inexplicable gap was then mended. However, when the bell was rung for the first time, the chunk that had filled the gap fell from the bell. No matter what steps were taken to repair the bell, the telltale gap remained. And so it remains to this day.

A coincidence, you say? The faithful feel that the gap was caused by the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin, to teach the haughty shami a lesson: Don't ever look down upon someone's gift from the heart, no matter how humble it is.


from Legends and Riddles of Fujian by Zhi Nong; Taipei: the Oriental Cultural Service, 1956; pp. 91-93.

Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, is also known as Kuan-yin as well as her Japanese name, Kannon.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day to remember all our fallen military servicemen and women, a day similar to Remembrance Day in my former Canada and in the UK. In my blog posts, aside from Christmas and New Years greetings, I've never strayed away from Chinese folkore-related material, but today I shall.

I am very aware that my freedom to type this blog, to write my books, to profess my religion, to marry someone of a different faith (as I did), to travel, to speak my mind, to read whatever I want, and so on is all due to the sacrifices of men and women of the United States Armed Forces. I therefore would like to dedicate this posting to a man who would have been my "uncle" if he had survived World War Two. That man was Mr. Lyle Leonard Ellis.

Lyle Ellis was my father's schoolmate in Vancouver, Canada. He was an American, presumably the son of Americans who lived and worked in Canada. When Canada declared war on Germany, on September 10, 1939, Mr. Ellis did something so typically American--he enlisted in a war not his own to fight for the freedom of others unrelated to him. He could have very well instead returned to the U.S. My father enlisted alongside him, expecting, I guess, that they'd both serve in the same unit. As it turned out, my dad was sent to England, while Mr. Ellis was sent with other Canadians to bolster the British garrison in Hong Kong. It was there, in Hong Kong, that Mr. Ellis was captured by the invading Japanese and sent as a POW to Japan to work in the mines. He died there in captivity on March 17, 1944; the official cause: pneumonia. He is buried in the British Commonwealth POW cemetery in Yokohama. My dad fortunately returned home after the war. Years later, he told me, while I was still a boy, about Lyle Ellis.

I'd like very much for the world, at least for as many people as possible, to know that Lyle L. Ellis once lived in this world and that, like so many Americans, he made the ultimate sacrifice for people he didn't know and for whom he had not yet been required to fight.

Rest in peace, Uncle Lyle, and eternal thanks to you and all Americans who have given their lives for our nation.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Taiwan Folktales -- Now on Amazon

I'm very pleased to announce that my translations of Taiwanese folktales, Taiwan Folktales, published by Booksfromtaiwan.com, is now available on Amazon UK & Amazon USA, as well as on other worldwide Amazon sites, as a Kindle e-book. Please take a look at publisher Richard Foster's Booksfromtaiwan.com and his Barking-deer.com. At both sites you can find all kinds of interesting things! Fred H. Lobb

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mulian Rescues His Mother -- An Ancient Indo-Buddhist Myth From China

In ancient times, in the holy city of Wangshe Cheng, there was a Brahman, a son of a high official, a man named Mulian. He was an original follower and disciple of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and he was renowned for his ability to detect and to communicate with those now in the other realm. Accordingly, he was regarded as the foremost sensitive, medium or spiritualist among all of the Buddha's disciples.

Mulian had for many years "gone out"; that is to say, he had renounced the world, undergone the meditations and exercises required of ascetics, and traveled as a holy man, preaching the doctrine of the Buddha, returning periodically to receive instructions from the Buddha but always on the road far from home.

Now one day the Buddha happened to lecture on the Four Objects of Gratitude, the first precept being filial piety. Mulian attended this lecture and was so moved by the Buddha's words that he desired to return home to see his mother once again.

The day came when he finally arrived back in his hometown but only to discover his mother had already died. How he had planned to dote on her, to see to her every needs--and now she was gone! And how regretful he now was!

Mulian then called upon his abilities as a medium to reach his mother now in the other world, to see her in her new existence.

To his shock, he discovered his mother had sunk to the hell of hungry ghosts and was now undergoing great torment there.

He could see her and was within reach of her. Mulian looked closely at his mother. Besides her stomach's being enlarged extended like a great drum, her neck itself was as thin as a needle.

He cried great tears and held out his rice bowl containing leftover rice to her. Before she could even eat one grain, though, the rice before his eyes turned into a mass of flames. Such is the torment hungry ghosts endure--drifting, with their stomachs extended due to starvation and their threadlike throats connecting their heads to their bodies, they are unable to eat a morsel of anything, for all offered to them turns to fire.

There was nothing Mulian could further do at that moment. He was, however, resolved to save his mother from this horrible existence.

He sought out the Buddha.

"Venerable Lord," he said, addressing the Buddha, "my mother is experiencing unbelievable suffering! Please let her be released through your mercy!"

"Mulian," replied the Buddha, "your mother's sins in her past life were too great. There is nothing no individual, you included, can do. However, there is hope of salvation through the power of the Sangha. Only with that power can your mother be saved.

"So, Mulian," continued the Buddha, "on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, make an offering of one hundred different meals for the community of monks. Doing so, you will not only save your mother but all the other hungry ghosts gathered as well from the torments of hell. Seven past generations of parents, grandparents and ancestors will be blessed by your gesture, and your offerings will earn great merit."

Mulian followed the Buddha's instructions, preparing a hundred dishes of food on the fifteenth day of the seventh month for the community of monks, including those from far and near. The monks, in turn, commenced praying, entered into meditation, and then received the offerings.

Thus was Mulian's mother saved from hell.

This was the origin of what is called Pudu, "the ferrying of souls."

The Chinese Pudu, the Feast of Souls, is known as Yulanpen, or Ullambana. The tradition started in China when Emperor Wu of Liang (464-549 A.D.) entered a temple and inaugurated the Feast based on Indian traditions. He too provided a feast of many foods, each in a bowl, allowing seven generations of souls to leave behind the existence of hungry ghost in hell.

Sadly, today in Taiwan the tradition has lost its original mission in providing donations and relief and venerating ancestors. Instead, it has regressed to that of being a mere raucous and wasteful festival.


from Fojiao gushiji (An anthology of Buddhist stories); Taiwan Fojiao Bianji Weiyuanhui, ed.; Taipei: Fojiao Chubanshe, 1986; pp. 90-92.

The very last paragraph contains the editorial sentiments of the original Chinese text.

Mulian is the sinicized form of Maudgalyayana. Wangshe Cheng is the historical ancient city of Rajagrha, Rajgir, or Rajagaha, located in Bihar, Northeast India. The Four Objects of Gratitude are family (filial piety), all sentient beings, one's homeland, and the
Triratna, or the Three Jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha; the Sangha, or Buddhist monastic community; and the Dharma, or the Law). The non-Chinese term Yulanpen is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit Ullambana, which means "hanging upside" or "[im]pending," perhaps reflective of the continual fate of hungry ghosts.

The story is very important historically. Now with the Buddha's own lecturing on filial piety and his encouragement of Mulian's mission to rescue his mother, Buddhism in China began to take a different course from that of Indian Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism, with the Buddha's apparent blessings, began emphasizing the ancient, pre-Buddhist Chinese concern with filial piety. The supposed abandonment of earthly ties with which Indian Buddhism has been popularly associated was now played down. Most important, perhaps, are the Buddha's words to Mulian regarding the need for a unified response to relieving the sad souls in hell, that one cannot go about providing such relief alone. His words, in effect, inaugurated the codified approach of making large offerings to aid those in hell. In his masterful book on Yulanpen (The Ghost Festival in Medieval China; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), Stephen Teiser points out that a growing number of scholars now discount the above stereotype of Indian Buddhism of being overly unconcerned with existing familial ties. He also writes that one scholar, Iwamoto Yutaka, suggests the origin of Ullambana might lie, not with the above circa sixth-century myth, but with the Greek myth of Dionysus's descent into the underworld to rescue his mother, Semele (23-24). Among most people in medieval China and probably among most Chinese in our time, Ullambana has long coalesced with the likewise ancient Taoist Zhongyuan so that today people tend not to differentiate between Buddhist and Taoist feasts for the dead (Teiser, 41).