Tigers play a prominent role in Korean spirituality, and stories about them were often used to convey deep ideas and practices. One of the most famous involves the legendary figure, Tangun. Considered the founder of Korea, he was a great being who taught spiritual cultivation as well as advanced methods of agriculture, medicine, and animal husbandry. In so doing, he brought great benefit to all the people of the land.
Tangun’s story begins with his mother.
Around 2,400 B.C.E., a female bear and a tigress shared the same cave. Together they prayed to the heavenly king to become human beings. The king took mercy on them and said that if they could stay secluded out of the sunlight, and eat only garlic and mugwort for one hundred days, they would be transformed into human beings. He gave them garlic and mugwort, and they entered the cave. There they stayed, eating only garlic and mugwort. It wasn’t too long before the tiger began to have more and more difficulty with this. Soon she couldn’t resist the desire to roam and eat meat, and left the cave. The bear continued to eat the mugwort and garlic, and after just 21 days was transformed into a human being. Later, after marrying a heavenly prince, she gave birth to Tangun.
Although on the surface, this might seem to be just a strange folk tale, it’s actually a description of spiritual practice and awakening. Think of the bear and tiger as our animal natures, the habits we’ve carried with us as we’ve evolved. Instead of running around outside, indulging their habits, they were doing what was difficult, what tasted bitter, and returning all those back to the cave within us. One person couldn’t endure this and gave up. However, the other persevered and so realized her true nature, that essence that is vastly more than the temporary habits and thoughts arising from the body and its senses. In so doing, she was transformed into a true human being. Knowing this Buddha-nature for herself, she recognized it in others, and found a similar person for a husband. And together, they gave birth to a child who became a blessing for all around him.
This is a bit unrelated, but the Korean version of “A long, long time ago…” also involves tigers. It goes like this: “In the days when tigers smoked tobacco…” How this saying developed, I have no idea!