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Turtle thinking

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By Bernard Rowan

An early memory of visiting Korea is images of turtles I saw in various places such as palaces and temples. I think the Korean symbol of turtles shows us wisdom about life. Let's consider anew the meaning of Korean turtles.

Koreans respect turtles as symbols of long life, good life, and knowledge of the future. Many Buddhist temples have stele or tablet turtle monuments that commemorate a monk's life. When considering Buddhism and the work of Buddhist monks and temples, it's wonderful to reflect on turtle images and to read the stele. The turtle stands as a prayer, wish, and hope that life's meaning will endure. I also think it means that life finds expression in what a monk gives to others. Life begets life in its wonder and variety.

In the distant past, turtle shells had the use of fortune-telling. The shells provided a way to see the future. I'm not so sure how reliable they've proved. However, I like the image of the turtle's shell standing for heaven and the square below the turtle the earth. Turtles hold up the universe in this Taoist way of thinking. A popular example is the baby turtle sitting on its parent's back. Long life also includes the life cycle and giving life to the next age. Korean turtles show these important meanings about life. I read that Korean monks release fish and turtles into their native habitats as a sign of giving life and respecting it.

Chinese and Japanese cultures also revere turtles and consider them in similar ways. A turtle shows the relations between heaven, earth, humanity and nature. It tells us that we are microcosms of the infinite. We mightn't be infinite ourselves, but we share in it and can carry such understanding into living as a way of survival, of coping, and of finding happiness and contentment.

A Japanese mythology and folklore website tells the story of a man, Urashima Taro, who protected a sea turtle from abuse. The grateful turtle takes the man to see the king of the sea who allows him to marry his daughter, the princess. The man then returns to his hometown and finds he has traveled into the future.........

© The Korea Times