Tomorrow is the 15th day of the first lunar month: the end of the winter retreat (동안거 해제) as well as the traditional day of “saving lives” (방생) usually in the form of live fish intended for market. Our temple will purchase fish, although as I recall we usually buy fresh-water eels, not true finned beings, and release them along the banks of the Geum river. Although this release has roots in Buddhist doctrine, it will be accompanied by a ceremony to appease and comfort the Dragon King, ruler of all bodies of water. Fish belong to the Dragon King, and by releasing fish–instead of birds, which I hear is popular in Chinese/Taiwainese versions of this same ceremony–we also ask for the blessings of the King. An exchange that fits into the general economy of merit as conceived and practiced in Korea.
All that aside, part of the closing ceremonies for the end of the winter season includes a chesa, or ceremony for the ancestors. Tomorrow will not include an offering ceremony (불공) for Jijang Bosal, or Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, but Jijang Bosal is frequently a part of ceremonies for the dead. Said to guide those in the bardo from one life to the next and to have vowed to enter any of the realms of existence to save beings there, Jijang Bosal is a popular figure in Korean temples.
Our temple has an entire wall dedicated to Jijang Bosal in the main Dharma Hall. A central altar features the Bodhisattva with two attendants, but flanking the larger statue are one thousand smaller statues. They are mesmerizing without overwhelming, the waves of repetition soothing without distracting. I’ve personally never had much of a connection with Jijang Bosal; my personal practice has largely been dedicated to Avalokitshvara and Sakyamuni Buddha. This winter, however, I began reciting the sutra of Jijang Bosal in conjunction with a repentance and mantra practice. Little by little, the Bodhisattva has been approaching as this kido continues.
Tomorrow, looking at our soon-to-be-released fish, I’ll think of Jijang Bosal, hoping that one life at a time, we are all become more like the Bodhisattva: an endless repetition of great vows in the face of all manner of suffering, wave upon wave of resolution and actualization for the sake of all beings.