In Korea, Buddha's birthday is celebrated on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month. This year, it fell on May 21st. (Yes, I know that's over a month ago. This is catch-up blogging from the great blogging void of April and May 2010. ) Buddhism was introduced to Korea in 372 AD, and was the dominate religion on the peninsula until the rise of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. Despite persecution during the early Joseon period, Buddhism remains one of the major religions in Korea today. (According to a survey by the South Korean National Statistical Office, 22.8% of Koreans are Buddhist, 29.2% are some form of Christian and 46.4% of Koreans are atheist which, as someone who comes from a country where religion is such a pervasive part of the culture, is something I have trouble wrapping my head around.)
Lotus lanterns lining the path up to Gwanchoksa Temple in Nonsan, South Korea in early April. They made a colorful addition to an otherwise gloomy and winter shrouded woods.
In Korea, 석가탄신일, literally the day of Buddha's birthday, is celebrated by lighting lotus lanterns. There is a Buddhist proverb that says, "Please attain Buddhism in your next lifetime by lighting a lantern in this life," and the entire peninsula is decorated with lanterns in the month leading up to the holiday. I visited Gwanchoksa Temple in early April and there were already lanterns lining the path up to the temple. By early May, I was walking home from school under strings of lotus lanterns hanging between the street lamps and electric poles. Then, on Buddha's Birthday, the lanterns are lit during an evening ceremony.
I watched the lighting ceremony at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, the chief temple of the Jogye Order in Korean Buddhism. I met up with some friends outside of Jogyesa at 5:30, an hour and a half before the ceremony was suppose to start, and were given plastic bags for our shoes before shuffling into the temple. It's a small temple, with three golden Buddha statues sitting in the lotus position and a ceiling absolutely covered in red lotus lanterns. The decorations and painting were very similar to every other Korean temple I've visited. I'm always unsure how to behave in temples. To the people praying around me, the temple was a place of worship and this was a holy day, but all I was doing was sight-seeing and enjoying the scene. I never know the protocol on taking pictures - at least when sight-seeing at churches or cathedrals, it's my own religion that I'm disrespecting - but the temple was full of Koreans taking photos on their cell phones, so I pulled out my camera and no one rushed in to reprimand me. We stood in front of the Buddhas for a bit, and then left the temple. The temple is built on top of a stone platform a couple of feet high, and the stairs off the platform were flanked by stone ramps. Someone at the temple had attached a metal slide to one of the ramps, and a group of children were entertaining themselves by sliding down and shrieking with joy. I tried to stealthily take pictures of the cute, but taking pictures of other peoples' children is even trickier than figuring out if you're allowed to take pictures inside a temple.
In front of temple is a large open courtyard which was covered with a canopy of lanterns. Even though we showed up early, the courtyard was packed with people. We eventually found a free spot amongst some bushes, and we sat down to wait. Marie, Omega and I are all knitters, so we pulled out knitting to entertain ourselves. This immediately made us a spectacle to the Koreans surrounding us, and one man started taking photos of the crazy 외국인, but considering I had just attempted to take pictures of young Korean children playing, I don't feel like I have the right to be annoyed. The ceremony itself started at seven and lasted for about forty five minutes. It mostly involved chanting and droning and throat-singing, all in Korean. It was dull, since I couldn't understand what was being said and I don't know enough about Buddhism to understand the significance of the ceremony. I did catch the occasional word in the mantra - teacher! student! fifty seven! - but other than that, I feel into a bit of a trance. My favorite part was at the very beginning, when the acolytes (or as I called them Tiny Baby Monklets!) scampered across the stage to take their place kneeling behind the monks.
The ceremony ended around 7:45 and we had a fifteen minute wait until it was dark enough for the lantern lighting ceremony. Everyone stood up and chanted the four elements. (I only understood water and fire, but I assume the other two words were wind and earth.) The first few rows of lanterns were lit. We chanted the elements again and the second tier of lanterns were lit. We chanted a third time and the rest of the lanterns were lit. It only took twenty or thirty seconds, but it was absolutely amazing. Standing in the dark, watching the lanterns light up overhead, being surrounded by a huge crowd of devout people and actually being able to participate in someway, even if it was only four words, was extremely cool and it's something I'll remember for a long time. I'm so glad I went!
My favorite part of this picture is the bottom right corner, where you can see people taking pictures with their camera phones. It's such a very very typical Korean response and it makes me grin.
Full set of pictures are here.