Thursday, May 15, 2008

Buddha's Birthday, Part One: The Holiday

Monday was Buddha's Birthday, a public holiday here in Korea (as in much of East Asia). Not only did Nana and I get the day off, we also joined a Royal Asiatic Society tour of the local festivities, centered on five local temples we hadn't yet seen. This post will deal with the holiday and its traditions (and images) in general; a second post will provide some details about the temples themselves.

The Holiday

Buddha's Birthday celebrates the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the founding figure of the Buddhist religion. Buddhists believe that Gautama, who was the prince of a small kingdom in northern India around 400 BC, sprung from his mother's side (often interpreted as a kind of Sanskrit c-section, in keeping with ancient Indian beliefs that traditional birth was somehow impure) able to walk and talk immediately upon his birth.

Images of Buddha's birth are common in Buddhist temples here in Korea. Below you can see the prelude to Gautama's conception (by a three-tusked white elephant who visited his mother in a dream), the birth itself (with Gautama emerging from his mother's sleeve), and Buddha's first steps and first words shortly thereafter (he points to the earth and the sky and says he has been sent to save all who dwell there).

The Lotus Lantern
In Korea, Buddha's Birthday is commonly referred to as the Festival of the Lotus Lantern, a nod to the most visible symbol of the holiday here.

The lotus lamp has its roots in the belief that, when Buddha took his first steps, a lotus flower sprouted at his feet. During the run-up to Buddha's Birthday, Buddhists adorn their temples with hundreds of these lanterns, which are also trailed off through the main gate and down the surrounding streets.

The Lotus Lanterns come in many shapes and colors. The simplest and most common are bright paper deals with an image of the baby Buddha screened on the side. (Notice the baby Buddha dance--one finger to the ground, one to the sky.)

Others are a little more subtle, such as these black-and-white lamps with simple hangeul script.
A third class is very stylized, in polygon form.
And a final class strives for realism with its plastic blossom shape.
Of course, no matter what kind of Lotus Lantern, the true effect can only be seen at night.

A final note: the papers you see hanging from the lanterns are prayers or dedications written by the folks who purchased the lamps.

Bathing the Baby Buddha

One cute little tradition surrounding Buddha's Birthday is the act of bathing the baby Buddha (or a statue of him, at least) by pouring a simple dipper of water over his head.

All visitors, regardless of religion, are invited to give the baby Buddha a dousing--and since the visitors seem to come in droves on these days, you can imagine the little guy gets pretty darn clean.

Traditional Performances

During our day out, Nana and I also had the chance to witness two traditional Buddha's Birthday performances. Here are a few shots of one of the shows (involving a chorus, dancers, a ritual offering of gifts, and a Buddhist nun rocking the point-and-shoot camera).

A second performance included a much more elaborate (and more traditional) band.

The History of Buddha's Birthday in Korea

Given all the traditions piled up around the day, you might think that Buddha's Birthday has a long history as a Korean national holiday. However, Buddhism as a whole fell hugely out of favor during the Joseon Dynasty period after, according to the neo-Confucian philosophers of the time, clerical excesses corrupted the previous regime. In fact, when the capital was moved to Seoul, the king decreed that no monks would be allowed to pass the city gates, and even today, all the historical temples of Seoul are well outside the limits of the old city walls. Only in the last 75-odd years has Buddhism seen a revival in Korea, and only in the past decade or so has Buddha's Birthday become a major event on the Korean calendar.

Next time: Bomunsa, Gaeunsa, Bongwonsa--stay tuned!

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