Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lotus Lantern Festival (Buddha's Birthday)

(The Lotus Lantern Festival, in honor of Buddha's birthday, will be on May 23 this year. It's a wonderful chance to finally visit all those temples you've been meaning to! Below is a re-issue of our post on the Festival last year.)

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.

Part Two: The Temples

(Note: Much of the information below is owed to our RAS tour guide and the very detailed info packet he provided us all. If you're interested in any of Prof. David Mason's work, you can find more information on his website.)

Bomunsa and Mitasa

Our Buddha's Birthday temple tour started in our neck of the woods, at Bomunsa and neighboring Mitasa, in the Bomun neighborhood northeast of the city center. Bomunsa is the home temple of the Bomun order of Buddhist nuns and is the largest convent in the Seoul metropolitan area.

In keeping with traditional Korean geomancy, Bomunsa occupies an auspicious site at the steep head of a small, narrow valley, though the lower reaches of the valley (and the crown of the hill above) have since been consumed by high-rises and busy streets. Still, behind Bomunsa's walls is a quiet oasis, growing and green, where it's easy to forget that you're in one of the biggest cities in the world. (Traveler's note: The grounds of the old Buddhist temples are some of the best photo spots in Korea. Those old monks sure knew their real estate!)

During our visit, the lower levels of the temple were crowded with visitors watching the holiday performance, but the upper levels were much quieter and more serene
And as is common in the busier temples, there were statues everywhere, including some adorable little Buddhist nun figurines.
Bomunsa is also home to a huge a modern-era pagoda, seen below, and a modern-era "cave shrine" modeled after a Shilla-era shrine in Kyeongju.
And as a final note on Bomunsa, here is a roll of members of the Bomun order. Notice all the Kims! (Actually rarer than you might expect on this roll, since the Kim clan is generally fairly wealthy; most members of the Buddhist orders come from the lower classes.)
Next door to Bomunsa is the Mitasa hermitage, a small convent affiliated with the Jogye sect, which is Korea's dominant Buddhist sect.
The hermitage includes a very old (but small) Koryo-era pagoda next to a "sanshingak" or "mountain-spirit shrine" (with the mountain spirit represented here as a white tiger; elsewhere as an old man with a white tiger) a prime example of how Korean Buddhism has adpoted elements of the old shamanistic religions. In fact, the whole mountain-worship element is part of the reason why Buddhist temples tend to be found at the heads of mountain valleys or, as is the case with Shilleuksa in Yeoju, at the tail ends of important mountain ranges.

Unfortunately, lighting made it difficult to shoot either of these items. As a consolation, here's a shot of Nana with a new friend.
Side note: Mitasa is also home to the famous mural depicting Buddha's birth that appeared in our previous post on Buddha's Birtdhay.

Gaeunsa and Potasa

Potasa, a small seminary convent affiliated with Daegu's famous Haeinsa temple, featured the first of two White Buddha carvings of the day.

The White Buddha represents a later development in the history of Buddhism: it used to be believed that one could only achieve salvation through enlightenment, but later beliefs included the possibility of salvation through Buddha's mercy, embodied by the White Buddha--also known as the Goddess of Mercy, despite the moustache.

is the larger temple down the street from Potasa. It is a seminary temple with modern facilities for about 160 monks plus several older structures. The highlight here was a giant paper lantern of the three-tusked white elephant who, according to the story of Buddha's birth, impregnated Buddha's mother in a dream.
Gaeunsa is also notable because it does not actually sit at the head of a valley, but atop a small, round hill.


On our way to dinner, we stopped at a small shrine in Segom-dong, along a mountain stream just northwest of the city center. (Geographical note: There's a low but very rugged mountain range that runs down into the Seoul city center, which effectively splits the part of the city north of the Han River in half. The reason for this is that Gyeongbokgung, the main Joseon palace in Seoul was, surprise surprise, built at the tail end of that mountain range.)

The shrine featured the second White Buddha of the day.

Bongwonsa, our last stop of the day, is the main temple of the Taego sect, which is an unusual sect in that its monks and priests can marry. They're also filthy rich, sitting as they do on some prime real-estate; seriously, some of the monks drive Lotuses, and not just for the obvious pun.

Situated just north of Yonsei University, Bongwonsa is the closest of Seoul's traditional temples to the city center, and for that reason is the epicenter of Buddha's Birthday celebrations in Seoul. (Though I'm told the modern Jogyesa, in downtown Seoul, also had a big Buddha's Birthday bash.) The long path up to Bongwonsa is very developed and commercialized, including a 24-hour restaurant and "sauna" (bath house), plus several smaller eateries lining the road.

The hike was worth it, though, as the temple itself featured the best Lotus Lantern display in town.
Also worth the hike were the Candle Hall, the Hall of 1000 Buddhas, and a some really great examples of Buddhist statuary carving.

Well, that's it for the Buddha's Birthday tour. Expect slim pickins as far as posts go for the next couple weeks--we're into the final push at school AND we'll be moving to a new apartment partway through June. Of course, if anything ludicrous happens, you'll be the first to know.

1 comment:

Mike said...

fantastic pictures, as always!