May 17th marked Buddha’s birthday in South Korea. In honour of the occasion, we had the day off. Last year, I had gone off galavanting to an island off the south coast. This year I wanted to see what the locals did to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.
According to Wikipedia, almost 23% of South Koreans are Buddhist. A further 29% associate themselves with some form of Christianity, 2% are “other religions”, and a whopping 46% of the population considers itself irreligious.
During my first few days in Korea, a Buddhist co-worker had taken me to her temple Junggwangsa, just across the river from the Bamboo forest. It seemed a good a place as any to start my quest – it was Buddhist, and I knew how to get there.
Little lanterns lead the way from the bus stop to the temple door.
As usual, I managed to get myself all twisted about in spite of the lantern guides, and so I approached the temple from the back. If there were this many lanterns at the back, what did the front look like?
Little tables and chairs had been set up in the woods where families were having picnics.
The temple was absolutely chaotic. I had to wait in line to go inside, and the line continued all the way up to the 5th floor. I was the only foreigner there, and was on the receiving end of many polite but puzzled stares. Trying to be polite, I put my camera away. The atmosphere at the temple was more carnival mayhem than religious piety but I wouldn’t want someone to bust out their camera in the middle of a Christmas service.
I discovered that Buddha’s birthday had many similarities to Christmas – people who never darkened the temple door during the year came on Buddha’s birthday.
There were prayer rooms on every floor but the main Buddha was on the roof. There were more lanterns, and the line up to see the main Buddha was huge. I sat under a pillar and watched (and discretely took pictures of the crowd).
Each and every lantern had a number hanging from it, along with wishes, dreams and prayers written on red paper. I don’t know how the number system worked- did you pay more for certain numbers? Did the numbers have meaning? Were they lucky in some way? – but people would give their red papers to these teenagers who would run all over the temple attaching them to the right lantern.
I decided to go back at night.
The carnival feeling had increased. The woods that had been full of picnicking families were now full of intoxicated elderly people, and canoodling teens. Children ate candy floss and fought with light sabers under the lanterns.
I went back inside the temple where I was told by a wobbling elderly gentleman to take pictures of anything I wanted. He attempted to explain a few things but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. 😀
Christians have a Hell full of fire and brimstone which seems fairly scary. But Buddhist Hell? Terrifying. What would you have to have done to deserve an eternity being made into soup?
Or my students’ favourite. “Carrie-teacher! Bad! NO NO!” they told me, grimacing and pointing. I could see how being ground to a pulp by a demon-powered mortar and pestle might make you think twice before you did something bad.
I took one more picture of the lanterns from the roof.
The line up to see the main Buddha was still curled snake-like around the building. If anything, it was longer than it had been in the morning. Quite a few of the gentlemen in the line were pretty unsteady on their feet; I wondered how they would manage their prostrations. I had trouble doing them sober!
As I was leaving, I noticed the 4-headed chicken lanterns. Were they particular to this temple? Or were they special for Buddha’s birthday? I guess nothing says Happy Birthday quite like a 4-headed chicken lantern.
Happy 2556th birthday Buddha!