Happy Birthday Buddha!

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.


IMG_3890As 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?



Back of the temple

Little tables and chairs had been set up in the woods where families were having picnics.

IMG_3809The front of the temple was worth the trek.

IMG_3827 IMG_3831The dragon and the elephant lanterns moved.  Why an elephant?

IMG_3825 IMG_3826The 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).

IMG_3877The main Buddha was up the stairs to the right.  Under the lanterns, people mingled, chatting and gossiping.  The building housing the main Buddha was gorgeous.  This was clearly a wealthy temple!

IMG_3857 IMG_3852 IMG_3849Each 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.

IMG_3884Temples apparently provide a free lunch on Buddha’s birthday.  I’ve never seen so many bean sprouts in my life!


I decided to go back at night.

IMG_3980 IMG_3992

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.

IMG_4098The lanterns were spectacular.

IMG_4003 IMG_4027 IMG_4041

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?

IMG_4059Or having your tongue farmed by demons?

IMG_4058Or 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!


About Carrie K

Teacher, writer, traveller. Slightly neurotic. Overly talkative. Loving life. You can also follow me on Twitter: kimchigirl72
This entry was posted in Buddhist, ex-pat, Korea, Life, Living abroad, Photography, temples, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Happy Birthday Buddha!

  1. Mr. Propter says:

    Are the demons all gingers with male pattern baldness, or are their ears on fire?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s