Buddha’s Birthday impressions in Seoul, 2008
In South Korea, Buddha’s Birthday is surely one of the most beautiful and important festivals not only for Buddhists themselves, but for the whole nation. It was established as a national festival in 1960’s along with Christmas and is celebrated annually on the 8th day of the 4th month by the Lunar calendar. This year Korea celebrated the so called 부처님 오신 날 (Bucheonim osin nal, meaning “the day when Buddha arrived”) on May 12th, though various celebrations started long before that day.
From the foreigner’s, that came from a 100 percent Christian country, point of view, Buddhist traditions and celebrations in Korea look very nicely blended with Korean culture itself. First of all, there is no feeling of uncomfortable religiousness in the events. The whole city of Seoul is decorated with lotus lanterns for several weeks prior to Buddha’s day, which becomes inseparable part of the city. The events start more than one week before that day in order for temples to have their own special ceremonies on Buddha’s birthday itself.
On May 4th there was a traditional parade of Buddhist monks and lay people from various Buddhist countries, dressed in traditional clothing, carrying lotus lanterns, shining statues and other decorations, accompanied by the sound of drums. The parade is interesting to watch, for the view and sound keeps changing, bringing new energy and a spirit of a true festival. From the beginning to end the parade has crowds of spectators on the both sides of the road.
On the day of Buddha’s birthday temples open their doors for crowds of believers. Usually the sermons are held in the morning and the rest of the day is left for tourists or other events. Visiting the biggest temple in Seoul – Jogyesa – was quiet surprising, since the sermon was held in the evening and it gathered really many believers, as well as tourists.
The activities in the temple were quiet well organized. The tourists wondering around didn’t seem to disturb the praying people and there were really many wandering tourists. The tourist information desk was also helpful. There was a nice “ajumeoni” handing out various flyers, books and DVDs for tourists about Korean Buddhism and Temple Stay programs. As soon as she saw a foreigner, she would hand in all this information adding tour guides of Seoul. This and many families taking pictures on the background of hundreds of lotus lanterns created a festive atmosphere that was felt in the whole city.