Buddha’s birthday at Cheongju

My granny and Buddha were born on the same day.  But we can’t be certain whether Gotama Siddharta actually began his incarnation on that day.  Legend blurs things. What we can be certain of is that Buddhism as the traditional philosophy-religion of South Korea is alive and well, providing spiritual sustenance to many.

Mrs Kim, a colleague from the elementary school, invites me to the celebrations at the temple in Cheongju, a major city south of Daeso where I live.  She meets me at the busstop and we walk through the grounds of the University and up a broad stairway to where the temple is.

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Going up to the two temples

When I’d been there previously it had been quiet, in direct contrast to the crowds now descending on the place – children with balloons, adults, parking attendants, people in traditional gear.  The 12th of May is a source of joy here.

There are two temples, one with space for about 200 people and the other with space for about 50.  Next to the smaller temple, higher up the terraces, there is a half-relief of the Buddha with a symbolic gesture – the long finger of the left hand folded. I’m not sure what this means.  Before him there are offerings of fruit.  The bow and genuflection of the people are called insa, with some people kneeling forehead-to-earth for some moments.

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At the shrine

At the entrance of the larger temple there is an approach pathway to the main doors with a thick red carpet on it which, I am told, only the monks, the suneem, may walk.  Parallel to this is a long table with an exhibition of Buddhist art painted on terracotta tiles – cameos, symbols, lotus flowers.

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Buddhist art

Mrs Kim points out a woman in traditional clothing amongst the people, telling me that she is the artist.  We meet, but, of course, can’t converse.

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The artist (left) and Mrs Kim

The work is interesting, done on rough textures, images swirling ecstatically in primary colours and in pastels.

There is a service in the large temple and the place is packed.  Outside you step over a sea of shoes.  I don’t go in, but stand at an open side door.  A women choir sings over the heads of the sitting rapt audience, wistful music, moving and sacred.  A man preaches for a few moments and then comes a jolly song and everyone happy-claps, fitting for the birthday of the founder.  It is strange for me since I am probably caught in an image of Buddhism from way back.

When the train of suneem come out of the main entrance, the leader is an image of the Buddha himself – the shaven head, round face and engaging smile.  This religion has many images of happiness.  They advance to the smaller temple, probably an older edifice where they begin a chant as people queue to pour hand-scooped water ritually over a small figure of the Buddha, as well as over the flowers that surround him.  I am told that the chant and the ritual are the purification of the world by the newborn Sakyamuni, the Korean name for the Buddha.

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A child drawing

Further down the terraces there are tents where children and adults of all ages draw, paint and making lotus flowers from paper.  Others queue outside the reception hall where there is a free meal.

At one o’clock Mrs Kim meets two friends and shortly after, her husband, a medical doctor, arrives.  They decide that it would be better to lunch elsewhere and we leave for the city.  At a Chinese restaurant I have spiced vegetables on spaghetti with sweet-sour pork and a drink that has 50% proof – a kind of Korean witblits.  Mazeltov, Gotama!

On the busride home, a woman with a little one on her lap, gives me a Korean vetkoek to munch.

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Buddhist art

Will van der Walt ©

12 May 2008

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Image Sources: Photogrpahs by Will 

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One Response to Buddha’s birthday at Cheongju

  1. Dawn Denton says:

    That’s so interesting and amazing!

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