May 22, 2013

Celebrating Buddha's Birthday

Buddhism is the leading belief system in South Korea (if you consider Protestantism and Catholicism as distinct religions), so the birth of Buddha is celebrated with great pomp and pageantry every year. A Chinese friend of mine was in Seoul for a business trip, and he joined me for the day as we participated in the festive activities on offer throughout the city.

Our first stop was the Jogyesa Temple, a large complex located in the heart of old Seoul. The principal temple of the Jogye Order and the centre of Zen Buddhism in Korea, its roots can be traced back over five hundred years. A colourful hive of activity, Jogyesa is not the kind of place to visit for a serene meditative experience. However, it does provide a good introduction into the world of Korean Buddhism.

When we first entered the complex, we were ushered into a movie theatre. A highly entertaining documentary was shown explaining how Korea was the greatest nation on Earth. One infographic compared the total number of inventions made in Korea with the sum total of every invention made by all other countries in the world in a year. It was a tight race, but Korea came out on top. It also highlighted the fact that Korea has the best alphabet system ever concocted. Hanguel is a highly elegant system that replaced the traditional Chinese characters that were previously used by Koreans.

After the film concluded it was time for us to make some traditional paper lanterns. Volunteers guided us as we crafted a masterpiece out of coloured paper and adhesive. We explored the temple grounds for a while and ate a vegetarian meal, consisting predominantly of sticky rice.

We were given instructions to go to Tapgol Park as some VIP seating was reserved for foreigners. We had front row seats to view the Lotus Lantern Festival Parade being held to commemorate Buddha's birthday. As the parade neared its conclusion, we were pulled in to the procession to add a multicultural flavour to the festivities. We held our handcrafted lotus lanterns high and waved to the adoring crowds as we passed by.