Monday, May 28, 2012

On Buddhism and Buddha's Brithday

Today is Buddha's birthday ... well, at least it's Buddha's birthday in Korea. And because Buddha's Birthday along with many traditional holidays is calculated according to the lunar calendar, every year (and usually in May) the birthday is celebrated, and as a national holiday too. I'm a bit curious WHY Buddha's birthday gets celebrated as a national holiday though as Buddhism during the Joseon dynasty had little to do with it as a religion. I do know that it is a quickly growing religion now in Korea but would be very interested to know when it became celebrated as a national holiday and what were the dynamics in place that made it be accepted as a national holiday. It seems to me that a country would need to link their national holiday back to historical reasons or pressure from a sizeable population to create the celebration of a religion as a national holiday. Very curious ... although Buddha's Birthday seems to be celebrated in many Asian countries, but ironically, on different days!

In Japan, which accepted the Gregorian calendar in the 19th century, Buddha's birthday is celebrated on April 8th. And Japan is another country that has had little to do with Buddhism over the years so why does it also acknowledge Buddha's birthday as a national holiday? China, India and Tibet celebrate Buddha's birthday, but then India and Tibet were where some of the earliest known practices of Buddhism took place. That said though, Buddha's birthday in Tibet is usually celebrated in June. From what I am reading, there are three main types of Buddhism and these types may indeed affect when the birthday of Buddha is celebrated. It certainly affects how they are celebrated as each country certainly has its own interpretation of celebration practices.

The three main types of Buddhism are Southern, Eastern and Northern:

Southern Buddhism or Theraveda ("Doctrine of the Elders") Buddhism. It's mostly practiced in places like Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. Hmm, I wonder what routes of cultural exchange took place and then disappeared to link Sri Lanka with Lao and Cambodia.

Eastern Buddhism or Mahavana Buddhism, which strives for the "awakened mind". China, Korea and Japan and in part other Asian countries practice this form.

Northern or Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism.

Buddhism in Korea

Buddhism was introduced a few times to Korea over the centuries and many of those times, the introduction was by a varying branch of Buddhism. I believe originally the type of Buddhism introduced to Korea was from Tibet, probably transported via the Silk Road as there is evidence that the earliest Buddhism was not culturally transposed through China. Later types of Buddhism were, and the predominant type of Buddhism now is most closely related to Mahayana. In Korea, there are basically three forms of Buddhism. [Buddhism is like Protestantism in that there are many core beliefs but the various Protestant religions are the result of different interpretations of the Bible, and for Buddhism, the Pali Canon and whether other spiritual sources like tantras are used. The main type of Buddhism in Korean is Seon (Zen Buddhism in Japan is similar in origin), Jingak and then Won which is a new but quickly growing type.

In any regard, Korea begins its celebrations of Buddha's birthday a few days prior to the birthday and which culminates in a large lantern parade. A month if not sooner lantern are lining the roads and paths to hidden Buddhist temples and the temples yards are heavily draped with multi-colored lanterns. I'm sure the color of the lantern originally had some meaning, but what it is, I am completely unsure.

The Chogyesa, the largest temple in downtown Seoul, is the central area for celebrations on Buddha's birthday. It is here that the lantern festival starts and returns. The Chogyesa (temple) is quite an irony in itself for when the country refused to espouse Buddhism, the Chogyesa did have some kind of premises in the city, and even more ironically, almost next to the royal palaces! This has never been culturally explained to me.

Pictures of the Chogyesa in 2012 - and the celebrations around a central tree are very shamanic, but then Buddhism, Shamanism, Taoism are so entertwined from centuries of co-existence that shamanic practices woven into Buddhism should not be surprising at all.


Oops, missed 2011. Pictures in and around the Chogyesa in 2010.


Chogyesa in 2009 - a lot of white was used in the celebrations (and so I question the meaning of colors)

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