Monday, May 25, 2015

Buddha's Birthday: Bathing the Buddha, Monks Dancing, Sutra Writing

Dharma Buddhists celebrate Buddha's birthday on the eighth day of the fourth month (lunar calendar), and only this day is Buddha ceremoniously bathed. Bathing the Buddha is a celebration of the birth of Prince Siddhartha (now known as Sakyamuni Buddha) as he is said to have been bathed by dragons at his birth. According to Chapter One of The Past and Present Causation Sutra, Queen Maya gave birth to her son under a sala tree while visiting Lumbini Park. Upon his birth two dragon kings, Nantuo and FuBouNanTuo, spurted streams of pure water to bathe the Prince's holy body, and for this reason, Buddhhist disciples continue to practice the bathing of an infant Prince Siddhartha statue.

Another version of birth legend is Queen Maya gave birth under an asoka tree, and after his birth, with one hand pointing to the heavens and the other to earth, the Prince proclaimed, "I am the supreme of all heaven and earth." Translated to mortal language, this means, "In all of the universe, only realizing our own Buddha nature is the most noble and supreme." After his proclamation, the Four Heavenly Kings and nine dragons rained down fragrant water to bathe the young prince.

So on this day the young Buddha, with one hand pointing heavenward and the other earthward, is bathed at Buddhist temples. Almost every temple has a young Buddha to be bathed, and while believers bathe the Buddha -- first head, then body, then feet -- they are to whole-heartedly pray and wish for Buddha's spiritual power of great compassion and perfect virtues to enable them to purify their own minds of greed, hatred and stupidly, as well as help them to attain perfect merit and virtues in moral precepts (samadhi) and wisdom.

The verses in the Merit of Bathing the Buddha Sutra describe the true meaning of bathing the Buddha:
I now bathe all of the thus-come-one,
Who are adorned with pure wisdom, and who have amassed merit and virtue.
May living beings of the five turbid realms be led from filth,
And expediently realize the pure dharma body of the thus-come-one.
May the fragrance from the realization of precepts, samadhi and wisdom constantly perfume every realm of the ten directions.
May this incense fragrance perform countless Budhha works of salvation.
May suffering in the three evil paths and the wheel of Samsara cease,
Completely extinguishing the fires and obtaining the coolness of relief.
So that all beings vow to attain the supreme Bodhi mind,
Perpetually escaping the river of desires and advancing to the other shore of Nirvana.
So a group of RAS members traveled around to 5 temples in Seoul to experience the uniqueness of Buddha's birthday. All of the temples we visited (Mitasa, Bomunsa, Gaeunsa, and Bongwonsa) had young Buddha's set up near the entrance for people to ceremoniously bathe and thus purge their own impure spirits. We also visited Botasa, opposite Gaeunsa and behind Korea University, but this was not really a temple but more of a hermitage. Therefore, no baby Buddha was available for bathing.

Mitasa Temple 
Mitasa Temple
Bomunsa Temple
Gaeunsa Temple
Bongwonsa Temple - a spiritual replica of the nine dragons said to bathe the baby Buddha at his birth.
The purpose for bathing the Buddha is to pray for a pure mind full of virtue and to be guided onto the bodhi path. The benefits of bathing the Buddha, as listed in a Buddha Bathing Sutra, are:
  • wealth and happiness, good health and longevity
  • all wishes fulfilled
  • peace and harmony for family, relatives and friends
  • never to face the Eight Obstacles of learning the Dharma, nor suffering
  • achieve quick enlightenment
The bathing the Buddha ceremony was explained to me as "While we bathe the Budda without, we are bathing our own Buddha within." This is the way to self-enlightenment.

Each of the 5 temples we visited had some uniqueness that differentiated it from the other temples: maybe in celebration style, guest-welcoming ceremony, architecture, special event ...

Mitasa offered lotus flower tea to guests.
Mitasa is a very old temple, founded during the Koryeo period and during the reign of King Kwangjong (4th Koryeo king). The reason this temple is a nunnery is in the 15th century Queen Song of the murdered Tanjong (6th king) fled here and became a nun. Since then, the temple has been a nunnery. Currently about 50 nuns are in residence.
Bomunsa encouraged guests to make lotus flowers, the spiritual flower of Buddhism, and to write sutras.
Bomunsa is prosperous, has extensive construction going on, and has the largest monk-nunnery in Seoul with about 130 nuns ranging in age from 4-84. Parents through fortune-tellers or for other reasons bring their daughters to the temples to be nuns. Only girls under 15 are accepted. This temple was founded in 1116 during the reign of King Yejong, 16th king of Koryeo.
So I gave Buddhist sutra writing a try. Wow. I liked the penmanship experience!
Entering Botasa but remembering to bow as one approaches the portal to the tiny temple grounds.
Botasa is a hermitage, secluded from mainstream traffic that has recently been built. This is a "convent" where about 40 nuns study Buddhism and social work. The hermitage is particularly famous for its approximately 1000-year-old White Buddha (actually a "Goddess of Mercy" referred to as ma-aebul) carved in granite behind the hermitage.
Interestingly, in 1895 this area was considered a possible tomb site for the murdered Queen Min but was rejected because of the presence of the stone buddha.
Botasa, a hermitage. As this is located behind Korea University among some thick trees and close to the collection of dorms, dorm-dwellers like myself can hear the rhythmical percussion on a hollow gourd which starts around 4 a.m. A rather peaceful way to wake up to the world.
One of the female monks who maintain Botasa.
Entering Gaeunsa, a temple next to Korea University and sees a lot of local resident activity.
This temple was founded in 1396 by Muhak daesa, the priest and personal friend of King Taejo (1st king of Joseon). It is also a teaching temple where 160 monks study.
Monks discussing at Gaeunsa.
Yongsanjae, a Taego Order ritual

The Yongsanjae ritual is a reenactment of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching of the Lotus Sutra. The ritual is long and involves much chanting and dancing. Only the Taego Order has preserved this UNESCO intangible cultural asset.

Two temples that we visited hold monk dances on Buddha's birthday. Unfortunately, we arrived at Bomunsa (of the Bomun Order) shortly after the 11am ceremony was over. We did however arrive in time for the late afternoon dances at Bongwonsa (Taego Order), which is a very large temple compound, and which annually holds monk dances. We were able to see several dances, which are performed for praising Buddha. The dances were beautiful and extremely colorful but not quite synchronized, which added more to authenticity rather than artistic style. I was able to identify two of the dances: the Butterfly Dance and the Cymbal Dance. Baebo-chum (Dharma Dance) is another dance typically included in the Yongsanjae ritual, but I couldn't recognize it. These dances are typically performed in temple compounds rather than on stages due to their religious meanings. My Croatian anthropology friend did a good portion of her research at this temple back in the mid-1980s, and she said that during that time, this was about the only temple that had monk dances, and only a couple of monks performed. Since that time, monk dances have been learned and adopted into many other temples throughout South Korea.

The performance was opened to the public and lasted for about two hours. Monks chanting, gongs thrumming, drums beating. Other temple musicians played ancient-styled instruments.

Yellow is such an unusual color to be used in ceremonies ... I'll be able to understand this symbolism next year.
The performance ground made sacred by the presence of the on-looking Buddha.
The "stage" is set. Shoes are removed for dancing on holy spaces and in front of holy Buddha banner.

The vigor and rhythm of the Cymbals Dance!

The butterfly symbolically flies in this dance. I wonder the spiritual metaphor. 

Stylized drumming. The monk dances much more than he drums, and his drumming is limited to an occasional thrum between slow-motioned dance moves. He stylistically thrums upright and then twists to thrum upside-down ... 

Meditating while performing the Cymbals Dance.
Bongwonsa was founded in 889, and in 1970 it became the headquarters of the Taego sect of Korean Buddhism, the second largest in Korea. This sect allows priests to marry, which only the Taego sect in Korea can do, a kickback from the Japanese style of Buddhism.

The temple houses 3000 unpainted Buddhas in Buddha Hall, one of the largest in the country. This large building has an ornate altar canopy, carved panels around its doors, and the main hall has very fine murals inside and wall murals on the exterior. 

Bongwonsa is known as the home of two designated Human Cultural Assets (#48 and #50): the head abbot is a master of dancheong painting, an art creating Buddhist murals and geometric and floral designs in bold natural tints, a type of decoration most often seen on wood surfaces in the upper reaches of temple buildings. The second priest's speciality is Buddhist ritual and chants. On Buddha's birthday, a huge mural is hung outside at this temple (pictured above), special services given, and ceremonial music and dance performed.

Ritual Buddhist music and dance performances (yeongsan-jae) are held here yearly on Korean Memorial Day and on Buddha's Birthday. The participants in the ritual pray for good fortune, happiness, and health. They also pray for the dead in the Korean War and victims of other nation-affecting disasters, like the Sewol. The ceremony awakens the true dharma of Buddhism, which frees participants of earthly suffering and delusion.

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