Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on Buddha's Birthday

Buddha's Birthday, or Vesak, (석가탄신일 or 부처님 오신 날 "the day when Buddha comes") traditionally is celebrated on the 8th day of the 4th month. This 2016 is the 2559th anniversary of the birth of Buddha (also "Sakyamuni", or when young "Prince Siddhartha") in his father's kingdom north of Benares in India. The exact year isn't really clear, but it was about 563 BC, making Buddha a contemporary of Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, and the great Jewish prophets. It was a good century for philosophers.

"Buddha" means "The Enlightened One". Prince Siddhartha spent his boyhood as a prince surrounded by luxury (represented by today's lanterns, which also signify "enlightenment"), but in his teens he learned that people all around him were suffering. Conscience-stricken, he gave up his privileged existence to look for ways to help people break out of the endless cycle of suffering, death, reincarnation, and more suffering. His answer came to him as intuition, and he taught it to his followers as doctrine, in sermons called sutras. The sutras and much commentary upon them were written up as scriptures known as the Tripitaka.

Under a rock overhang at Bomunsa Temple (Seoul), a tiny collection of Buddhas ...
All Buddha images on this page were taken from the many Buddhas worshipped on the Bomunsa Temple grounds.

Originally, anyone could aspire to be an "enlightened one". Following Buddha's example, anyone could try to exert the mental effort to reach the state of consciousness and understanding in which the self was completely lost in the vastness of the universe. This state was known as Nirvana, a state of liberation from mortal existence and entrapment in human suffering. Zen Buddhists cultivate their intuition through meditation in the quest for Nirvana.

Unfortunately, most people don't have the mental candlepower to transcend to Nirvana. Fortunately, Buddhism long ago evolved doctrines of salvation by Buddha's mercy instead. The merciful Buddha is what you see in temple statuary. People worship him and beg him for mercy, i.e. salvation and blessings.

Buddha, being infinite, has many aspects, making for a variety of Buddhas in temples. One of his most comforting aspects is as Amida, ruler of the Western Paradise, a kind of Buddhist Heaven, where the soul transcends when the body dies. The Western Paradise is peopled with angels (apsaras - flying figures without feet) and, since it is a realm, subsidiary figures called arhats (nahan in Korean, meaning "disciples"). Other aspects of the Buddha are Sakyamuni - the historical Buddha, Vairocana - the cosmic Buddha or Buddha of light and creation, and Maitreya - the Buddha who will rule the future. There is also a medicine Buddha who specializes in healing.

Buddha, center position, flanked by two bodhisattvas - Bomunsa Temple, Seoul
Have others besides Prince Siddhartha become a Buddha? Yes, but many others who have attained enlightenment choose to defer their formal induction into Buddhahood in order to stay behind and help the rest of us out of our suffering. These incredibly selfless people are called bodhisattvas. They often sit on either side of Buddha in temples. One of the most common bodhisattvas is the "Goddess of Mercy" (kwanum or kwanseum), an intercessory figure who can put in a good word for the ordinary sinner, cause sons to be born, etc.

Temples are compounds of buildings around a hall of worship, usually of the Buddha in one of his aspects. A typical temple has a main gate with images of the Four Heavenly Kings, a main worship hall, a pagoda or "stupa" which contains relics of holy men, and on the back hill, a unique Korean addition called a sanshin-gak or "mountain-spirit pavilion" which contains a painting of the mountain spirit in the form of an old man or tiger.

Most temples are richly decorated with paintings. The buildings are painted with motifs such as the lotus, in a style called Tanch'ong. Back walls of the buildings often have chilseong ("seven-star") paintings which depict such nature themes as forests and deer. They also can depict the eight classic scenes from the life of Buddha:
  1. the magical conception via the spirit of a white elephant
  2. his magical birth, whereupon he expounds
  3. his discovery of human suffering
  4. his escape from the palace
  5. his attempt to find virtue as an ascetic
  6. his enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree
  7. preaching
  8. his death
Inside, hell paintings portray the post-mortem agonies of evil-doers. Also indoors, "sweet dew" paintings combine scenes of heaven, angels, and the daily lives of ordinary people. And there can be portraits of historical figures such as leading monks from the past.

Nearly a quarter of all South Koreans are Buddhists today, and Buddhism is a long-established Korean religion, as witnessed by the elaborate Buddhist structures in the eighth-century capital of Kyongju.

However, certain things distinguish Korean Buddhism from Buddhism in China and Japan. Although Koreans also practice Mahayan Buddhism (as distinct from Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia), their Buddhism is a unique combination of the meditation (Zen, or in Korea "Seon") and salvationist. The major sect is the Chogye order of Seon (Zen); yet many members also devote themselves to pious recitations calling on the mercy of Amida, and their chanting of the formula "namu amit'abul" ("I call on the mercy of Amida Buddha") is a combination of Zen-style mind-clearing and salvationist prayer. Add to this the common reliance on the san-shin, or "mountain-spirit", for healing, children, and protection from evil -- a thoroughly shamanic belief unrelated to Buddhism anywhere else -- and you have a unique Korean religion.

Korean Buddhism has had its ups and downs. It was essentially the state religion of United Silla (668-918 AD) and Koryo (935-1392 AD), and by the late 1300s Buddhist interests wielded enormous political power. Temples were rich, and monks at times wielded Rasputin-like power at court.

But in 1392, a new regime took over and broke the old regime's center of power, including Buddhism. It moved the capital to Seoul, to escape the baleful influences of monks and temples, and decreed that no temples could be built in the city. Confucian orthodoxy became the state philosophy with its disdain for "superstitions" of Buddhism and the anti-social behavior of Buddhist adherents, and priests who neglected social harmony while concentrating on the un-knowable. For the 518 years of the Yi dynasty kingdom of Choson, Buddhism was officially discouraged even though many individuals, including some of the kings, continued as believers.

In 1910, when the Japanese colonized Korea, Buddhism started coming back. Japanese moving to Korea built their own temples, which were branches of temples in Japan, but they also accepted Korean co-religionists. After Liberation in 1945 there was considerable conflict between the older Korean sects and the newer Japanese-sponsored sects over such issues as property ownership and celibacy in the clergy.

By the 1970s, however, Buddhism was flourishing again. The state supported it as culture and leading politicians supported it as religion. Responding to the challenge of Christianity, Buddhist congregations established Buddhist after-hours schools and institutes. Buddhist customs were revived. One of these was the observance of Vesak, Buddha's birthday, which has been growing steadily more elaborate. The lantern festival which used to be confined to temple yards and nearby neighborhoods has spread all over the city. The parade on Vesak night is now so big that it has to happen on a day other than Vesak.

In 1975, Buddha's birthday became a national holiday, testifying to being an approved religion by the Korean state.
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The above collection of notes was compiled by Fred Jeremy Seligson, adjunct professor at Yonsei University. Jeremy Seligson has lived in Korea for decades and is passionate about literature. In 1983 he was awarded the Tan-gun Society Poetry Award for Foreigners. He also has two books published: Oriental Birth Dreams (1989) and Queen Min's Handbook on Pregnancy (2002), and is currently working on another volume of birth dreams.

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