Wednesday, May 19, 2021

It's Buddha's Birthday (부처님 오신날)!

It's Buddha's Birthday (부처님 오신날)! In South Korea, Buddha's Birthday is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar and is full of festivities for Buddhists but is also a public holiday for everyone. We started seeing colorful lanterns pop up around Seoul for the occasion a month ago, and the displays just ratcheted up in splendor the closer we got to the holiday.

There are Buddhist temples all over the country, including in Seoul. The one closest to the U.S. Embassy is called Jogyesa Temple. I've explored its lovely grounds often during lunchtime walks with colleagues, but some of my Korean coworkers mentioned it looks particularly wonderful lit up at night. So I gathered some friends and made plans to check it out the night before the holiday.

First, we grabbed a Buddhist temple-style dinner at a restaurant called Sanchon (산촌), which means "mountain village" in Korean. In pre-COVID times, this restaurant would host a traditional music and dance performance every night at 8pm. Once the pandemic is over, I hope they'll do those again. Regardless, the food alone made the visit worth it. Temple cuisine focuses on fresh, seasonal herbs and vegetables. You'll never find meat at these meals or the "five food taboos": garlic, onion, scallion, chives, and leek. It is believed these foods are too stimulating in taste, causing lust and anger and interfering with meditation.

We had two sets of appetizer platters: the first was a mix of herbs and roots and the second highlighted mushrooms. Even that giant green thing that looks just like a lettuce salad was actually a thin, green mushroom! I'd never seen or tasted anything like it. Then came an impressive collection of sides as our main course, alongside rice and soybean stew. The stone pots of sticky rice even came with hot water to help you scrape the race on the sides of the bowl - my favorite part! We ended the meal with a creamy white dessert drink that tasted just like original tart forzen yogurt at Sweetgreen. (What can I say? It's my favorite froyo flavor and I'm a little homesick.)

After dinner we made our way to Jogyesa Temple. Along the way, we saw the lanterns strung along the street lit up. We also came across deung-gan (등간), lantern poles lit with a traditional Korean method. The various lantern shapes symbolize different things such as better life, good health, and defeating bad energy. This year, there were special prayer lanterns for overcoming COVID-19.

Once we arrived at the temple, we could enjoy the magnificent displays. The sheer number of lanterns draped in a canopy over the grounds was impressive enough, but there were also artistic lanterns interspersed throughout. Some Buddhists went to worship inside the temple itself or at several shrines, but most people there were just walking around and enjoying the sights like we were.

It was a special and beautiful evening, and I'm so grateful we got to experience it. I so admire the thoughtfulness, care, and hard work that went into the creative and awe-inspiring lanterns, and we wish everyone celebrating a happy Buddha's Birthday!

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