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Jogyesa's Preparation for Buddha's Birthday

One day prior to the 8th day of the fourth lunar month, Buddha's Birthday, Jogye Temple (Jogyesa) in the heart of Seoul was filled with more people than usual. Buddhists busily prepared for a successful feast for the grand day of the year while tourists eagerly rushed to take snap shots of every interesting detail that caught their eyes. At the entrance of Jogyesa, a colorful gate covered with traditional Korean tile roof has a wooden sign post written in Chinese characters (read from right to left) "Samgaksan Jogyesa," representing the fact that the temple is below the foot of Mt. Samgak, another name for Mt. Bukhan.

The courtyard of Jogyesa is not that big in size compared to the importance of the temple as center of Korea's biggest Buddhism sector. From about a week prior to Buddha's Birthday, the temple is filled with lanterns hung on electric wires that carry the name of people who hang the name of themselves and their loved ones, praying Buddha look after their wellbeing. Colorful lanterns lit on the evening of Buddha's Birthday exhibit a sensational sight and illuminate a mysterious sense of beauty and sacredness. Once within the temple, visitors can light incense burners for free, place it to burn, People fill the small grounds of Jogyesa and other temples throughout the country on Buddha's Birthday and in that evening, children accompanied by their parents enjoy performances and donation collectors dressed in traditional costumes asking for their contributions.

Buddha's Birthday is a grand feast for all people, especially for non-Buddhists because it is a time to enjoy a variety of Buddhist artists display their works of art. Among them at Jogyesa is an exhibition of a stone Buddha placed within a broken vase and sitting in front of a small bowl filled with lotus leaves to symbolize a pond. A candle lit within the vase lights the Buddha image with a warm, orange beam throughout the day.

Visitors at the temple will notice that not all of the lanterns are colored but that there are rows of white ones, too, at the northern side of the temple. These are lanterns placed for the memory of the dead, where relatives may wish to place a tag bearing the name of their former loved ones and wish them well in their new life. The lanterns read: Reborn in Nirvana.

At one side of the temple, women engage in a ceremony of bathing a Baby Buddha statue. People make a monetary donation, pour water on top of a small Buddha image using a small wooden dipper, and pray for their annual wishes.

Some people wash Baby Buddha, some light incense burners but the devout believers bow one hundred and eight times to Buddha. People life their hands facing upwards while keeping their face down on the ground to ask for Buddha's benediction. This act is believed to gather Buddha's gifts and bring luck to the person praying.

What is most noticeable in the enthusiastic atmosphere at Jogyesa prior to Buddha's Birthday is the enormous hope of all the people, who bought a lantern and placed their names on it. The lanterns swinging in the wind seem to whisper the silent prayers of the Buddhists who wished for their modest hopes and desires for a brighter future. The whole feast, I believe, arises from an unselfish prayer for others, just like an elderly woman holding five incense burners and earnestly engaging herself in prayer to Buddha on the early afternoon, one day prior to Buddha's Birthday.

(Written by Jinna Park, Photos by Namkyu Lee)


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