London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2015 Travel Diary day 9: Yeongsanjae and Seodaemun

Myeongdong, Seoul, Saturday 6 June

Bongwonsa temple and the Yeongsanjae rituals

Four monks perform the cymbal dance in front of the painting of the Vulture Peak Assembly
Four monks perform the cymbal dance in front of the painting of the Vulture Peak Assembly

Today is the second UNESCO-listed item of intangible cultural heritage of my brief stay. I am tagging along with a small group of American summer students who are getting course credits by having a whale of a time in Seoul. How this works from an academic perspective I’m not sure, but it seems like a great deal and I wish such a scheme had been available in my day. Their guide for the day is David Mason, co-author of An Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism and an expert on the culture of Korean mountains.

We meet up near Anguk station and catch a bus westbound, to Mt Ansan in Seodaemun-gu. We soon arrive in Bongwon-dong, and start the gentle walk up the hill to Bongwon-sa. At the entrance to the temple, in the graveyard of past Buddhist masters, Professor Mason pauses to give a summary of what it is we are about to see.

An altar in one of Bongwonsa's shrines, laden with food offerings
An altar in one of Bongwonsa’s shrines, laden with food offerings

Bongwon-sa, originally founded by National Master Doseon in 889 on the current site of Yonsei University, was moved to its location on Mt Ansan in 1748. It is the head temple of the Taego Order of Korean Buddhism, a branch which is in the minority nowadays given the dominance of the Jogye Order. The Taego Order has two obvious features which distinguish it from the Jogye Order: it allows its ordained monks to be married, and the monks’ outer robes are the traditional red as opposed to the brown adopted by the Jogye monks. But more importantly for the purposes of today’s ceremonies the Taego Order is the custodian of the traditions of Korean Buddhist music and their associated ritual dances. As an aside, it is also home to holders of two intangible cultural properties: Yi Manbong, holder of property #48 – Dancheong – the colourful painting found on temples and royal palaces; and (unsurprisingly) Park Songam, the holder of property #50 – Yeongsanjae.

Prayers during the Yeongsanjae
Prayers during the Yeongsanjae

A key element in the Yeongsanjae ritual is Buddhist chant, Beompae, which is considered one of the three pillars of the Korean vocal tradition, the others being pansori (epic storytelling through song) and gagok (lyric song). Both Gagok and Pansori have their own separate listings in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage register, while Beompae is incorporated via the listing of the Yeongsanjae rituals.

Ornamental drums decorate the temple
Ornamental drums decorate the temple

But the Yeongsangjae is more than just a sequence of music, chant and dance. The ritual is a symbolic reenactment of the Buddha’s preaching of the Lotus Sutra on Vulture Peak some 2,600 years ago, and is the pinnacle of Korean Buddhist ceremonials. The ceremony is held in the hope of leading both the living and the departed into the joy of enlightenment and perpetual peace. It is said that during the original sermon “all the participants experienced spiritual enlightenment: heaven and earth vibrated; while flowers descended from the heavens, all the heavens contributed to the performance of the musical instruments.”1 The state designated it as an item of Important Intangible Cultural Heritage in 1973, and it was included in the UNESCO list in 2009.

Festive streamers stretch between the buildings
Festive streamers stretch between the buildings

The rituals used to extend over a period of three nights and four days, but nowadays they last for just one day. Until 2006, the ceremony was held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, but it is now held on the same day every year, 6 June, a public holiday – Memorial Day. The date is designed not only to enable more visitors to attend, but also it means that the ceremony has evolved to honour the war dead as well as past Buddhist saints.

We walk further into the temple precincts, which has the feel of a small hillside village, as small houses and cottages nestle by the roadside before you arrive at the main temple worship halls. Professor Mason points out the functions and features of the various buildings, delaying most at his favourite – the shrine of the Sanshin. But we are here today to witness the performance in the large square beneath one of the main worship halls. The whole temple has been festooned with bunting, banners and huge sashes that stretch between the buildings, but in addition one end of the square has been hung with a truly massive painting of the delivery of the Lotus Sutra at Vulture Peak, and adorned with altars packed with fruits and flowers. Along the side facing the worship hall are the musicians, while the celebrants stand at the other end from the painting. The majority of the crowd sits on the steps beneath the worship hall, while the VIPs sit on seats behind the celebrants.

The ceremony starts with the ringing of the temple bell and some initial chanting and ceremonial music, after which a procession leads from the main square down to the graveyard at the entrance where the Buddhist saints are buried.

At this point there is a scramble among the photographers present to catch the best shots of the photogenic procession as it makes its way down the hill. In the melee it is difficult to get a decent photograph: any image that manages to exclude other cameramen is either heavily cropped or out of focus.

This first ritual, the siryeon (시련), entreats the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and spirits to come down from the heavens to join the ceremony, protect the temple and give their blessing to the proceedings.

The ceremony involves prayers, chants, a dance with monks brandishing cymbals, and one with nuns bearing paper lotus flowers. This latter dance is the nabi-chum, the butterfly dance, in which the dancers wear white monastic robes with sleeves like a butterfly’s wing and a yellow goggal (고깔) peaked hat which represents a Buddhist pagoda. The costume as a whole is said to be an abstract representation of the Buddhist dharma, while the paper lotus flowers represent the “spiritual stage of purity even within the contaminated world.”2 At the conclusion of this stage in the ceremony, the spirits led by Bodhisattva Innowang are carried back up the hill in a palanquin in a grand procession to enjoy the rest of the rituals (and, later, the lunch).

Back in the main temple courtyard, the ceremonies continue, with different combinations of instruments; different styles of dances; different modes of chanting. One of the more colourful dances is the bara-chum cymbal dance performed in front of the huge scroll painting of the Buddha and Vulture Peak assembly.

I wish I had been able to determine the significance of each individual stage in the ritual. I found myself wishing that there could be surtitles that told you which part of the ceremony you were witnessing at any one time. The official order of service according to the UNESCO nomination form didn’t bear much resemblance to the official programme being sold for a few dollars at the entrance. It didn’t really matter because it was all so marvellous, but you didn’t know what was happening or how long it was all going to last.

I wanted to stay for what was supposed to be the most sacred part of the service – the point at which food is laid out for all the hungry spirits and boddhisattvas who have been summoned to the ceremony. I was told that as this moment was so holy, photographs were not permitted, but I’m not sure whether I was being teased: I can’t imagine your average intrepid Korean photographer-ajosshi being deterred by such a piffling convention.3 This moment in the ceremony would have been interesting to witness, but I had no way of knowing when it would be.

It was pleasant enough to watch the colourful performance, wander around the temple to take in the views of Seoul, wander back to the rituals to see them from another viewpoint, wander off to another part of the temple, back to the main square where the ceremony would have moved on to a different phase… It would have been easy to stay all day.

You don’t have to stroll far from the main square to come across near life-size nahan statues: the sixteen arahan, the primary disciples of Sakyamuni Buddha who attained complete enlightenment or nirvana. The nahan are said to be examples to the monks of what they are trying to become – the highest state which an earthly human can attain. To the uninitiated, though, it seems odd that anyone might want to emulate these characters – endearing caricatures with exaggerated and comic expressions.

It is said that at the original sermon on Vulture Peak there was a congregation of three million devotees. Bongwonsa was busy, but I had the MERS scare to thank for my ability to roam in and out of the spectators and around the temple precincts relatively freely. Nevertheless after a while I decided to move on, not wanting to do battle with the crowds in what I imagined would be an endless lunch queue. So, as I am in Sodaemun-gu, I decide to pay a visit to the famous prison that is situated nearby on my route back to Myeongdong. I walk back down the hill, grab some kimbap at a local convenience store and climb into a cab to take me there.

In the cab, the phone rings. It is Brother Anthony. I had known that he was going to be at the ceremony, but had not managed to bump into him. He was now encouraging me to go back up the hill to the temple. Apparently, I was missing out on the best bit. I later find out that, as something of a VIP, Brother Anthony was being entertained to lunch by the senior monks in the temple. Not for them the queue for the canteen. Instead, they had a private room with specially prepared food and sophisticated musical entertainments into the bargain. If I had known at the time, I would of course have returned for such refreshment, and maybe stayed for the afternoon session of the Yeongsanjae. But for now my mind was set on Seodaemun Prison, which is short walk from Dongnimmun subway station where the taxi drops me a few minutes later.

The Yeongsanjae (Celebration of Buddha’s Sermon on Vulture Peak Mountain), as well as being listed at UNESCO, is Important Intangible Cultural Heritage #50

Seodaemun Prison and Independence Park

Seodaemun Prison was the involuntary home of many anti-Japanese elements during the colonial period. It opened in 1908 and was not closed until 1987. It is now a museum which memorialises the Japanese occupation.

The museum contains exhibits showing Japanese interrogation techniques, and has a memorial wall showing pictures of some of the activists who were imprisoned there.

Outside the prison is an interesting fan-shaped exercise area, where prisoners could get a bit of daylight while still being separated from each other.

Elsewhere in the park are other monuments to Korea’s independent spirit, which flourished from 1895. At the Jongmyo shrine on 7 January that year, in front of his ancestors, King Kojong had made a solemn declaration renouncing Korea’s tributary status to China: “A neighboring Power and the unanimous judgement of all our officers unite in affirming that only as an independent ruler can We make our country strong… All thought of dependence on China shall be put away so that the heritage of independence may be secured.”4 With this declaration, Kojong made his country supposedly equal in status to – and therefore lacking the protection of – China: able to stand on its own two feet as the Great Han Empire, and thus free to be gobbled up by Japan.

To the west of Seoul, outside the main city walls, were two symbols of the long-standing subservient relationship with China: the Yeongeunmun Gate (영은문) – the “welcoming gate for obligation”;5 and the  Mohwagwan (모화관) hall, which was where emissaries sent from China to Joseon Korea were formally welcomed and entertained. Both buildings were demolished in 1896. In their place, independence activist Seo Jae-pil (Philip Jaisohn) built the Independence Gate (completed in 1897) and the Independence Hall, which was used for “forums to promote national independence, self-reliance and the rights of the people.”6 The two pillars supporting the old Yeongeunmun Gate were preserved (as Historic Site No. 33) and positioned in front of the new Independence Gate (Historic Site No. 32). Seodaemun Prison is Historic Site #324.

Nearby is a statue of Seo Jae-pil himself, and also nearby is the Declaration of Independence Monument commemorating the March 1st Movement. Seo, who acquired the sobriquet “The First Korean-American” is a fascinating character who deserves several articles all to himself. First, to track down a copy of Channing Liem’s biography of him.

Another evening with Yi Chuljin

From Seodaemun I catch the subway back to Myeongdong and prepare for the evening’s entertainment. As arranged the previous weekend, I was to go to Yi Chul-jin’s theatre for a dance performance with Brother Anthony and Hank Kim from Seoul Selection. As it happened, Hank was unable to join us, but instead we had the company of a friend of Anthony’s who was visiting and who had had the pleasure of the Yeongsanjae earlier in the day. Together we caught a cab to Daehakro and entered Yi’s theatre.

The performers at Yi Chul-jin's theatre
The performers at Yi Chul-jin’s theatre

The performance is an enchanting mix of Seungmu, Salpuri and Bukchum, and it so happens that one of my friends, formerly of the UK Korean Artists Association, is performing alongside Yi. It is an uplifting performance, and afterwards we proceed to a local restaurant where we have what we always seem to have in Hyewha: smoked duck barbecue.  And because Yi has given up alcohol, I walk back to the Myeongdong area reasonably sober.


<< Previous diary entry | Diary index | Next diary entry >>

  1. Quote from the Yeongsanjae nomination form on the UNESCO website. []
  2. Ven Hyewon and David Mason: Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism, nabi-chum entry. []
  3. The Soul of Seoul blog’s account of the ritual in 2013 confirms the ban of photographs at the moment when the spirits are fed. []
  4. Kojong Sillok, quoted in Henry H Em: The Great Enterprise, Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Duke UP, 2013, pp 21-22. []
  5. Even worse: according to the Wikipedia entry, when the gate was first built in 1537, it was called Yeongjomun, the gate for welcoming imperial decrees. The Ming objected, because they didn’t just send decrees: they sent orders (and gifts) as well. []
  6. Source: information board outside the Independence Hall. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.