2016 travel diary 2: Buddha’s Birthday

Baby Buddha surrounded by dragons at Bongwonsa
Baby Buddha surrounded by dragons at Bongwonsa

Jongno, Seoul, 14 May 2016, 9am.

Coffee with the Drawing Hand

My first appointment of the day is at 9:30am with Kim Jieun, aka The Drawing Hand: I am due to pick up the original of her 2015 Christmas Card design for LKL – and also I am due to pay her the balance of her well-earned design fee. It is nice to see her again: the last time I saw her was when doing exactly the same thing back in 2015. Last year though I already had a clear idea of what I wanted the upcoming design to be. This year, I am still waiting for inspiration for the 2016 design.

Jieuns card

We meet in a coffee shop just across the road from my hotel. A cup of hand-drip and a muffin is a perfect breakfast and I enjoy the relaxed, casual start to the day: Jieun is good company. Our chat passes all too quickly. I have to hurry off at 10am to stow the painting in my hotel room and pick up my camera: there is likely to be a lot to photograph today.

Buddha’s Birthday 1: morning at Jogyesa

The entrance to Jogyesa
The entrance to Jogyesa on Buddha’s Birthday

As I cross the road outside Jogyesa at 10:14am, my phone rings. It is Brother Anthony, just checking that I am on schedule for our 10:15 rendez-vous at the temple entrance. We gather in the shade of the lanterns which form a continuous, brightly coloured awning across the whole Jogyesa compound. Each lantern has a name or a prayer dangling from it: the coloured lanterns are prayers for the living, while the white lanterns, which are all gathered together at the western end of the compound, represent prayers for the dead.

Crowds in Jogyesa
Crowds in Jogyesa waiting for the ceremonies to start

Anthony introduces me to my companions for the day: a quartet of profound admirers of Korean tea. Three of them are from Penn State University, where they are leading lights in the Penn State Tea Institute as a spare time activity from their majors, which include architecture, geography and other subjects unrelated to their main passion. Their institute conducts research into the science of tea and its accoutrements.

Jogyesa on Buddha's Birthday
Jogyesa on Buddha’s Birthday

The final member of our group is a young charity worker from Oxford, who I later discover used to go to the same church as me in London. He has recently returned from a solo trip down to the Jirisan area, and the trio from Penn State will be travelling there later in the week. It is a very congenial international group united by a love of the finest Korean green tea and of course brought together by Anthony.

The queue to bathe Baby Buddha
The queue to bathe Baby Buddha at Jogyesa

The temple is busy, as one might expect. A row of tables is laid out just inside the main temple gate where people seem to have been picnicking before the main events of the day are due to begin. To the right of the tables, an orderly queue has formed, marshalled by the rope barriers you find in post offices or airport security checks: people are waiting for the privilege of bathing Baby Buddha, one of the main customs on Buddha’s Birthday. A small baby Buddha statue emerging from a lotus flower is placed in a basin, surrounded by a penumbra of flowers. The devoted Buddhist is required to tip a ladle of water over the statue as part of their rituals for the day.

A painstaking restoration

For the first part of this morning there is to be no dawdling. We stay long enough at Jogyesa to soak up some of the atmosphere and then Anthony leads us off to our next destination. Our first stop is a building on the other side of the road more or less opposite Jogyesa, on the way to Insadong. We enter around the back of the building, say hello to the receptionist, get in a lift and head down to the basement. I have no clue as to what we are doing there. But as we emerge from the lifts our mission becomes clear.

A wall painting based on the great work that we were about to see
A wall painting based on the great work that we were about to see

In a huge internal atrium there is an exhibition that is really something special: a full-size (12 metres tall) reproduction of National Treasure No 301, painstakingly painted in loving and microscopic detail: the 17th century hanging painting of the Vulture Peak Assembly, the original of which is in Hwaeomsa temple in Guryegun (which we would visit the following Saturday). The original painting was executed in 1653, in the reign of King Hyojong.

The full-size reproduction of the Vulture Peak Assembly painting of Hwaeomsa Temple
The full-size reproduction of the Vulture Peak Assembly painting of Hwaeomsa Temple

The Sakyamuni Buddha sits in the centre between the two Bodhisattvas, Munsubosal and Bohyeonbosal.  Beams of light shine from his face. His right hand, pointing downwards, signifies (according to the Cultural Heritage Administration website) that he is casting out demons. In each of the four corners one of the Guardian Kings stands guard.

A close-up of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas
A close-up of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas

The ones at the bottom we can see clearly; the ones at the top are somewhat hidden among the congregation: the one in the top right, a splendid fellow with cloud-like facial hair, is taking advantage of his hiding place by strumming on the lute.

One of the Guardian Kings in the Hwaeomsa painting
One of the Guardian Kings in the Hwaeomsa painting (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

We cannot tarry long: we have an appointment that will not wait. We are due to attend a wedding nearby. When you are led around by someone with a timetable to stick to, you are not sure if you can repeat the route. I tried to memorise certain landmarks on this morning’s trail – a shop run by the Korea Craft and Design Foundation in what I think was Insadong 11-gil; the headquarters of the Chongdogyo church somewhere to the northeast of Insadong tucked in somewhere behind the Jongno police station – but I would struggle to find them again. We emerge from the backstreets and lanes just south of Anguk station and cross the road to a small palace I had not noticed before.

Walking through the alleyways of Insadong
Walking through the alleyways of Insadong: ahead is the Chondogyo headquarters

A palace wedding

The main building of the Unhyeongung
The main building of the Unhyeongung

The Unhyeongung (운현궁) [website | map]  was once the home of the young King Gojong, and his father the Daewongun lived there most of his life. As well as being a tourist destination (though not so much as the grander palaces) it is hired out as a venue for traditional wedding ceremonies. In the very spot where today’s ceremony was taking place, Gojong himself married the future Empress Myeongseong one hundred and fifty years previously, halfway through the third lunar month of 1866.

Wedding at Unhyeongung

Today’s bride and groom, an Australian poet and a Korean yoga practitioner and both friends of Anthony, did not mind a few hangers-on coming along to witness the ceremony, but Anthony rightly gets a seat while the rest of us stand in the shade of the eaves at the edge of the palace’s internal courtyard, the Norakdang.

Onlookers and guests witness the wedding
Onlookers and guests witness the wedding, resting in the shade of the Norakdang’s eaves

Vows and bows are exchanged, a poem recited, in-laws greeted and thanked in a celebration full of warmth and colour. It was a privilege to be able to witness this joyful occasion.

Wedding at Unhyeongung

After the ceremony, we need to head off for our next appointment: lunch and festivities at Giweonjeongsa, a temple for female monks a short walk up the hill from Achasan subway station, in the East of Seoul on Line 5, just north of the river from Jamsil.

Buddha’s Birthday 2: afternoon at Giweonjeongsa

The entrance to Giweonjeongsa
The entrance to Giweonjeongsa

A huge awning covers the courtyard in front of the main shrine building – designed to protect from the sun rather than the rain, as the covering is a fine mesh, letting a dappled light through to the gathering underneath: some of them picknicking, some of them chatting, all of them sitting on the ground, shoes off, facing the steps of the shrine, and almost all of them ajummas.

The audience at the temple concert
The audience at the temple concert

Anthony knows the senior monk and the senior layperson associated with the temple – she is his publisher – and is a regular visitor there. As we work our way round the outside of the courtyard to the refectory building he is greeted many times. Anthony and we his guests are invited to lunch: a wonderful table of countless seasoned vegetable dishes. We gratefully help ourselves, unable to fit everything on our plates, and then at the end of the table one of the helpers offers us a full plate of bibimbap, something I couldn’t find room for. The lunch is served with refreshing omija tea.

Over lunch, Anthony is talking to women from the temple, and the rest of us are getting to know each other a bit better. Out of the corner of my eye I see a slim, shortish gentleman with silver hair and well-trimmed beard come into the room and greet Anthony, who returns his greeting effusively. I wonder who this important person is, and then I recognise him.

Jang Sa-ik
Jang Sa-ik performing later that afternoon

It was Jang Sa-ik. I leap to my feet at the presence of such a VIP. I suspect I was behaving rather like a fan boy – I’m sure I babbled something about being his number one fan, which Anthony translated into more moderate Korean – but at least I managed to get a handshake out of him.

Jang is a regular visitor to the temple, and is also a regular singer at today’s Buddha’s Birthday Concert. Today, however, he is recovering from a throat operation to remove a polyp, and is under doctor’s orders not to sing. He is nevertheless here to offer his moral support. And meeting him was certainly one of today’s many treats.

After lunch it is time for the musical entertainments. As Anthony is a VIP guest of the temple he gets a seat and we share in his privilege. After some speeches, the music begins. A troupe of percussionists with taepyeongso comes up the hill and processes around the courtyard to announce the start of proceedings. Then a group of Japanese monks take up positions on the steps to the main shrine to give us a rousing performance of temple drumming. We move on to something less Buddha-related: some pansori; some popera; and some trot.

Possibly the highlight for me was the unexpected appearance on stage of Jang Sa-ik: though forbidden to sing, he nevertheless recited a poem in a sprechgesang style accompanied by some background music, and then performed some graceful stretching exercises. Later the senior monk even persuaded him to join her in singing a gentle unaccompanied lullaby. It was all extremely moving. The lively trot singer pulled us out of our reverie and soon had the temple women on their feet joining in, and it then became a bit of a free-for-all.

Jang Sa-ik singing a quiet lullaby with the head monk
Jang Sa-ik singing a quiet lullaby with the senior monk

Where in Korea can you find a Japanese monk doing an Elvis impersonation with a karaoke machine, surrounded by dancing ajummas? Where will you find a famous folk singer demonstrating his tai chi moves, or Andrew Lloyd Webber performed alongside some epic storytelling through song?

The answer of course is Giweonjeongsa on Buddha’s Birthday: a joyous celebration at which it was impossible not to get up and dance or clap your hands. Everyone’s enthusiasm for the music and for the occasion was infectious. Definitely a day to be cherished.

A stroll through Ewha Womans University

Ewha Womans University sign

We arrive at Ewha Womans University subway station and walk northwards in the direction of the famous university campus. Straight ahead, on top of a hill is an imposing hall in late Victorian ecclesiastical style with a broad stone stairway leading up to it.

Ewha Womans University Welch-Ryang Auditorium

This is the Welch-Ryang Auditorium with a capacity of over 3,300, which was completed in 1956. But of course nowadays the campus is best known for its new development architected by Dominique Perrault: the 66,000m2 Ewha Campus Complex, which has 6 storeys beneath its landscaped ground-level roof.

Apart from ourselves, there are not many tourists around as far as we could see, though in the last couple of years the campus has reportedly been a popular destination for Chinese tourists who sometimes wander into the library or classrooms to take pictures. The Chosun Ilbo explains the popularity of the university with the Chinese:

The symbol of the university is the pear blossom, which represents wealth and good fortune in China, while the name of the university sounds similar to the Chinese words “Lì fā,” which means increasing wealth.

We walk through the valley that slices through the topography of the campus and take our own photographs, and then continue on to our main destination: nearby Bongwonsa temple where they will be celebrating Buddha’s Birthday with traditional ceremonial music and dance.

Buddha’s Birthday 3: evening at Bongwonsa

Bongwonsa, as the head temple of the Taego order, is the custodian of the main Korean Buddhist music traditions, and has a regular cycle of performance as part of their normal ritual calendar; but they pull out all the stops for the annual Yeongsanje on 6 June and for Buddha’s Birthday.

There is an excited buzz at the temple, and plenty of visitors who have come to see the celebrations. As well as being the final stop on Brother Anthony’s small tour of the temples for Buddha’s Birthday, it is also the endpoint of a slightly larger tour of different temples organised by the Royal Asiatic Society.

We stay for a cymbal dance and a butterfly dance and then perform the duty that we should have done earlier in the day: we washed Baby Buddha, upturning a ladleful of water over his head.

We amble back down the hill and climb into two taxis.

Afterwards in Insadong

We rendez-vous outside the Jongno police station and Anthony leads us to a small makgeolli house where we unwind at the end of the long day. This is a place where they make their own stuff, and it is well worth a visit. We start with an interesting brew slightly tinged with the colour and sweetness of omija, move on to cheongju, the clearer wine-like liquid that is produced higher up the vat, and then are treated to some off-menu super-strong soju which definitely warmed the throat.

As we walked down Insadong on the lookout for 2차, I rang my friend Yi Chuljin to see if he would be free for dinner the following evening. Not only that, but he was keen to join us now. So it was a very congenial group of us who spent the rest of the evening at a craft beer place close to the main Insadong junction.

A perfect end to my first full day in Korea this year.

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