Having never seen or taken part in any significant festival, we decided to venture into Seoul to enjoy the festivities to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, a national holiday and the most important day in the Buddhist faith. Having been raised as Catholics, we have never really been exposed to Buddhism or can claim to know anything about the faith in too much depth in terms of how it is practiced and the significance of different customs, symbols and figures. However, from the day we experienced in Seoul, what we can both say is thanks in large part to a chap from Nepal (that would be said Buddha), we were treated to one of the most truly enjoyable days of our lives!
Buddhism, officially classified as an Indian religion, is rooted deep in the Himalayas north of India. Siddhārtha Gautama, originally raised in the small kingdom or principality of Kapilvastu (now modern day Nepal) around the time of 400 BCE, was a spiritual teacher who founded Buddhism. In most Buddhist traditions, he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha, "Buddha" meaning "awakened one" or "the enlightened one." According to the Buddhist texts, the Buddha and his monks spent four months each year discussing
and rehearsing his teachings, and after his death his monks set about preserving them (and according to some, magnifying the figure of Buddha).
Just to give you a point of comparison, and a basic introduction to the faith, Buddhism rejects concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity. According to Buddhism there ultimately is no such thing as a self, independent from the rest of the universe (the doctrine of anatta) and in fact each person must undergo eternal rebirths. However, rebirth in subsequent existences must be understood as, the continuation of an ever-changing process of "dependent arising" determined by the laws of cause and effect (karma) rather than that of one being, transmigrating or incarnating from one existence to the next.
And so because of this, we decided on a sunny May Sunday to head to Seoul to partake in the Lotus Lantern Festival 2010, the official name give to the major festival the celebrate Buddha’s birthday. His actually birthday takes place on May 21st, however, the build-up lasts over a week. The lantern festival itself can only be described as stunning from start to finish, and
the experience taken from this day will be one never forgotten...how can you forget a spectacular lantern parade, a Buddhist culture street fair and a traditional lantern exhibition, topped off with a petal rain shower?!
During the day, we arrived into Jonggak station, close to the financial heart of Seoul and City Hall. We made our way from the subway under the glorious splash of sunshine we were treated to towards Jogye-sa Temple. Along the way, we were able to enjoy the ridiculously long street festival where the activities on offer where endless, from taking help from the locals to make lanterns and lotus flowers, to printing traditional Korean patterns or even practicing Zen meditation under the guidance of Buddhist monks in flowing robes. After writing ‘wishes’ on petals and attaching them to a large display, Amy and some of our other friends enjoyed making their own lotus flowers, while I took in a street show of traditional dancing!
The truly noticeable aspect that was immediately apparent was the relaxed and excited atmosphere. I have no idea of how many people visited the festival, but what was clear was the diversity of cultures, religions and languages and how,
no matter where in the world you came from, you were not for any second made to feel like a party crashing infidel!
After reaching the beautiful Jogye-sa Temple, decorated in feast of coloured lanterns (including the Korean Yin-Yang), we collected our own lanterns and joined in the day march towards the Cheong Gye Cheon stream, running through the heart of Seoul. Eventually we were able to take our seat on Jongno Street and wait for the parade to begin! Luckily, we were even joined by Warren, our Korean friend from hiking and somewhat of a celebrity amongst westerners living in the North West of Korea!
Rather unusually, whilst waiting for the parade to begin, we were approached by men with cameras and microphones from KBS news asking for an interview with Amy! After a somewhat awkward interview where the reporter actually asked no questions, we expected little to transpire. We were therefore surprised when, the following day in school, Amy was greeted like a hero by children who had seen her on the 9 o’clock news! That’s two er, celebrities I was sat with!
The parade itself lasted for almost 3 hours but not one minute
of it felt too long! As we waited in anticipation, we heard the distant sound of traditional ‘poongmullori’ percussion music, accompanied by glowing lanterns in the distance coming from Dongdaemun headed for Jogye-sa. The lanterns ranged from small hand-held lotus shapes to much larger lights, all carried by groups of people offering waves to the crowd and genuinely happy smiles on their faces. Lanterns were followed by giant lantern floats in the shape of dragons, elephants and Buddhas.
Amongst the walking people in the parade were Buddhist Monks from all over the world, with almost every country imaginable having representation, giving the feeling of being a part of something truly special. After spotting a number of westerners walking in the parade itself, we went with the spare of the moment and joined in, our lanterns hoisted above our heads, candles lit inside. Again, rather than shunned away by locals in the parade, we were smiled at and accepted into the festivities as if we were practicing buddhists. To me, actually walking in the parade itself through the streets of Seoul amongst the beauty and glow of thousands of lanterns was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
After reaching the Jonggak intersection (where I spotted a close-up image of myself walking in the parade on one of the huge screens!) we put aside our lanterns, readying ourselves for the ‘petal shower’, a rain of hundreds of thousands of petals falling from the sky! To complete the feeling of togetherness and global community, just before the petals began to fall, we began to dance with local Koreans and continued to do so long after the shower began...a perfect end to the perfect day!
If many of our travelling days ahead come close to the happiness felt on this day, we can truly say we will have enjoyed our time...
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