This year on May 21 marks the 2554th year since Buddha’s birth. April 8 by the lunar calendar is a national holiday in Korea, and is celebrated as “the coming of Buddha day” or in Korean “Bucheonim-oshin-nal.” Of all the celebrations in Korea, the Buddha’s birthday is perhaps the most colorful and festive. Almost anywhere you go, you are likely to see streets festooned with brightly colored paper lanterns. Buddhist murals are hung in temple courtyards, temples hold annual lantern parades, and monks donned in brown ceremonial robes lead prayers in the temple’s prayer hall.
Whether you are Buddhist or not, this holiday is a wonderful opportunity to experience Korean culture. My Korean mother is Buddhist, and every year on Buddha’s birthday, my family and I take her to three different temples. It is believed that if you visit three temples on Buddha’s birthday, you will receive good fortune. Usually, we go to Haeinsa temple located in Hapchon, or Cheonggoksa temple located in Jinju. There, we join a large crowd of believers in worship. Sitting on mats, we listen to addresses by senior monks, watch offerings placed before images of Buddha, and bow several times. After the ceremony, we head for the temple cafeteria to eat bibimbap for free. On our way back, we visit two more temples located either in Haman or Masan, and sometimes eat more bibimbap since it’s my favorite temple food!
I’m not Buddhist, but ever since coming to Korea over 12 years ago, I look forward to Buddha’s birthday every year. For me, a visit to any Buddhist temple is a sensory experience. I relish the mesmerizing sound of monks chanting, the sweet smell of incense burning, and the tranquility of rock gardens at temples. Despite my Christian upbringing, I have always been fascinated with Buddhism, and the concepts of “karma” and “rebirth” are particularly intriguing for me. When inside a temple, I sit calmly with my eyes closed and do a short meditation to clear my head. Staying in the temple even for a short while gives me a feeling of relaxation and peace of mind.
Celebrating Buddha’s 2554th birthday this year gives me another opportunity not only to give thanks to Buddha but also to think about gratitude. I think about how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, eat three square meals a day, and have loved ones around me. Also, I shouldn’t miss the chance to explore some of the beautiful temples in Kyungnam, and of course, eat several bowls of free bibimbap.
Cecile Hwang -
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