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A Foreign Take on a Korean Buddhist Custom

By Tiffini Brock, The Seoul Times, May 14, 2008

Korean Buddhism Viewed by Western Journalist

Seoul, South Korea -- Buddha's Birthday is a widely celebrated day in South Korea. Common sights include lotus lanterns, Buddhist bead making, and parades honoring the deity. Many foreigners come camera-ready to capture a glimpse of this elusive and mystical religion that stresses goodwill and enlightenment.

<< Seonoh, head monk of Mahasunwon Temple burts into laughter while talking with fellow Buddhists after celebrating Buddh's Birthday.
By David B. Mann, photo editor of The Seoul Times

One event that foreigners miss, however, are the rituals that are held at the many Buddhist temples located in Seoul. Modern Korean Buddhism involves more than 10,000 temples and 20,000 monks.

Mahaseonwon Temple, located in Seoul's Nowon-Gu, celebrated Buddha's Birthday on May 12, 2008 with a heart warming display of enthusiasm and devotion. With about 15 million Koreans practicing the Buddhist faith, temples such as Mahaseonwon are becoming gateways for the busy citizens of Seoul.

Located in the metropolitan area, it is easily accessible for anyone wishing to celebrate Sakyamuni's (Buddha) teachings and to participate in important spiritual rituals.

As a foreigner, I was invited to witness the celebration of Buddha's Birthday in authentic Korean surroundings. I was greeted by the smiling Buddhist believers and escorted to a beautifully decorated room full of kneeling people. Lotus prayer lanterns illuminated the ceiling as a display of fresh, shining fruit lined the altar where the guest of honor was depicted in a gleaming statue form. The monk's voice never faltered as she led the Buddhists in the prayers and chants. The musical tones were like nothing I had experienced before.

After the ceremony, I was escorted to the courtyard for the bathing of the newly born Sakyamuni. One by one, I watched the Buddhists ladle water from a brimming tub to symbolically bathe a golden statue of the deity. The mood was joyful and I was surrounded by smiling faces. Even the children patiently waited for their turn to participate in the cleansing.

Next the traditional Buddhist lunch was served, which consisted of fresh vegetables, fruits, and rice. Afterwards, I was granted the opportunity to attend a tea ceremony with the female head monk of the temple whom they called Seonoh.

As I entered the room, head monk Seonoh was facing the other Buddhist believers who were granted entrance to the tea ceremony. I greeted her with the traditional Buddhist way of performing three deep bows and then seated myself on the floor. The "Jaksol" tea I was served was warm in my hand as I prepared myself to ask the many questions foreigners have of Buddhist culture.

Seonoh (standing), head monk of Mahasunwon Temple in Seoul's Nowon-Gu celebrates Buddha's Birthday with temple members on May 12, 2008, Buddha's Birthday in South Korea.
By David B. Mann, photo editor of The Seoul Times   >>

Seonoh spoke of destinies and the belief that all living creatures have Buddha's nature, and therefore are equal. The goal of the spirit is to achieve enlightenment and there are many ways to do so. Korean Buddhists rely strongly upon meditation to achieve this goal.

She also spoke of the Diamond Sutra which says to believe, accept, and practice. It is not enough to believe, Buddhists must practice their beliefs everyday. This teaching can be applied to all aspects of life.

The time I had with the head monk went by in the blink of an eye. She radiated love and acceptance, and I was very comfortable in her presence. Being a foreigner can be intimidating when introduced to something outside familiar teachings.

My experience today (May 12, 2008) was the opposite of intimating. I found the temple very warm and friendly and I found the Buddhists eager to share their happiness in their religion. With more and more people looking for a calming presence in their busy city lives, I believe temples such as Mahaseonwon will become havens for both foreigners and Koreans seeking spiritual growth.

You can contact Mahaseonwon Temple at 952-0666

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