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'Yeongsan Jae,' Ritual for the Joy of Perpetual Peace

By Jeon Ock-bae, The Korea Times, Apr 9, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- Yeongsan Jae is a performance art, which contains various art genres such as music, dance, drama, literature and philosophy. It is rooted in Buddhism and has merged with diverse Korean traditions.

<< Buddhist monks carry out the "Yeongsan Jae," a Buddhist ritual that dates back 2,600 years. / Korea Times File

Yeongsan Jae is one of the most important, traditional Buddhist rituals in Korea. This ceremony is held in hopes of leading both the living and the dead into the joy of enlightenment and perpetual peace.

Yeongsan Jae is one of several kinds of memorial services, which might be performed on the 49th day after one's death, its purpose being to guide the soul of the deceased to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss (Buddhist paradise). Sometimes it is performed in seven-day intervals up until the 49th day after one's death.

Basically, this ceremony is a reenactment of a significant event in the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, which is called the Vulture Peak Assembly. It is here that he first preached ``The Lotus Sutra’’ and gave the teachings to Kasyapa, one of his disciples, who responded with a subtle smile. The main objective of this ceremony is to soothe the souls of the dead and lead them to be reborn in the Pure Land, but sometimes this ceremony is also held to invoke blessings for the security and development of the nation.

The ceremony is performed as follows: in preparation, a scroll painting of the Vulture Peak Assembly with the image of Buddha is hung and an altar is presented in front of it. This is called the ``upper altar’’ where offerings of incense, tea, flowers, fruit, lanterns and rice are prepared. To the left of this altar, a middle altar is prepared where the meal service will be conducted, and to the right, a lower altar is set up where the actual ceremony for the soul of the deceased will be conducted.

After assembling these altars, the large temple bell is rung as a signal to begin the ceremony, and the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Devas and guardians are beseeched to come down from heaven and participate while those attending call on a parade ground and invite the soul of the deceased. At the same time, a verse of praise for Buddha’s great virtue is sung, and musicians play various musical instruments, such as the Korean fiddle, the drum, the ``janggu” (a smaller Korean drum) and the ``geomungo” (Korean lute). In time with the music, such Buddhist ritual dances such as the ``Bara Chum” (Symbal dance), ``Nabi Chum” (Buttlerfly dance) and ``Beobgo Chum” (Dharma dance) are also performed. All these dances are intended to express the true Dharma (teaching) of Buddha.

After the soul of the deceased is enshrined, the other parts of the ceremony such as the reception, the donation, Dharma talks and the blessing are carried out, and the participants pray for good fortune, happiness and health. Lastly, as a final farewell to the deceased, all the participants form a queue and circle the altar chanting sutras.

In the past, the whole ceremony took three days and nights, but now it is usually finished in a single day. Through this ceremony, the deceased and the participants become one for the purpose of awakening the true Dharma of Buddha and leading the way to free everyone from earthly suffering and delusion.

The origin of the Vulture Peak Ceremony is not clear, but the ``Joseonbulgyo Tongsa” (The Entire Buddhist History of Joseon Kingdom), written by Lee Neung-hwa (1869~1943), provides evidence that it was performed in the first half of the Joseon Kingdom.

This ceremony was designated by the Korean government as a major intangible cultural property (No. 50) in 1987. Since then, the Taego Order (???) of Korean Buddhism has taken the initiative to revive it by establishing the ``Yeongsan-jae Bojon Wiwonhoe’’ (Vulture Peak Ceremony Preservation Association) and by performing the ceremony in Korea as well as over 20 foreign countries.

Bongwon Temple, the main temple of the Taego Order, is now the official preserver and teaching center for this ceremony and conducts annual performances on Korean Memorial Day, June 6. The order also has arranged international seminars with the aim of introducing this ritual to other countries.

In addition, the Jogae Order has established the ``Bulgyo Eosan Jakbeop Hakgyo’’ (Eosan Buddhist Ritual School) with the aim to teach and transmit other Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, including the Vulture Peak Ceremony.

Currently, the Vulture Peak Ceremony Preservation Association consists of 240 instructors. A monk, Kim In-sik (Buddhist name: Guhae), is the primary ceremony expert on Buddhist music, following the ranks of Jigwang, Byeokeung, Songam and Ileung. Assisting him are Ma Myeong-chan, Lee Su-gil, Oh Chan-yeong, Lee Byeong-u, Lee Jo-won and Han Hui-ja, who are all teachers of Buddhist music and dance and the making of ornamental paper flowers used in the ritual.

On Sept. 30, 2009, the Vulture Peak Ceremony and four other Korean cultural assets were listed as ``Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity’’ by UNESCO.

In view of the special status bestowed by UNESCO, the Vulture Peak Ceremony is clearly one of the most valuable heritages in Korea's Buddhist traditions.

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