According to the sage wisdom of Wikipedia, about half of Koreans do not associate with religion. Twenty nine percent claim to be Christian, Twenty two percent claim Buddhism, and the rest (Judaism, Shamanism, Islam) are in the single digits. What’s slightly misleading is that there is only a small – sometimes no – distinction between Confucianism and Buddhism in Korea. And, for those wondering, Confucianism is not a religion per say, but a set of moral principals. So bottom line: Buddhism is important in Korea – and I’d say more important than any other religion.
Why do I make such bold claims? Two reasons. One: I didn’t get Christmas off, but I did get Buddha’s Birthday off. And because there wasn’t that much hoop-la made about Christmas or Easter, but down town Seoul was decked out to the nines to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday.
About a month ago (explains the Belated part of the title) many of the main streets of central Seoul were colorfully outlined with lotus lanterns, lanterns with baby Buddhas on them and banners announcing the coming of the holiday.
Also during this time, two friends were visiting, AND mom and Emily had just left. I was, to say the least, in tip-top touristy shape, and wanted to go and see any and everything that this festive holiday had to offer. And things there were – a lantern parade, a street festival, free food for days, lotus lantern making, open temples, and sunshine through and through. But the problem was, I didn’t really know where and when things were happening. So on Tuesday, Buddha’s Birthday and my day off, Andrew, Laurel and I took to the center of Seoul, knowing that if anything was happening, it would be there.
Stepping off of the subway, another family of expats approached the three of us full of questions “Do you live here? Where is Insadong? Do you know if today is the holiday? Where are the things for the kids?” Laurel and Andrew shot their glances directly at me, and I proceeded to point them towards the traditional street called Insadong, and said that I didn’t know where any of the children’s things were.
Thirty minutes later – after wandering around traditional craft stores, tea shops, stumbling upon a “reservation only” lotus lantern event which we promptly walked right in on – I was in the thick of the children’s things, seeing as I was doing arts and crafts making lotus lanterns in the middle of the street, getting a thumbs up from a Monk because my lantern was that good. And this was just the beginning – two hours of making lotus lanterns, hours of wandering around the blocked off, event tent-lined streets of downtown Seoul, eating Buddhist cuisine for about a dollar – it was a magical magical day.
Sometimes not planning, and stumbling upon events is the best way to do it. I obviously hoped that it would all pan out – I did know it was a holiday.
The end result was obviously colorful and amazing, but in general I have a hard time waiting to open presents or start parties, or celebrate holidays. Also, I’ve been told that you should celebrate a birthday for a week, and not just a day. So my mom, Emily and I started early on Buddha’s Birthday with a Buddhist Temple Meal in Insadong – the traditional street of Seoul – about a week early.
“This is the best meal I’ve ever had” is how either mom or Emily or anyone that’s eaten here described it. Set in a temple façade, quiet and serene, this restaurant is run by a Monk that left the temple to share Buddhist Temple Food with the rest of the world. Temple cuisine is set apart from other Korean foods in preparation. It’s simple, vegetarian, and plentiful. About 26 dishes plentiful. Yes, there are many different foods, but none of them are served in extreme quantities, rather they are tasteful portions there to provide a well rounded meal – keeping you well balanced internally and spiritually. There was seaweed to roots, hot soups to lightly fried vegetables, tofu to kimchi, potatoes to rice desserts. The serene and calming atmosphere, tranquil music, amazing food, and company all came together to really make my whole week of Buddha’s Birthday enlightening.
Ps. All non-food photos are credited to Ms. Laurel Garber herself. Thanks Laurel and I’m glad you enjoyed yourself in Seoul!