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[The Day We Go to Temple] 01. New Year's Greeting

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Writer Jogye Date04 Mar 2016 Read13,514 Comment0



Buddhist Customs on New Year’s Day

New Year’s Greetings


The word ‘Seol’ is derived from ‘Seoda []’ which means ‘stand’. Its simplest meaning refers to the first day of a new year; that is, the day that starts a new year. From a Buddhist perspective, Seol also refers to religious renewal or recharge, so that one may begin the new year meaningfully and virtuously.

          As it is customary for families and relatives to visit one another during the New Year’s period, exchanging New Year’s bows, the ‘Tongal [通謁]’ ceremony is also observed in temples. It is a celebration to mark the beginning of a new year, with the devotees offering bows to the three jewels of Buddhism. For Tongal, all devotees offer homage to the three jewels of Buddhism and the altars, and then the young devotees pay homage to the elderly, according to the hierarchy.

New Year’s greetings begin at the dharma hall at dawn on the first day of a new year. Tongal is completed as ordained monks offer the three bows to each altar: first to the great teacher, Sakyamuni Buddha; next, to the three jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha; then to the divine guardians of the Dharma; and finally to all the wandering lonely spirits of the deceased. These bows are followed by the exchange of bows among the monks and the laity. Specifically, the eldest monk offers three bows to everyone, and as he seats himself on his cushion, all others offer their bows in an appropriate way. Often, the laity participates in the ceremony as well.

According to Seokmun Uibeom, the Protocol for Buddhist Practitioners, Chuksangjakbeop [祝上作法] should be observed prior to Tongal. It starts with hitting the Geumgo [金鼓], a drum-shaped bell, three times. Next, the dharma bell is struck 108 times. Then, the bells are hit at Seondang, the meditation hall; Jongjak, the bell pavilion; and Seungdang, the monastic hall. According to the tradition, the bell-ringing is followed by the burning of different types of incense. Finally, Tongal begins after reciting various Buddhist hymns such as “Saphyangge,” “Galhyangge,” and “Yeonhyangge.” However, in recent years, the Tongal ceremony has generally been performed without Chuksangjakbeop.

             After the Tongal ceremony, monks have rice cake soup, the traditional New Year’s dish in Korea, and visit elder monks who reside farther away, to offer three bows as New Year’s greetings. For a few days afterward, the laity continues to visit monks to offer their greetings. In return, they receive some money in an envelope, which the monks call an amulet. Sometimes, monks give the money along with a Dharni, or mantra, written with a pigment made from Gyeolmyeongjusa, a bright silvery-red mineral, which can be used to see one’s face, like a mirror. The laypeople take the money and mantras as their amulets, and treasure these throughout the year. 

          Tongal in Buddhism can be regarded as a new year’s bow, offered to the elders among common people, which is a type of offering to the three jewels in Buddhism. It became popular during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and has been continuously practiced in temples up until now. If the bowed greetings among family members and relatives signify the wish for wellness in a new year in the mundane world, Tongal in Buddhism signifies paying homage to the three jewels. This tradition contains the wishes for compassion and the awakening of all the sentient beings, in a broader sense.

          Sometimes, people argue about the order of the procedure, whether the bowing or the ancestral ceremony should come first on the morning of a new year’s day. Like the hierarchical Tongal in Buddhism, it is appropriate to pay respect to the beings in the transcendental world, and then to beings in the present world. Though it may seem proper to offer New Year’s greetings to the elders of the current world first, the ancestral ceremony and the bowing should be considered equivalent. If the New Year’s bowing begins with the offering to the elders, it is only appropriate that a ceremony to the ancestors, the eldest of all, should be offered first of all.

The Prayer at the Beginning of a New Year and the Joint Ancestral Ceremony

             The beginning of a new year is also a very important period religiously, as the desire to spend the whole year blissfully and without any problems is the strongest. Consequently, a number of places hold various ceremonies such as Dongjae, a ceremony wishing for health and prosperity, is performed for the village gods, or Sanshinjae, a ceremony wishing for regional wellness and peace is offered to the mountain gods, until the half moon. Also, many Buddhist devotees start a new year by visiting temples for their prayers for the period, or participating in a joint ancestral ceremony there.

             A New Year’s prayer session is generally held for three to seven days, starting on the third day. On Seo, New Year day, all dispersed blood relatives gather to spend the holiday together. Often, the ceremony is held as a type of new year’s prayer, dedicating their deeds to others, starting either three or seven days after the third day. The participants of the prayer ceremony pay homage to the three jewels and make offerings as they wish for their family’s health and wellness as well as their own ardent desires in the new year.

             In Buddhism, though it is natural for one to wish for the realization of his or her prayer, we are taught that the essence of the prayer is ultimately to develop compassion and wisdom in our minds, as the practice of faith moves us away self-centered desires. Therefore, the early year prayer is not just a wish for the grace of Buddha, but also more significantly, one’s personal vow of how he or she will spend that period of time. While one prays for the realization of his or her good wishes before the Buddha, it can be said that the true attitude of a prayer should be in accumulating good deeds to benefit families and neighbors, as well as all sentient beings.

             Additionally, a joint ceremony for the holiday is offered to people who can’t hold their own ceremony at home or wish to participate in a Buddhist ritual. For convenience, each temple holds a joint ceremony once in the morning and once in the afternoon on New Year’s Day.

             Regardless, among dedicated devotee families, the ceremony has been the most meaningful throughout the times as the prayer of monks within the three jewels of Buddhism, offered for the rebirth of their ancestors in the Pure Land. As society progresses, it is becoming more common for temples to hold ancestral ceremonies not only on an annual basis, but also on holidays. This seems to be due to the huge factor that many modernists feel an enormous burden from holding their ceremony at home. They hope to fulfill the duty of having the ceremony, but simplify its formality and ease the burden of preparations, as well as decrease conflicts among their family members. These concerns have become important factors in choosing to attend the ritual at a temple.

Playing of Beopgo, the Dharma Drum 

On Seol, New Year’s Day, there was once a custom called “playing of the Beopgo.” Monks used to come down to nearby villages playing the dharma drums to send a message of encouraging virtue [勸善]. On that day, monks struck the drums while chanting Buddhist hymns. Passersby would offer money or buy items for them, to build up their good deeds before the Buddha. This was a very common scene in town. Each household was visited for alms while the playing of the Beopgo took place in villages.

             At that time, monks sometimes offered a piece of rice cake from their temple and exchanged it for two pieces of rice cake from the people. The rice cake given by the monks was called Seungbyeong [僧餠], which the monks made themselves. According to Gyeongdo Japgi, the Customs of the Capital, by Deukgong Yu (1911), a folktale said that if the rice cake was given to a child, smallpox would be cured. People believed that the blessing of the Buddha was in Seungbyeong. This custom was widely practiced during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), but when monks access to the four gates of the capital city was prohibited by law, it mainly took place in villages outside of the city premises.  

          In Buddhism, the drum is called Beopgo, signifying ‘the transference of the Buddha dharma by striking’; that is, Beop, dharma [], and Go, drum [].  Beopgo is one of the Buljeonsamul, the four Buddhist instruments [佛殿四物], along with Beopjong, the great dharma bell; Mokeo, a wooden fish-shaped drum; and Unpan, a cloud-shaped gong. It is the first instrument to be struck in the morning and in the evening for a ceremony. When striking, a monk should hold the drumsticks in both hands, spreading them widely to make the letter ‘Shim, heart []’. This shows that they will let the Buddha dharma reach the spirits of all sentient beings.

             The playing of Beopgo was one of the customs from the period when almsgiving was widely practiced. In a new year, the sound of Beopgo, along with monks’ visits to houses, was practiced not only to spread the Buddha’s teaching and pray for wellness of everyone, but was also offered in the hopes of healing diseases with the blessed rice cake. Furthermore, the rice cake offered to the monks was considered an offering to the Buddha, and it can be seen as a custom that constitutes Buddha’s blessing toward the practitioners and their ardent devotion toward him.

* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "The Day We Go to Temple" and is contained in the spring 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 25~26.

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