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[The Day We Go to Temple] 05. Tapdori or Walking Around a Pagoda in a Circle

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Writer Jogye Date07 Jul 2016 Read12,327 Comment0



Tapdori or Walking Around a Pagoda in a Circle

             One of the important rituals on Buddha’s birthday that has been passed on is Tapdori. This is the circling of a pagoda, which is a structure that enshrines the relics of Sakyamuni Buddha; that is, it signifies respect toward him. Before the Buddhist era, the tradition of circling an enlightened being was a ritual called, “Yojap (),” that had been practiced in ancient India. Traditionally, people circled to the right three times. Thus, when the Sakyamuni Buddha passed away, a pagoda was created to enshrine his relics, so this spirit of respect towards him has evolved naturally. Going around a pagoda is like offering a prayer ceremony to pay homage to the virtue and dharma of Buddha. It is not only a part of monastic culture, but also a way for the laity to practice their beliefs.

             The history of Tapdori in Korea also goes far back, according to Samguk Yusa or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, a collection of various Korean legends, myths and folktales from the 13th century. In the customs section of the Silla Kingdom, it is written that, from every second month, until the Buddha’s birthday, people in Seoul rushed to circle the brick pagoda of Heungryunsa Temple to wish for good fortune. Perhaps most notably, one part depicted, ‘…going around the brick pagoda through the deep night.’ Likewise, Tapdori holds the strong characteristics of a folk festival, so it was widely enjoyed during various Buddhist seasonal activities.

          Commonly, Tapdori took place after the sunset; this can be confirmed with early records from India and Korea. Master Yijing (I Ching, 635–713) of the Tang Dynasty (618-930), who had been to India, described the custom of Tapdori as beginning before dusk. By the time the sun set, people passed through the gate of a temple to go around a pagoda three times. Additionally, the scene of Tapdori, as described in Samguk Yusa, was also set at night. Though the circling of a pagoda can be done at any time, its practice began with the laity, and followed the folk tradition. So, this Buddhist festival took place at night like Ganggangsulae, another traditional Korean circle dance performed by women under the bright full moon. Therefore, it can be seen that ritualized Tapdori on specific days or for specific events usually took place after the evening hours.

             The fact that the circling of a pagoda took place at night also implies that it is closely related with lantern lighting. The early folk custom of hanging lanterns generally took place in the middle of the month, on the full moon. It can be assumed that it was done with the power of the laws of nature in mind – participants hoped to receive some of the abundance and regeneration that a full moon signifies. Hence, just as women performed Ganggangsulae, creating a large circle resembling the full moon to wish for the abundance and fertility of their community, Tapdori was also considered a means of sharing religious devotion among commoners, by going around a pagoda under the full moon.

             Additionally, Tapdori is a practice of putting one’s zealous efforts into the cultivation of action. According to Seokmuneoibeom, a collection of Buddhist rituals, it is illustrated that monks gathered in a big room to spend time drawing the ten Paramitas or Beopseong, the realization of wisdom, on the Enlightenment Day, or during the period of zealous practice. The painting of the ten Paramitas was created to depict the ten practice methods in figures in order to attain enlightenment. Beopseongdo or Haeindo, Vairochana Maze, was written by Master Uisang (625-702) of the Silla Dynasty by summarizing the Avatamsaka or Garland Sutra in 210 letters in a maze. Correspondingly, the records indicating that the circling of the ten Paramitas painting and Beopseongdo clearly shows the high likelihood of coinciding with the continuing custom of moving around in a circle, which gave birth to the tradition of Tapdori. Thus, both the recently-revived tradition of Tapdori and the circling of the ten Paramitas painting and Beopseongdo can be regarded as embracing the tradition of the practitioners’ ritual. This is significant in continuing the custom of moving around a traditional pagoda.

             In the early form of Tapdori, it was an important way of practicing one’s faith and culture, but later on, it took on the characteristics of a festival, gradually becoming integrated into the seasonal folk customs among commoners. As a ceremony that is conducted outdoors is more dynamic than one in a dharma hall, it is natural that Tapdori, the circling of a pagoda on temple grounds, shows the characteristics of a group activity, more than a ritual of paying homage to the enshrined Buddha in his residence. During that period, using the four Buddhist instruments, Buddhist chants are sung in Jitsori, long verses, and Hootsori, short verses, in Sanskrit. These are followed by the southern version of popular folksongs like “Boryeom” or the “108 Bows Practice” as well as music performed by a private band of Samhyunyukgak.

             Notably, since the time of the Joseon Dynasty era, and even now, the circling of a pagoda has been widely practiced in Tapgol Park, which was originally the site of Weongaksa Temple in Seoul. Similarly, the restoration of Tapdori culture in history has continued in many places nationwide; specifically the following are known for this heritage: a pagoda in Woljeongsa in Mt. Odaesan; the Hall of the Eight Aspects of Sakyamuni Buddha’s life in Beopjusa; a pagoda in Jungwon in Chungju; a pagoda in Manboksa; Seokgatap and Dabotap in Bulguksa; and the Stairs of Tongdosa. At Haeinsa Temple, Tapdori is accompanied by the ritual of holding the Tripitaka Koreana, the most famous set of Korean printing woodblocks, on one’s head. This ceremony is performed once a year, first, to give sunlight to the woodblocks, and second, to renew their devotion. As the people carry the teachings of Buddha on their heads, circling a pagoda, which is the embodiment of enlightenment, their devotion toward their faith becomes deeper.

Moreover, the tradition of Tapdori took root as one of the leap-month activities of the Joseon Dynasty period along the way. Since a lunar month is several days shorter than a solar month, a “leap month” was added to the calendar about once every three years. There was a popular seasonal custom that promised one could enter nirvana by doing Sejeol Balgi, making offerings in three temples per day in leap months. Thus, Tapdori became one of the leap month customs. Special customs, such as going on a pilgrimage to each of the three temples was expressed as “Sejeol,” and the act of walking around a pagoda among commoners was referred to as “walking” or “Balgi.” That appears to be how Sejeol Balji and Tapdori came to be closely related. 

Hogi and Water Splashing Activities

There have always been many unique activities for children on the Buddha’s birthday, as if it were a holiday just for them. Among them, the most well-known example is called, “Hogi,” which history can trace all the way back to the Goryeo Dynasty era (918-1392). In records from King Gongmin’s reign in the History of Goryeo, we find details, ‘On Buddha’s birthday on the 8th day of the fourth month, lanterns are hung in every house, and children went around on streets in villages, asking for rice and fabric with a paper flag on a pole. This is called, “Hogi.”’ Thus, it is written that King Gongmin watched children playing Hogi in the courtyard of the palace, and gave them fabric.

This custom continued until the Joseon Dynasty period. Thus, according to Yongjaechonghwa, a collection of miscellaneous writings, by Seong Hyeon (1439-1504, pen name Yongjae), and Dongguksesigi , a record of the seasonal customs of the eastern kingdom, in the coming of spring, after making paper flagpoles and fish-skin drums early in the morning, children went around in groups. They set out not only to acquire materials to be used in the Lantern Festival, but probably also later hung their flags on top of Deunggan.

As a part of the preparations for the lantern festival, Hogi is seen as not just a simple, amusing activity for children, but also as a ritual. According to Namseon Choi (1890-1957), a historian and scholar, it can actually be considered a practice to cleanse a ceremonial venue before the lantern festival. Palgwanhoe was another ritual that included young people. Palgwanhoe was one of the two national formal Buddhist rituals of the Goryeo Dynasty period, along with Yeondeunghoe. For Palgwanghoe, after selecting four children from prominent families to wear beautiful outfits, they were asked to perform the Hwarang, or Flower Dance. Children were considered untainted beings, so whenever performing a sacred ritual, they are given the role of cleansing the premises from the east to the west.

Additionally, another children’s activity, called Sobuhui, takes place on Buddha’s birthday. This is played by hitting a large, upside-down bowl in a bucket with a broom, making a simple drum-like sound. Dongguksesigi refers to Taepyonggo, which was the hitting of the drums from evening to dawn, starting on the day of the first full moon of the new year. As Yeondeunghoe moved from the first to the fourth month, the records state that Taepyonggo became Sobuhui. According to Gyeongdojapgi, a collection of the seasonal customs of Seoul, Sobuhui was revised to Sogo to reflect its origin from Taepyonggo.

* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "The Day We Go to Temple" and is contained in the summer 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 23~29. 



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