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[The Day We Go to Temple] 06. Fasting on Buddha’s Birthday

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Writer Jogye Date07 Jul 2016 Read15,727 Comment0



Fasting on Buddha’s Birthday

             Buddha’s birthday was regarded a major holiday, so many people prepared various temple foods. Gyeongdojapji states that when a guest came, rice cakes steamed with leaves of zelkova trees, roasted beans, and boiled water parsley were served. This was called Sobap, or “simple meal,” referring to the fact that there was no meat eaten on Buddha’s birthday.   

             Another book, Yeoryangsesigi, the annual events of Seoul, described it this way, “On Buddha’s birthday, children ate rice cakes steamed with zelkova trees, and salted roasted beans while playing, hitting their buckets.” Additionally, Dongguksesigi indicated, “Children set a table full of rice cakes steamed with rhododendron leaves, roasted black beans and water parsley under Deunggan.” Here, rhododendron trees mean zelkova.

          The custom of eating roasted beans in Korea was once recorded in the book Ohji by Zhang Yuan, a scholar of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) of China. In the “Seoul customs” section, it said that this started when people, who recited chants, saved beans that they used to count before the Buddha statues, and salted them after roasting; they were shared with passersby, building good karma.  

          Rice cakes steamed with zelkova trees are particularly notable as the most recognized example of temple food on Buddha’s birthday. “Nongga Wollyeongga, or the Song of Famers,” sang, “Lighting lanterns on Buddha’s birthday is not necessary in mountainous areas, but rice cakes steamed with zelkova leaves and salted roasted beans are the seasonal delicacies of the fourth month.” The rice cake song, “Ttoktaryoung,” sings “On the full moon of the first month, moon cake should be eaten; Songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes are for Hansik in the second month; mugwort rice cakes should be eaten on the third day of the third month; zelkova cakes should be eaten on the 8th day of the fourth month; Surichittok are for Dano in the fifth month; and grilled wheat ones should be eaten on the 6th day of the sixth month…” From this, we can infer that rice cakes steamed with zelkova trees were the food to be eaten on Buddha’s birthday. The young leaves of zelkova trees were mixed with non-glutinous powder before being steamed. This was called Yuyeopbyeong [鍮葉餠].

         On Buddha’s birthday, making zelkova rice cakes seems to be connected to the appearance of the young buds of the trees, growing in the late spring. Therefore, having temple-style food on Buddha’s birthday, in connection with the zelkova trees’ growth may have significant meaning. Like a symbol of any village or community, an old shade tree provides a comfortable resting spot for the people in the village. On important days, with a gold line all around it, it protected its surrounding area like a God tree, as zelkova trees mostly took on the role of a shade tree. Because rice cakes made with the leaves of these trees is the customary seasonal food on Buddha’s birthday, the significance of the rice cakes empowered by Buddha seems quite exceptional.

          Additionally, water parsley is tender around Buddha’s Day and smells delicious, so a salad made with this was enjoyed by many. Thus, as on Buddha’s birthday, vegetable-centric food was consumed rather than meat. It can be inferred that water parsley, in season, was chosen as a special delicacy.

The Buddhist Customs on Dano           

             Dano on the 5th day of the fifth month, has been the biggest holiday in many areas, especially where barley farming was the most common. This celebration is closely connected to the staple crops of a region. In the areas where rice was important, Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok, was considered to be important, but for barley farmers, Dano was. In accordance with the seasonal customs of an agricultural society, farming culture can be divided into Dano, Thanksgiving, and multiplex. Dano culturally influenced regions which were generally located north of the Hangang River, where barley farming was the most advanced. Thus, it was proper to hold an agricultural festival, Dano, at the end of its harvest season. On the contrary, Thanksgiving culture has been practiced in the rice granary zone of the Southeastern region and the multicultural zone in the Southwest.

          With the vibrant energy of summer on Dano on the 5th day of the fifth month, yang, or positive energy is the strongest in the year, as there are two ‘five’s’. Particularly, at five o’clock on Dano, which is the 13th of the 24 times of day, between 11:00 and 13:00, a custom developed of hanging mugwort or motherwort on the gate, or eating rice cake made of those vegetables. This practice was known to protect against evil energy. It was done to chase off evil spirits as well as heat. This was done at five o’clock when the yang energy was the strongest of the day, on Dano, a day filled with this lively force. Taking these characteristics into account, Dano is the best day of the year; it is also called ‘Surit Day.’ The highest point of our body is called Jungsuri, the crown of the head. So, ‘Suri’ refers to that which is high, noble, and holy.

             Although there seems to be no relationship between Buddhism and Dano, there has been a strong connection between them in Korea. Designated UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Gangneung Danoje Festival has been held by the local community, and they have continued their traditional town festival throughout history. During the festival, the Daegwallyeong Guksa Seonghwangje, Seon Master National Preceptor Beomil, is the master of the celebration. In the midst of the Joseon Dynasty era, Gyun Heo, a politician and writer, encountered a party of the festival participants, who had just finished paying tribute to the mountain god at Daegwallyeong, a mountain pass in the Taebaek Mountain Range of the eastern part of South Korea. After the encounter, he wrote that the mountain god of Daegwallyeong had supernatural powers, so people climbed up to the sacred site and offered their greetings joyfully every fifth month. As for the birth of Master Boemil, the story has been transmitted as follows:

There was a maiden from a place called Haksan-ri of Gangneung City. One day, she went to a stone well to scoop up water with a bowl. Then, as soon as she brought up the container, she saw that the sun was in the bowl. Though she felt somewhat strange, she drank the water and conceived a child. As the baby was born without a father, he was abandoned on a hill behind her village. Realizing that she had done wrong, the mother couldn’t sleep out of the guilt. She soon went back to the place, and brought the baby home. This child grew up to be National Preceptor Beomil.

             As the founder of Sagulsanpa, which is one of Gusan Seonmun, the Seon gates of the nine mountain Seon monasteries, and the abbot of Gulsansa Temple, he was responsible for spreading Seon Buddhism throughout Yeoungdong, or the eastern part of Korea for 40 years. The rationale behind his appointment of Guksa Seonghwangshin was that as he was in opposition to the Buddhist sect that the royal family of the Silla Dynasty had devoted. It seems that he was seen as someone who collaborated with influential families in the region as their spiritual leader, and assisted in the founding of the Goryeo Dynasty. Soon after National Preceptor Beomil was appointed Seonghwangshin, a guardian deity, miracles sprang up. It is said that when the Japanese invaded Gangneung, the deity went up to the top of Daegwallyeong and used his supernatural power to change all trees and plants into soldiers, and defeated the aggressors.

             In addition to that, Beopseongpo Danoje of Younggwang, South Jeolla Province, holds both the Lotus Lantern Festival and Musoksuryukje, a ritual offering to the Dragon King for the safety of fishermen. Beopseongpo is a port, which is why a ceremony came into existence, wishing for a safe journey for fishermen and the easing of lost souls in the ocean. On Dano, Suryukjae, a celebration of the lonely spirits and hungry ghosts both in water and on land, has been transmitted in a form of goot, or exorcism, which was performed by shamans, also adding some local elements. Furthermore, for Danoje in Jain-myeon of Gyeongsan-si, South Gyeongsang Province, Wonhyo Seongsa Tansang Daryeje also takes place to celebrate the birth place of Master Venerable Wonhyo (617-686) from the Silla period.

             These examples have demonstrated how, rather than being initiated into the Buddhist community, commoners have instead actively adapted Buddhism into their lives. Moreover, many temples in the country consider Dano to be a celebration of their community, so various folk activities took place, among laity and monks alike. This is a clear indication of how Korean Buddhism has been transmitted historically, popularly, and dynamically in the midst of all sentient beings. 

             One well-known example is the Dano Sports Competition, which an event that has been taking place for well over forty years. On this day, people in Saha Village go to Beopjusa Temple in Mt. Songnisan. For the festival, the monks and the laity divide into teams, and participate in sports, such as the game of yut, Korean wrestling, ping pong, and soccer. At times, have been over twenty teams. For the temple, the Monastic College and Seon Center are divided into teams, and the others, from the administrative staff to the villagers, police, local security forces, and firemen, to the laity association, people divide themselves into teams for the competition. Even those who do not participate go up to see the entertainment of the day, leaving the whole village empty, while the temple is filled with noise and laughter, unifying the Sangha and the laity alike in the festival.

The Buddhist Custom of Yudu

             On Yudu Day, when the heat wave is at its peak on the fifteenth of the sixth month, people took part in the custom of going to a cool river valley with some food, looking forward to enjoying some time in the water. It was believed if one washed his hair and bathed in clean water, spending a day in his clean body, he would be able to wash away bad energy, relieving his suffering from the summer heat as well. More conservative types enjoyed just splashing their feet in the cold flowing water instead.

             For the festival of Yudu, the water in the east was said to be especially good. This is because the word “Yudu,” originated from “yu” of Dongyusu, water in the east, and “du’ of Dumokyok, bathing the head and body. Water that flows from the west to the east is called, Seochuldongyudu.  Donguibogam, the Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine, called this “water medicine.” Among the five natural elements, the west is water, and the east is wood. Essentially, water from the west flows to the east grows trees and plants, following the natural law of order. Thus, water flows from west to east in harmony with the nature.

             Furthermore, Yudu is a holiday that offers the first harvests to ancestors and heavenly beings. Whenever there is any new food, it is customary to offer it to the elder of a household. Similarly, the first harvest was believed to be due to the virtue of ancestors so it was considered to be naturally proper to offer it to its forefathers.

             Additionally, in the Buddhist community, Bosal Gyedoryang was established on Yudu Day, receiving bodhisattva precepts. In Goryeosa, the History of Goryeo, Bosal Gyedoryang opened in the palace on the fifteenth day of the sixth month. So, the National Preceptor and Loyal Teacher along with other high-ranking monks hosted, giving the bodhisattva precepts to a King. It is not clear when Bosal Gyedorgyang got started, but the earliest record indicates that as Buddhist texts came into the Unified Silla, where related research has been the most active, it is said to be around the Silla Dynasty era.

             The bodhisattva precepts are the practical virtues that every Buddhist must take on, whether one is a member of the monastic or lay community. Among them, Sipseongye, the ten grave precepts, and Sipjoonggye, the ten good or venerable deeds, are the most recognized. Any violation of the ten grave precepts would be cause for excommunication. The ten good deeds, on the other hand, describe how to keep three deeds of body, word, and mind properly. When one is worthy of receiving the bodhisattva precepts, they are given; however, taking these repeatedly symbolizes the renewal of one’s worth or qualifications.

          Therefore, the loyal family of the Goryeo Dynasty hosted Bosal Gyedoryang. It was done for the kings of generations to receive the bodhisattva precepts periodically, to renew their vows of the disciples of Buddha themselves, as well as a declaration ceremony. According to the details of the Bosal Gyedoryang of the royal family of the Goryeo Dynasty, the third King Jeongjong (945-949) hosted only once during his 13 years of reign; the 11th of Munjong (1046-1083) did so five times over a period of 37 years; the 16th King Yejong (1105-1122) did so seven times in his 18 years of reign; and the 17th Injong (1122-1146) did so sixteen times over a period of 25 years of reign. Originally, it was to be hosted on the fifteenth day of the sixth month, but there were some recordings indicating that it was held on the 14th or 25th.

             The bodhisattva precepts can be given to everyone, either monastics or laity in many temples, which have the platform of precepts. However, as Buddhism was widely practiced during the Goryeo Dynasty era and the loyal family regarded that ceremony as important, it was written in Goryeosa. Coming to the Joseon Dynasty period, Bosal Gyedoryang has disappeared from its royal family, and the ceremony proceeded to give precepts to only monastics, even though the laity were set to take them, but not on a particular day. Even these days, temples host Bosal Gyedoryang frequently. After the pre-ceremony concludes, Beommangyoung, the Brahamajala Sutra, is read, the precepts are explained, and a series of questions is asked to determine whether one would abide by them. For this ceremony, a dharma assembly of seven, including teacher preceptors and precept masters, needs to routinely attend to testify to its lawfulness.

             There is no clear reason why Bosal Goryanggye has been held on the fifteenth day of the sixth month, but it seems to be closely related to the custom of sprinkling water on the crown of one’s head during the ceremony. On Yudu Day, the tradition of washing one’s hair and body in water flowing toward the east coincides with the cleansing of one’s mind and body in a Jaegye ceremony, the precepts of taking a meal. Also, when receiving supernatural beings like Buddha, a bathing ceremony is done. Yudu was a type of cleansing ritual with water.

             Accordingly, with the cleansing power of water, the rituals of washing away dishonesty or improper conduct are extensive: cleansing of the soul in Buddhism; fresh dawn water of shamanism; and the holy water of Catholicism. The sprinkling of cleansing water, as one holds his bowl, has become generally accepted whenever defeating improper conduct. From Hyunsu, the wine that is offered to ancestors in a memorial ceremony, to the fresh dawn water that holds one’s devotion, these are the necessary offerings of dedication that reflect one’s sincere efforts to purify the soul and move closer to the gods.

             As the Yudu Festival doesn’t serve merely to chase away heat waves, but also to wash away all kinds of misfortune and disasters, it helps us recount the religious significance that water holds when combined with Bosal Goryanggye of Buddhism. Bosal Goryanggye on Yudu Day has become an important vehicle of cleansing the tainted lives of the mundane world, and entering into the sacred area with a pure mind and body.

* 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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