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[The Day We Go to Temple] 12. The Buddhist Customs in the Tenth Lunar Month

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Writer Jogye Date03 Nov 2016 Read17,016 Comment0



The Buddhist Customs in the Tenth Lunar Month

Since ancient times, the tenth lunar month has been called, “Sangdal,” which is known as the period of thanksgiving, offering the fruition of the harvest to the gods of heaven and earth, as well as ancestors’ spirits. According to Joseon Sangsik Mundap, The General Knowledge of Joseon, by Namseon Choi (1890-1957) a poet and publisher, “As the month of the abundant harvest, when the gods and humans can enjoy themselves, the tenth month is Sangdal, the best of the twelve months.” This tradition started as an ancient ceremony for heaven at the time of Dangun, the legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom in 2333 B.C. to Palgwanhoe (Buddhist Festival of Eight Vows), and grew to become the largest festival in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Even now, the tradition continues in homes and villages, taking on the various forms of rituals - shamans, ancestors, the mountain god, or honorable figures.  

Additionally, the tenth month is quite significant in Buddhism. It is the month of cultivation, as monks begin their winter retreat on the half moon. Palgwanhoe is held at this time as well. As there is no record of the beginnings of this ceremony, it is unclear when Palgwanhoe started, but history books do indicate that it was held in the tenth month in 572, in the 33rd year of 24th King Jinheung of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-935). Then, coming into the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Palgwanhoe was held in Kaegyoung (Kaesong), the capital, every half-moon in the eleventh month since its establishment as well as in Seokyoung, (Pyongyang) in the tenth month. For that reason, it came to be held twice a year.

             As one of the classic Buddhist ceremonies on a national level during the Goryeo Dynasty, Palgwanhoe was called, “Maengdong Palgwanhoe” when it was held in Pyongyang on the half-moon of the tenth month. Originally, each month of the three months in a season had the prefixes of “Maeng,” “Jung,” and “Gye,” meaning “beginning,” “middle,” and “end” to differentiate them clearly. For example, for summer, the fourth month is Maengha, the fifth month is Jungha, and the sixth is Gyeha. Thus, the Palgwanhoe ceremony in the tenth month was called “Maengdong Palgwanhoe,” and the one in the eleventh was called, “Jungdong Palgwanhoe.” According to Goryeo Dogyeong, a book about the Goryeo Dynasty, written by a Chinese scholar, Palgwanhoe was held in Maengdong, or the tenth month. As it was written, Maengdong Palgwanhoe followed the tradition of the cerebration for heaven.  

             This celebration of the tenth month was also kept among commoners. So, we can observe how Buddhism was adopted extensively as a popular belief in homes and villages. As well-known examples, two objects of worship of the beliefs for a house and a village were called Jaeseok, the Harvest God, and Saejon, Buddha. Moreover, Sinju or Josang Danji, the pots that kept wooden tablets of ancestors, were also referred to as Jaeseok or Saejon Dangji, and people rendered homage to them. People kept grains, such as rice, in these pots, and replaced them with new grains after the harvest. Additionally, the grains kept inside were believed lucky and sacred, and eaten only by family members, rather than being given to others. From here, it can be inferred that Jaeseok or Saejon were considered a kind of god, protecting one’s house or land.  

          To illustrate, in Gangjin-gun County in South Jeolla Province, people enshrined Saejeon by hanging a hemp-cloth bag filled with rice above a master bedroom’s door. Then, in the tenth month, the lady of the house hung five yeopjeon, brass coins, on a thread in three different rice fields, which belonged to the three family names: her mother-in-law, her husband and her own. This can be seen as an example how Saejeon were honored. Furthermore, there was a custom, “Put your effort into Saejeon (or Buddha),” where the grains from seven rice plants were taken out and placed into the Saejeon bag. When a boy was born in the house, he was believed to resemble Buddha, and his mother used to pray for the boy to grow up to be like him. As for the grains in the bag, these were offered to a mendicant.

             According to Dongguksesigi, a Record of the Seasonal Customs of the Eastern Kingdom by Seokmo Hong, a scholar, in 1849, there was a shrine called, “Daejajae Cheonwang,” in Mount Songni in Boeun in North Chungcheong Province. Each year, during the tenth month, it was said that Cheonwang, the Heavenly God, came down to Beopjusa Temple on the Day of the Tiger. People in the mountains used to pay tribute to the god by holding a ritual, playing music so that he would stay there for 45 days before leaving. Now, the memory of this ceremony for the Cheonwangbong Mountain God around the surrounding area of Mount Songni has been preserved. At Cheonwangbong Peak, the mountain god has been enshrined in the Mountain Spirit Shrine in Beopjusa Temple. In the village below, a Buddhist-style ceremony is held, as well as a Confucian one. All of these are the examples of how the rituals to the god in heaven in the tenth month and Buddhist ceremonies have been integrated.


             In particular, people in temple were quite busy before the half-moon of the tenth month, prior to entering the winter meditation retreat, making kimchi, a traditional fermented Korean side dish. It was a time to encourage practice and strengthen devotion by preparing for three months of winter food during the meditation retreat through collaborative communal work, shared among monks and laypeople alike.

The Buddhist Customs on Dongji or the Winter Solstice

             Dongji is the time of boundaries; the length of the day begins to recover and becomes longer. Thus, it was considered a time of changing over to a new year, and was called, “The Little New Year,” or “The Day of the Resurrected Sun.” For this reason, it was designated as a festival day, like New Year’s Day. As Christmas was also considered the day of the resurrected sun, this notion was common throughout both the east and west, as a universal phenomenon, not just a regional or ethnic occurrence.

             Dongji takes place during the eleventh month of the lunar calendar and on December 22nd by the solar calendar. The eleventh month is also called Dongjidal, so it was considered the beginning of a new year. This designation is also clearly illustrated in the Chinese Zodiac, which starts in Jawol; that is, the eleventh lunar month.

             In Buddhism, the offering given during Dongji is quite significant. Many people tend to go to the temple to conclude the year before Buddha, and reaffirm their pious devotion before beginning the new year. On this day, many temples traditionally gave away new calendars and shared the seasonal dish of Dongji, called Patjuk, or red bean porridge. In periods of food shortages, Muchdaehoe was held, a ceremony of giving alms to all the assembly including monks and laymen. At that time, Patjuk was cooked on a large scale to be shared with everyone in the community. Even these days, the custom of receiving Patjuk from a temple continues. Additionally, amulets given in the temple on this day were regarded as sacred, like the ones received in Ipchun, the Advent of Spring, or during Samjae, the three calamities.

             Likewise, posting the amulets, holding a Dongji ritual with Patjuk, and sharing it with others are popular customs that have been practiced since ancient times. As Dongji has the longest night, it was believed that the day could be crowded with evil spirits full of negative energies. In order to drive them off, people armed themselves with the power of amulets and the color of red from red beans. Patjuk on Dongji is still considered well-known temple food along with Tteokguk, rice cake soup, on Seolnal, New Year’s Day and Songpyeon, the half-moon-shaped rice cake, of Chuseok, Thanksgiving. A timeless saying goes, “One should have Patjuk in Dongji in order to get a year older.”

On the other hand, this time is also considered Jungdong Palgwanhoe, a Dongji ritual, of the Goryeo Dynasty (919-1392), which is held in Kaegyeong (Kaesong) on the fifteenth day of the eleventh month. As Dongji is on the 22nd of December on the solar calendar and Jungdong Palgwanhoe takes place during the eleventh month of the lunar one, these two dates often overlap or take place during the last month. One fact that we should remember is that Palgwanhoe during the Goryeo Dynasty was held for a long period of time - five hundred years - in the cold winter. Even though the tenth month was a better time for holding a festival, the ceremony was always held in winter, which signifies that it was a ritual associated with Dongji.

             Palgwanhoe and Yeondeunghoe are not only structurally similar, but are also historically mentioned together in passages that explain how these two traditions have been handed down. It is especially notable that it was necessary in both ceremonies to light Yeondeung, lotus lanterns. It was important that Yeondeunghoe was held to symbolically light the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Likewise, Jungdong, in the eleventh month of the lunar calendar, was significant as it was closely connected with the disappearance and resurrection of the sun. Therefore, Palgwanhoe marked the changing of the year, taking on the form of the popular lighting culture. In this way, it can be understood that the royal family held the Dongji ritual to signify how fire was to be used in the year through the lighting ceremony.

             For the most part, though Jungdong Palgwanhoe and Yeondeungheo in the first month were divided into two celebrations, they were successive rituals that were both scheduled around a new year. Dongji, the winter solstice, and Daeboreum, the first full moon, were both considered to be connected to the new year. It was the period of regeneration for a new year, a time for chasing out evils and welcoming goodness. The lanterns of these two festivals in palaces can be seen as the renewal rituals of the power of a king and the county. Actually, it was written that Palgwanhoe was held before and after Dongji, according to Goyeosa, the History of Goryeo.

             If that is the case, we need to think about why the lighting of lanterns was moved to the fifteenth day of the last month from Dongji, the winter solstice. We can speculate that lighting on the fifteenth was important, as it marked movement of the sun and the moon. As Seol, the New Year, was considered to include the entire period of time until the full moon, and Dongji, the Little New Year, took place on the boundary of Dongjidal, the last month, then the fifteenth of Dongji must have carried a significant meaning. After Haji, the summer solstice, the power of the sun began to weaken until the moon of Dongji was at its weakest. Thus, the festival was held by lighting lanterns all night long in the midst of the brightness and propensity of the full moon. It was essential to light lanterns on the full moon in order for wishes and prayers to come true.

             Though Dongji was considered the Little New Year, when the sun resurrects, darkness is also at its peak during this time. For this reason, amulets and red beans were used to chase out or protect against evil spirits. The full moon of the last month has been emphasized, as the tradition of lanterns on the fifteenth followed the significance of lighting up the sky at this time.

* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "The Day We Go to Temple" and is contained in the winter 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 21~25. 


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