Buddha’s birthday or 석가탄신일 fell on May 17th this year. For the entire month of May, Buddhist temples are decorated in beautiful colorful paper lanterns. You can actually find lanterns lined along many streets in Korea in celebration of this day as part of the Lotus Lantern Festival. Because this is considered a national holiday, government offices many other places of work are closed for the day. Although I’m not buddhist, I do enjoy the festivities and beautiful decor that comes along with the holiday… not to mention a day off of work.
Two years ago, my boyfriend and I went to see the temples in Busan. This year we decided to keep it a little closer to home, seeing as how we just got back from a very busy visit with our families back in California and are still very jet lagged (more on that later). Anyhow, we went to 조계사 (Jogyesa) located in Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu, the heart of Seoul.
Since the temple was so close to 인사동 (Insa-dong), we decided to grab lunch there before heading to the temple. With the weather being so hot and all, we had a real hankering for some 냉면 (Naeng-myun). Apparently we were not the only people with that in mind, as the lines to every 냉면 restaurant were flowing out the door and onto the streets. Luckily we found a relatively short line at a restaurant called 인사동그집 (Insa-dong Geujip). The staff there was really on point and got food served, tables cleaned and people seated in a matter of minutes. What’s even better is that the restaurant itself was tucked inside a renovated old wooden 한옥 (traditional korean house). It had all its original charm intact, while still catering to the needs of modern society, with things such as air conditioning (to our relief).
Although we knew what we wanted to order, we couldn’t help but browse though their extensive menu. In the end, we decided on sharing a bowl of 냉면 and a plate of 불고기 떡볶이 (marinated beef and rice cakes). Everything was delicious and incredibly filling! The 냉면 was made just the way I like it, with a slice of frozen pear to add a slightly sweetened flavor to it. The 불고기 떡볶이 was full of flavor. The beef was marinated very well and the rice cakes were nice and soft. It came with a very generous serving of both beef and rice cake and wasn’t overwhelmed with vegetables, like so many of these dishes usually are. If you like 떡볶이, but can’t handle the spiciness, this is the perfect dish for you.
After a fantastic lunch, we stopped by my favorite tea house, O’Sulloc, to pick up some tea and made our way to 조계사.
The temple and entire surrounding area was bustling with tourists and Buddhists. Shops and tables lined the street selling prayer beads, buddha statues, lanterns, etc. Across the street from the temple is the Central Buddhist Museum. Here you can see many Buddhist artifacts, enjoy tea in their teashop, arrange for a temple stay and even participate in all sorts of free activities such as lantern and prayer bead making. On this particular day, two monks sat outside making pottery on pottery wheels for any one who wanted one. It was really cool to watch, as they made it look so easy. I would have gotten one too, but I didn’t want to carry it around all day though the active crowds.
조계사 was founded in 1910 and serves as the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It houses 대웅전 (Daeungjeon), which is the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. It was built in 1938 and boasts colorful and elaborate carved and painted scenes from Buddha’s life accented with lovely floral embellishments. It bares all the vivid blues, greens, and reds that are so familiar to korean architecture, but I was surprised to find this place to be even more elaborately decorated than the palaces I’ve seen. I suppose I was just expecting something more simplistic. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to go in, as there was a long and what seemed to never-ending line of Buddhists waiting to go in and offer their prayers.
An eight sided ten-story stone pagoda sits just outside 대웅전. It is said to be storing a piece of Sakyamuni Buddha’s sarira, which was brought from Sri Lanka by the Zen master Dharmapala in 1913. Originally a seven-story pagoda built in the 1930s stood there, but a new one was built in 2009, just before the temple’s 100th anniversary to match the scale of the temple.
Also, Found on the temple grounds is 백송 (Baeksong), which is a 500 year old lacebark pine tree. Symbolizing longevity, only a few of these trees grow in Korea. It originates from northern China and is said to have been brought to Korea by an envoy from China. It stands as Korea’s 9th Natural Monument No.9. You can find it shading a statue of baby Buddha.
Among all the chaos, the rainbow-colored sea of lanterns served as a lovely distraction. Many people wrote down prayers on cards and had them tied to the lanterns hanging overhead. A stage was set in front of 대웅전 and live music was performed for all of the visitors. Free lunch was also provided in the cafeteria. Around the temple grounds were all types of interesting lanterns along with plenty of places to sit and rest beneath the shade of the trees.
All in all it was a very busy and eventful day. On our way home, my boyfriend even bought me a lovely bracelet with a jade lotus flower on it. What a wonderful trinket to remember the day’s events!