Friday, May 25, 2007

Birthday Boy

Yesterday was Buddha's birthday, but I didn't get him a card because cards are so hard to come by here. Koreans don't tend to buy each other cards for birthdays, which perhaps confirms my suspicions about the emergence of parents' day. Instead, a trip to a local temple called Neungeum (능음사) was on the schedule.

The temple was crowded which was little surprise because 'Buddha's Birthday' is a public holiday and, in fact, a great many of the shops in our district were closed for probably the first time since the Lunar New Year, though a few still plied their trade - perhaps they were the Christian ones? Indeed, the usually frantic roads on the way were similarly subdued. However, the Korean sense of urgency so lacking elsewhere was in plentiful supply within the temple grounds, where I repeatedly had to move aside lest I be barged out of the way by anxious ajummas intent on beating everyone else to each shrine in turn - or maybe just beating everyone.

Neungeum is an unusual temple in that it sits next to the sea in the outskirts of Busan - or at least what would class as being the outskirts if the city ever seemed to end. Every other temple I've been to in Korea - and while I haven't been counting it's certainly enough to last a good many years - has been up a mountain. Admittedly some are quite small mountains, but one nevertheless gets the impression that, on the whole, monks prefer their elevated retreats. In fact, there's a very good reason for this as their favour has ebbed and flowed through history, and in the periods when they were persona non grata in social and political circles these literally were the places where they hid away until society wanted them again.

When a temple offers you food it seems you're morally obliged to eat, and this being Buddha's Birthday, food is very much on the agenda. So one of the larger temple buildings was full of people eating lunch, but we ate in at spill-over area outside, which was fine by me because it was hot. Next to us an outdoor kitchen cooked while a production line of people washed plates by rinsing them in a progressively cleaner set of tubs until they were probably usable again. From the car park to the food hall there were certainly a lot of hands helping out from the very old to the very young - apparently it's a big volunteer thing here on days like this. When we left, we got these small gifts of rice cakes ('떡') at the gate to take away. They look really great but the taste is perhaps an acquired one.

Building your temple by the sea, and at the end of the barrel of an angry looking channel (at least it felt angry - the wind was brisk), has its disadvantages. It seems that last year the temple was flooded during typhoon season by a storm surge and the monks had to escape by climbing the nearby trees. Since then, all the buildings have been repainted and apart from a rather bedraggled looking adjacent field where the monks grow chillies there's little evidence that anything happened.

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