Sunday, May 19, 2013

석가탄신일과 송광사 - Buddha's Birthday and Songgwangsa

At Songgwangsa, this small stream with lanterns strung above it was one of the first sights we came across. It was breathtaking.

A nice three-day weekend is winding down for me. I was a bit more spontaneous than usual, probably owing to the fact that there was a national holiday, which called for doing something out of the ordinary, and that with only two months left in this grant year, I'm running out of time to spend with a lot of people I love...

So on Friday morning, which was Buddha's birthday on the lunar calendar, I set out from Changwon to bus across the peninsula to Suncheon (순천), where I met up with some Fulbrighters for a quick lunch before we took a taxi to Songgwangsa, one of Korea's most famous temples. Songgwangsa (송광사) was first built in the late Silla (신라) dynasty, about 1200 years ago, and has been renovated eight times until the present. It is known for producing many learned Buddhist scholars as well as being a major pilgrimage site.
A woman baptizing a boy Buddha statue in celebration of Buddha's Birthday.

My friends and I arrived in the afternoon and, after picnicking on 김밥, took a nice, slow meander around the temple grounds. It was a beautiful place, although it was not peaceful but bustling due the crowds of visitors on the special day: Buddha's Birthday (석가탄신일). There were special performances going on, and lots of families were there, the children being entertained by the same food trucks and small carnival game stalls that you see at most festivals. What with all the activity, the shows, and the colorful lanterns, it seemed more like we were at a carnival than at a "Jewel Temple of Korea".
The view of the mountains from a higher point on the temple grounds was quite beautiful.
However, on the outskirts of the temple, farther away from the crowds, there were quieter areas and gorgeous mountain scenery. My friends and I found a small stream and chilled there for a while. We spent most of our afternoon at the temple silently taking in all the sights and sounds and chatting with each other. It was perfect, really.

In truth, I wasn't at the temple to learn about Buddhism (불교) or even try to score free 비빔밥. I just wanted to spend time with my friends. The four that I hung out with this weekend have all chosen not to renew their contracts, which means that after July, they are going back to the US permanently, and I might not see them again for a long time. I tried not to think about that.
Julia, Maggie, Cecile, and Adam doing their best impressions of bamboo.
When it was time to go, they convinced me to go to Gwangju (광주) with them instead of turning around and heading back to Changwon. Feeling in the mood for some holiday spontaneity, I decided to spend the night in Gwangju; we ate dinner at the First Alleyway (Gwangju's little slice of North America in the middle of the downtown) and then watched The Great Gatsby. It was... great! More colorful and dynamic than the temple, even. I am going to re-read the book as soon as I get the chance.

So, I had a good start to the weekend on Friday, although the travel wore me out. I'm quite used to spending hours on a bus, now: Masan to Suncheon is 1h40m (; Suncheon to Songgwangsa is 1h30m (and ₩42,000 for the taxi fare); Songgwangsa to Gwangju on the direct shuttle is 1h30m (and ₩7,500). And those times are all not including traffic, which was plentiful on the holiday weekend.

Next up: the Boseong Green Tea Festival!