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Happy 석가탄신일, Everyone!

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석가탄신일 (suck-gah-tan-shin-irl) Is the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday in Korea, and this year it falls on Monday the 29th. The weekend before the holiday is a special lotus lantern parade through the streets of Seoul and ending near Jogyesa Temple, one of the largest and most decked out temples in Korea. It felt an awful lot like a cathedral from Italy or Latin America.

Before the parade, we managed to pick up some lanterns to carry from the temple itself. The people in the temple were helpful and kind, welcoming the foreigners to participate in their yearly celebration. I’ve noticed that this is a key difference between Buddhism in Korea and some other religions that I’ve participated in or observed. They go out of their way to welcome, down to helping you twist the lanterns on their wires so that you won’t drop them.

The parade was very long, with representatives from each temple around the Seoul area creating glowing floats depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha or slightly more apocryphal images of Buddha in a helicopter. For some reason, Winnie the Pooh was involved. I suppose he does seem a little bit zen when you think about it.

As each group passed, they would wave and smile and sometimes shout, “Hello!” At one point one of my group yelled, “How are you?” and without missing a beat the children yelled back in unison, “I’m fine, thanks, and you?” This is the true mark of English education on Korea. Standard across the board.

At some point, it was our temple’s turn. We jumped the fence and joined the parade! My lanterns weren’t lit, and try as I might to light them, I was holding up the crowd. A few people said, “Please go!” in a very polite way, so I walked with mine unlit. It was fine. As we passed an intersection, I think the local news filmed us.

Finally, the parade ended up at the temple, which had been transformed with glowing lanterns by the thousand in the darkness. The band from the parade was still banging their gongs and bells and drums, and we were roped into dancing along in a circular pattern. It reminded me a little of the Hava Nagila.

Travelers are often cast as the silent and non-participatory observer, watching the traditions and daily life roll by them without engaging with them. I often am guilty of this, sitting in a cafe and watching the people go by in Seoul or Paris or Santiago, but the experience of jumping into the Buddha’s Birthday Parade and being welcomed (or perhaps the words should be “coerced nicely”) into the eternal dance at Jogyesa made me reconsider.

Until I’ve participated in the traditions of an adopted home, and until I’ve thrown off my cloak of traveler to reveal the willing fellow human beneath, I’ve not truly set foot in a country. In participation lies true travel.

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