Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사


The nearest Buddhist temple to our place is just across the road. In fact I pass it every time I go to work. It’s small and hidden up a small hill behind ample tree cover. In fact you’d miss it completely if it were for the multicoloured lanterns which line the street from early April, lanterns which are of course in anticipation of today, Buddha’s Birthday.

I’m inclined to think that Buddha’s Birthday is one of the nicer holidays in Korea, where the majority are made up of celebrations for independence and the constitution and such like. Granted that they are all important, but they are in some respects new holidays. Celebrating the Buddha has been going on in Korea for a long time, and maybe something of the history has rubbed off on folks.

Buddhism has been practised in Korea since around the fourth century, and was welcomed in both the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla period. During the Chosun dynasty, while not entirely ostracised, much Buddhism was forced to the side and practice was reserved in secluded mountain areas. Today this could be why many Buddhist temples can be found on hills and mountainsides – or it could be that they are just nice places to have temples.

We’ve been coming the 반야사 for a few years, and it is a different place to the usual mean and impersonal streets of Yeongtong. I don’t want to say that people change when they step on to the green grass looking out over the many high-rise apartments across the horizon, but there seems to be a different attitude. Courtesy is one thing that is in abundance, and smiles, and conversation with strangers. The chanting from the loudspeakers and the moktoks steady hollow tapping has a positive influence on even the sourest citizen it would seem.

To add to this, the sun was shining down warming the small tree protected garden of dry grass and multicoloured lanterns. The colours were lined in neat straight rows, each lantern recognising a donor and that a prayer would be said in their honour. To the side lines of white lanterns were representative of those who have passed away.

The stone pathway which dissected the garden, halfing the garden, with the temple to one side and the a large open area filled with mats for sitting on the other. Here people had gathered in family groups and were sitting and chatting while enjoying the temple food. This was a simple mountain or san-chae bibimbap  – essentially, fresh greens, some bean sprouts, mushrooms, a kimchi, and of course red pepper paste known to everyone else who isn’t a fresh off the boat tourist as go-chu-chang.

We have been celebrating Buddha’s Birthday in Korea for as long as myself and Herself have been a couple. It’s kind of a thing we like to do. Before we would go to Gangwon-do and visit a small temple Herself’s mother used to go to. Again, it was a similar set up without the nice grass, but admittedly the food was better (it is Gangwon-do of course). After that we’d usually go for a walk through Odaesan National Park, for more food and of course the beautiful Seogumgang Valley.

But none of that this year. Lovely Yeongtong was on the cards, and in fairness it didn’t disappoint.

 

For more photographs from Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사 please take a look at my set on Flickr

 

Did you celebrate Buddha’s Birthday? What did you do?

Is there any local festival specific to your home you’d like to share?

 

Is all Marriage Created Equal?


After watching the now stratospheric speech by Panti Bliss in the Abbey theatre I had an uncomfortable feeling. Why was ‘she’ so angry at ‘me’? Why did she repeatedly utter the words ‘I check myself’ almost to the point of complete irritation. Why was I so annoyed?

If you don’t have the patience or interest to read this full piece, no problem; here’s my opinion now. Same sex marriage should be allowed, the laws changed as soon as possible.

If however you are wanting to know why I am bothered to write this, well read on.

The Panti speech was brought about by her alter ego’s (Rory O’Neil) appearance on RTE television. There he was asked about the Iona institute, a confederacy of dunces if ever there was one. The institute is a group based in Ireland who are against gay marriage are keen to uphold the sanctity of tradition. He referred to John Waters(guardian of all things traditional and father to a pop singer’s love child) in Iona as a homophobe and subsequently the broadcaster had to get the chequebook out to appease Waters and the institute.

Now all this publicity was doing very little for any policy changes, except to unfairly fill the coffers of Waters and his cronies. Seeing this, many people took to the streets outside government buildings to protest in a sea of rainbow coloured flags and pink t-shirts.

Inside Leinster House there seems to be an overriding feeling that things have to change and change quickly. Then again only the liberally minded have spoken. It is surely a no brainer right? If two people want to convey their love via marriage what’s the problem? Well yes you would think that but then you would ignore the reality.

It is thought that this law will pass through with much less fuss than last year’s emotive abortion bill, but personally speaking I have my doubts. Like so many C-list celebrities in Ireland, Rory O’Neill and David Norris are charismatic and generate polite applause wherever they go. Both have been responsible for bringing gay issues to the fore time and time again and that is to be admired. Vitally both are extreme attention seeking extroverts; neither of whom faithfully represent the community they wish to serve.

But they’re only human, and if half of Hollywood pretends to fight for human rights in Africa, whilst somehow always managing to keep themselves in the limelight, then good luck to them.

Ultimately if this change in marriage law is to come to pass it will not be because some drag queen’s video went viral. Despite Panti’s plea for the rest of us to take a long hardlook at ourselves we will all walk into the voting station that day and tick a box for yes or no.

image sourced from phillipinenews.com

Ireland likes to think of itself as forward thinking, modern. Those days of Catholic guilt have long since passed. And yet how often do you see a gay couple holding hands in public, either on the streets of Galway, Monaghan or Dublin? Most of us wouldn’t be offended to see it and yet the prevailing mood in the LGBT community is that they feel it is unsafe to do so. Even still we are all pretty certain that this new law will be rubber stamped? Something isn’t right there.

If I was running this campaign I would immediately enlist the help of some people who I can connect to. Everyday people with everyday jobs who don’t call me names because I am taken aback by their cocktail dress, six inch heels and five o clock shadow.

So you’ve gathered by now I am a homophobe. Well if drag queens make me uncomfortable then yes I guess I am. I’ve been called worse. It doesn’t mean that I want things to say the same, that I don’t want to evolve. That I admit I am wrong when I use the words ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ without thinking.

How do I sleep at night? Well quite easily. In the realm of things calling people names is not that big a deal. Then again I am not in a minority. The last time I was when I lived in Asia for a year and as a white man was called ‘bule’ by the locals. Was that racist? Yes but I wasn’t offended. Aren’t I great?

For people who do get offended by being branded a homophobe well you’ve had it for all of three weeks. Try a lifetime of hurtful abuse, that much Panti Bliss was exactly right about.

Persecution or even the thought of not having your opinons heard is a scary thought. Look at how many people come out to vote nowadays. We don’t care until we’re insulted. And yet if the vote was taken away from us tomorrow there would be an outcry.

A lot of people reckon this referendum will be a nice smokescreen, a chance for the government to gain to some credibility before hitting our wallets with new taxes. Maybe that’s true.

But if there’s anything going on it is that there is just a slight(and long overdue redress) in the balance of what it’s okay to say and not say. The majority of the gay community is fighting back because they are frustrated. As tax paying citizens of this country they want to have the same rights as everyone else. They don’t want to be told what to do in their private lives or that their relationship doesn’t mean as much as a man and woman’s.

On the other side the more traditional point of view, led by zealots from the likes of the Irish Catholic and Iona institute. They will run on the ticket of the nuclear family, mother and father with two kids, the whole bit. They feel that adoption will become some kind of transfer market akin to deadline day on Sky Sports, well that might be interesting to watch.

These two are going to be at loggerheads for the next year and a half until the referendum takes place. Us, the disinterested majority will stand in the middle, some of us mildly entertained others reaching for the remote to change the channel.

And the crazy thing is, we the apathetic many will decide, just by sheer numbers. Can you imagine that, your life being shaped by someone who doesn’t care either way?

A lot of people will only give their opinion on that ballot paper, when it is confidential and quiet to do so.

image from nytimes.com

My parting advice to the reform alliance parties out there is to get prepared. Prepared to bite your tongue and choose your battles wisely. Don’t assume that because you are right that you will win. Do not lower yourself to the dark arts of guilting the public into voting your way. Worse yet don’t play the ‘it doesn’t matter and it won’t affect you’ card, the last thing this nation needs is another excuse not to go down the road to vote.

Learn to appreciate the art of charm, something which always seems to go down well in Ireland for some reason.

I hope you win.

I watched the Panti video one more time whilst writing this. Have to say I began to warm to her.. Maybe I just needed to get used to her.

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit pleasefollow this link.

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Hi, my name is Ray and I live in Ireland. I am slowly learning how unfair life is and dealing with it accordingly. Currently I live at home with my parents at the tender age of 32, having decided that success and a nice abode of my own was all too predictable. I presently work as an Intern, which in Ireland means, the same as everywhere else in the western world (no job prospects!). My principle interests include observing soccer players secretly laughing at the rest of us, wrestling with the reality that sometimes you’re better off not trying, wrestling full stop oh and fast food, consummation and critique thereof. I don’t like long walks along the beach, Monday is my favourite day of the week and if there’s an American TV show out there that you love and can’t stop talking about chances are I probably despise you.

Yangyang Traditional Market


Across Korea traditional markets are still a common feature. Taking place every five days in towns and even cities, the markets give a brief insight into an older part of Korea. For the most part these markets are straightforward occasions and possibly a bit like you could imagine in the so-called olden days, drawing in all the local populace for not only business but also social reasons.

Throughout you can see people meeting and doing business, while at the same time there is a good quantity of back slapping and hearty laughing by the stalls. There are rows and rows of people, mostly old women it has to be said, selling what is clearly the excess from their small gardens, and for them it seems to be as much a chance to get out and meet people, with the added benefit of actually making some money.

This is a K-Pop free zone. Not because of the age, but because of the distance it sits from the modern and vibrant image which K-Pop and Hallyu parades as Korean. There are no hanboks, palaces, models with plastic surgery, dramatic light shows, or indeed very many young people at all. Korea will be more like this, the majority of the population being between 30 and 50 years old, and this relatively young country will soon be an old one holding on to its past as much as its future pushes to break free.

These markets are not only rural occasions, as they function within every city, the most famous being Moran Market. Travel past the glitz of any main street and burried in its alleys and side streets this side of Korea persists, struggling against the tide fueled by a minority keen to present a new Korea to the world.

Talk will persist eternally about how to combine these two elements but one is always going to be a loser. I’m not trying to sound critical here, just to explain a reality which isn’t spoken of much. Too many distractions seem to occupy the imaginations of everyone invested in Korea with a voice, but still Korea carries on, some struggling, a few thriving, many taking what they can from the ride and hoping for the best in the end. It’s no denying what demographic the people thriving usually make up, and if you need it hint, it is rarely the vendors and patrons of places like Yangyang market.

Below is a selection of an extended set of photographs now available to view on flickr. Please click this link to see more!

Is it December Already?


So now that Halloween is over we can all start getting our Christmas decorations down and checking the fairy lights are all working. While we’re at it, order a turkey, and for christ’s sake start knitting that jumper, there’s a 12 Pubs of Christmas on somewhere…

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Is it a bit early to be joking about this?

The thing is I can titter to myself, but I know that for a fact this is how things might as well be. Christmas is a bigger and bigger ordeal as each year passes. The lights in the cities go up earlier, there are more and more elaborate Santa’s grottos in supermarkets, and for some reason many people’s livers do not collapse, despite the increased effort.

If I was back in Ireland I could probably complain about this. But I’m not. I’m in Korea. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to invite you, my humble reader to celebrate this phenomenon.

In case you haven’t already noticed, preparations for the Christmas period are already in motion. Not more than two or three weeks ago I was in Costco and not one Halloween thing-a-majig did I see. However, Christmas trees and cribs to abandon were in stock. One crib, which to my eye was a walk-in one, had statues of the shepherds, wise men, Joseph, and Mary, not to mention the assorted livestock which usually comes with these things, all of which would have dwarfed little +1 at full stretch.

In starbucks yesterday, November 1st lest we not forget, they had rolled out their red Christmas campaign with all their Christmas flavoured coffees and whatnot over heating from too much cream and chocolate sprinkles. And this afternoon in Emart, the Korean supermarket chain, there was even a small section of plastic Christmas trees and flashing Santa Clauses.

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There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t make me irate.

First of all there are more important things to get angry about.

Second of all, I kind of expect it so what is the point of getting angry about it – I wish I could say the same for driving standards in Yeongtong…

Thirdly, it’s Korea.

“What? That’s not a very good third excuse”, I hear you chirp.

Well it is. Korea is not a Christmas country. When I think family and holiday in Korea I think Chuseok and Seolal. When I hear Christmas in Korea I hear day off and drinking. Wait. That sounds the same as an Irish Christmas.

When I first came to Korea in 2005 I was lucky to even see the colours red and white together. I lived near a McDonalds which kind of helped me realise it was Christmas, but otherwise there was hardly any wind of it in the Seoul air. By 2008 I was living in Itaewon and you could kind of pick up on it a bit. I was also working in a much bigger school so they pushed the western holidays or whatever a little more, so I was reminded of Christmas somewhat more.

Around that time, someone in Seoul City Hall had the bright idea that fairy lights all over the place made the city look nice in the dark of winter, so Seoul suddenly looked like it was all lit up for Christmas. Of course these lights persisted until February, but in early Decemeber you could be forgiven for feeling the Christmas mood.

Despite this history of Christmas in Korea, my main thought still is that Christmas isn’t a Korean holiday, and any attempt to celebrate it isn’t going to match the ideas we have of Christmas in our own western homes. It’s not a family holiday for starters, and it’s certainly not one that many Koreans look back on with any amount of nostalgia. Now, you do see some kids getting Christmas presents from Santa Claus, and there’s that phenomenon of couples going to Myeong-dong on Christmas Day, but aside from that… oh yeah, don’t forget the twenty million or so Christians in the country (but since when has Christmas been about Christianity, right?).

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If you want to get an idea for where Christmas stands, maybe you should look at Halloween, which for some reason is called Halloween Day (yeah, I know…). There is no resemblance between the Halloweens in Korea and any of the Halloweens in Ireland I remember. For starters where is the abject fear of teenagers in the streets after dark? I could go on.

There is little point in growling about how Christmas is celebrated here. It’s like a Korean in Ireland complaining about how they just don’t do Chuseok like they do back home. And anyway, the fact that the commercial aspect is sneaking into popular culture should be comfort enough, seeing as it’s probably the most dominant feature of a typical western Christmas.

For me, I can find Christmas in Korea a very lonely time, even with a fantastic wife and now and amazing little daughter to keep me company, but I’ve never found a comparable comfort in the Christmas that Korea provides. That doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate it. I’ve tried different things and always had a great time, but it’s not what I’d liken to Christmas. This doesn’t make it a bad thing.

The way I see it is there are two holidays here, one in the place it originated, and one attempt to liken it. Neither are wrong, neither will every be better, neither will ever suppress the other. Sure one may be more commercially driven than the other, or vice-versa.

So this December as I’m gradually getting used to red Starbucks signs and cups, mispronounced children’s Christmas songs, I’ll be happy knowing that at least there is something here that helps me get on with another year. What matters to me more than anything is, like any celebration, is who you spend it with and what you do, not what everyone else does.

Days of Chuseok


The Chuseok holiday is ending slowly here. All that is left is the rest of the weekend, but that’s not really Chuseok. Most businesses will open up tomorrow in the hope of catching those desperate to restock their fridge and fill their belly with something other than Chuseok food.

Of course we suffer in Korea this year because Chuseok, a three day holiday, has fallen on a Thursday, so the three days around it also meld into Saturday and Sunday making it a nice rounded five day break. There will be a very slow and more unenthusiastic than usual start to work all around the country this Monday.

Myself, Herself, and +1 have been on the east coast since Tuesday. The town, as you may already know, is called Jumunjn (주문진) and it’s where Herself was born and grew up. Her parent’s house is a short walk from the beach, and to a certain extent it is within very short distance of some fairly nice countryside. If you’re fortunate enough to have a car then there’s a wealth of scenery and country well worth exploring.

As it’s kind of late at night and +1 seems to be more restless in the evenings (she’s just under 10 months old now) I’m going to share with you some photographs I’ve take over the past few days, rather than writing a long essay. Some are s little blurry as I’m still struggling with having the right amount of paetience to make this DSLR of mine work for me. Still, I hope you enjoy them.

If you’d like to read a little more about my experience celebrating Chuseok in my own home in Suwon, please follow the link.

Also be sure to check out Ben Haynes guest post Get Ready, Get Set…Chuseok

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Copyright all photographs Conor O’Reilly, September 2013. All rights reserved.