Icons of Korean Buddhism │ ② Yeongsan-jae: Ritual for the Joy of Perpetual Peace

Ritual for the Joy of Perpetual Peace
Chun Ock-bae | Former Director, Korea Institute of Buddhist English Translation
▲ A scene from Yeongsan-jae performances
ⓒ The Korea Times

The main objective of this ceremony is to soothe the souls of the dead and lead them to be reborn in the Pure Land. Sometimes the Yeongsan-jae ceremony is also held to invoke  blessings for the security and development of the entire nation.

A Korean Yeongsan-jae, or literally “Vulture-Peak Ceremony,” is a religious performance-genre of its own that combines music, dance, drama, literature and philosophy. It is rooted in classical Buddhism but has merged with diverse Korean traditions, becoming one of the most important and characteristic traditional Buddhist rituals in Korea.
Yeongsan-jae is one of several kinds of memorial services, which might be performed on the 49th day after a family member’s death, its purpose being to guide the soul of the deceased to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss (Buddhist paradise).  Sometimes it is performed in seven-day intervals up until the 49th day after death. This ceremony is held in hopes of leading both the living and the dead into the joy of enlightenment and perpetual peace.
Basically, this lengthy and colorful ritual is a reenactment of a significant event in the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, which is called the Vulture Peak Assembly. It was on this legendarily summit (in the northern Indian mountains) that he first preached the Lotus Sutra, and also transmitted nonverbal teachings to Kasyapa (one of his leading disciples), who responded only with a subtle smile. The main objective of this ceremony is to soothe the souls of the dead and lead them to be reborn in the Pure Land. Sometimes this ceremony is also held to invoke blessings for the security and development of the entire nation.
The ceremony is performed as follows. In preparation, a large scroll painting of the Vulture Peak Assembly with the image of Buddha is hung and an altar is erected in front of it. This is called the “upper altar” where offerings of incense, tea, flowers, fruit, lanterns and rice are prepared. To the left of this altar, a “middle altar” is prepared where the meal service will be conducted, and to the right, a “lower altar” is set up where the actual ceremony for the soul of the deceased will be conducted.
After assembling these altars, the large temple bell is rung as a signal to begin the ceremony, and the Buddha, bodhisattvas, devas and guardians are beseeched to come down from heaven and participate, while those attending the ceremony perform on a parade ground and invite the soul of the deceased. At the same time, a verse of praise for Buddha’s great virtue is sung, and musicians play various musical instruments, such as the Korean fiddle, the big drum, the janggu (a smaller Korean drum) and the geomungo (Korean lute). In time with the music, such Buddhist ritual dances as the Bara-chum (Cymbal Dance), Nabi-chum (Butterfly Dance) and Beobgo-chum (Dharma Drum Dance) are also performed. All these dances are intended to express the true Dharma (teachings) of Buddha.
After the soul of the deceased is enshrined, the other parts of the ceremony such as the reception, the donation, dharma-talks and the blessing are carried out, and the participants pray for good fortune, happiness and health. Lastly, as a final farewell to the deceased, all the participants form a queue and circle the altar chanting sutras.
▲ A scene from Yeongsan-jae performances
ⓒ The Korea Times
In the past, the whole ceremony took three days and nights, but now it is usually finished in a single day. Through this ceremony, the deceased and the participants become one for the purpose of awakening the true Dharma of Buddha and leading the way to free everyone from earthly suffering and delusion.
The origin of the Vulture Peak Ceremony is not clear, but the Joseon-bulgyo tongsa (Entire Buddhist History of Joseon Dynasty), written by Lee Neung-hwa (1869-1943), provides evidence that it was performed in the first half of the Joseon Dynasty.
This ceremony was designated by the Korean government as Important Intangible Cultural Property no. 50 in 1987. Since then, the Taego Order of Korean Buddhism has taken the initiative to revive it by establishing the Vulture Peak Ceremony Preservation Association and by performing the ceremony in Korea, as well as in over 20 foreign countries.
Bongwon-sa, the main temple of the Taego Order, is now the official preservation and teaching center for this ceremony and conducts annual performances on Korean Memorial Day (June 6th) and on Buddha’s Birthday (8th day of the 4th lunar month). The order also has arranged international seminars with the aim of introducing this ritual to other countries.
In addition, the Jogye Order has established the Bulgyo Eosan  Jakbeop-hakgyo (Eosan Buddhist Ritual School) with the aim to teach and transmit other Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, in addition to the Vulture Peak Ceremony. Currently, the Vulture Peak Ceremony Preservation Association consists of 240 instructors. Monk “Guhae” Kim In-sik is the primary expert on Buddhist ceremonial music, following the former masters Jigwang, Byeokeung, Songam and Ileung. Assisting him are Ma Myeong-chan, Lee Su-gil, Oh Chanyeong, Lee Byeong-u, Lee Jo-won and Han Hui-ja, who are all teachers of Buddhist music and dance and the making of ornamental paper flowers used in the ritual.
On Sept. 30, 2009, Korea’s Yeongsan-jae and four other Korean cultural assets were inscribed as “Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity” by UNESCO. In attaining this special status, the Vulture Peak Ceremony is clearly one of the most valuable heritages of Korea’s Buddhist traditions.

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