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Buddhist Customs on Baekjung
The Etymology and Customs of Baekjung
Baekjung, on the 15th day of the seventh month by the lunar calendar is also called Ullambana, which means ‘hanging down’ in Sanskrit. It is said that you can save the spirits of your ancestors, who have been condemned in hell, if you give an offering to the monks, on the day they complete a three-month summer meditation retreat. The day of completion is the 15th day of the seventh month, so it came to be a holiday. The ceremony on this day is called Uranbunhoe or Uranbunjae in Korean. It was first held by Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (464–549) and came to be practiced as a national religious ceremony after the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Currently, this day is called the Ullambana Festival, Guijie (the Ghost Festival), or Jungwon in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Ochugen in Japan.
When Buddhism was widely practiced during the Silla and Goryeo Dynasties, the Ullambana Ceremony of giving offerings to monks was held on Baekjung Day. However, it was later reduced to a simpler ceremony of offering various foods in temples. According to Dongguksesigi or A Record of the Seasonal Customs of the Eastern Kingdom, it is called Manghonil. This ceremony was performed by calling the spirits of deceased parents, serving vegetables, fruits, drinks and rice when the moon came out. This can be seen as a tradition influenced by Uranbunjae.
Baekjung was also referred to as Jungwon because it came from the Shenyuan or Samwon of Taoism, which are the full moons of the first, seventh, and tenth months, called Sangwon, Jungwon, and Hawon respectively. In Taoism, on the day of Samwon, the heavenly being judges the good and evil of humans. On Jungwon Day, the crimes of dead will be forgiven. Thereafter, the first ceremony wishing for a peaceful rest of one’s deceased parents was called Jungwon Bodo.
The word ‘Baekjung’ is unique to Korea, and does not exist in other countries. It first appeared in records around the nineteenth century. During the Goryeo Dynasty, it was called either Baekjong, Ullan or Jungwon, but starting around the time of the Joseon Dynasty, the term Baekjong was consistently used. However, a popular song “Dongdong” from the Goryeo Dynasty sings of the wish to live with one’s love while preparing for Baekjong on the full moon of the seventh month. Moreover, in the Ullambana Sutra, translated into Chinese by Dharmarak during the Western Jin Period (265–316), it is written, “set out rice, white rice and five different fruits; light scented oil in a water pail; and then put a cushion by the table. Afterwards, put all kinds of delicious food into an alms bowl for monks in all directions.” Consequently, the term “Baekjong” seemed to refer to all kinds of delicious and sweet food during Ullanbana, as it was the time for harvesting various fruits and vegetables. Thus, there is a widely accepted theory that the term Baekjung from the late Joseon Dynasty came from joining the first syllables of Baekjong and Jungwon.
Later on, as the similar pronunciations of Baekjong and Baekjung were mixed, the same pronunciation, but different written characters and shades of meanings for these synonyms were created one after another. At first, the letter “Jung (衆)” meaning “a group” and the letter “Baek (百)” meaning “white” or “Baek (白)” meaning “a hundred” were combined to create “a group of a hundred” in “白衆” or “a group of white” in “百衆.” The formal term was created as monks, who completed their summer meditation retreat, spent time sharing their flaws before other practitioners. This means that one confessed one’s faults freely in front of others after a three-month meditation retreat. The latter derived from making offerings to many monks. Generally, instead of the commonly used “Baek (百)” meaning “a hundred” or “Baek (白)” meaning “white,” the letter “Baek (魄)” meaning “a spirit” was mixed with the letter “Jong (縱)” meaning “extending,” resulting in “Baekjong (魄縱),” which meant “make it free.” This referred to the releasing of the spirit, as this was the day for leading the suffering deceased to utmost bliss.
Additionally, the letter “Baek (白)” meaning “white” and the letter “Jong (踵)” meaning “a heel” were compounded to create the term “Baekjong (白踵),” which contained the meaning that farmers scrubbed their heels clean after weeding three times to wrap up their farming activities. The term originated as farmers came out from their fields, washed their feet, and had a feast during this temporary break from farming. However, the term was also interpreted in terms of monks’ feet becoming white after washing them at the completion of their summer meditation retreat in Buddhism. Baekjong, the washing of heels, was also referred to as ‘the hanging of hoes’ after weeding; that is, marking the completion of farming. Thus, the time of washing the heels and hanging of the hoes were considered equal. Both terms were created by commoners, and the Buddhist community then appeared to interpret the words in connection with their own practice.
Furthermore, the term Baekjong (百終) was formed with the letter “Jong (終)” meaning “the end.” This was used to mark the end of a three-month meditation retreat, which indicated the completion of a hundred days of a summer practice, in a broader sense. Recently, one scholar noted that Baekjung was transmitted as Baekjong in the Chungchong Provincial area and asserted a new theory of its origin in connection with the day of the fall of Baekje Dynasty (18 B.C.-660 A.D.).
When compiling all these terms, it is interesting not only to understand the meaning of Baekjung as a holiday, but also in regard to its diverse customs. From the way various synonyms developed, which added different shades of meaning, we get a glimpse of the dynamic features of Buddhism mixed with the livelihoods of sentient beings.
Among commoners, Baekjung was called by various names, such as the Washing of the Hoe, or Farmhand Day. At this time farm music called Putgoot was played and the people enjoyed an extravagant feast during this time of rest. The seventh month was considered the off-season of farming, during the three heat waves that occurred after weeding the fields and rice paddies. So, farmhands received a special feast for their breakfast on this day, and received gifts of new clothes and money so that they could rest completely for the whole day. Additionally, they selected the best farmhand of a household, whose crops were the most abundant, mounted him on a bull, and paraded him around the village. Additionally, the business activities of buying and selling of goods and food along with alcohol flourished, as farmhands spent their financial rewards at a temporary market that appeared only on Baekjong. For youth, there was a traditional wrestling competition for selecting the best wrestler, while teen boys took part in “Stone Lifting,” a rite of passage in moving toward adulthood. It was held under a shade tree in the village, and those, who succeeded, were also granted the right to receive the wage of a grown man.
Consequently, Baekjung was a ceremony in the agricultural community, giving relief from the hard labor of farm work. It was also the festival of workers, who displayed their fitness and its necessity. It was a harmonious festival of abundance and excitement, based on productivity and leisure. On that day, the strongest and the most fun were treated with the most respect.
The Joint Cheondojae of Ullambana Day
The Ullambana Ceremony, on the 15th day of the seventh month by the lunar calendar, is the day to help the deceased in the three evil realms to attain rebirth in the Pure Land. In temples, an Ullambana Ceremony is held for the ancestors of laypeople and wandering spirits to receive a chance at blissful rebirth into the Pure Land. The Chinese characters Uranbun came from the term Ullambana in Sanskrit which means, “the suffering of hanging down.” Therefore, the Ullambana Ceremony is a ritual to release the suffering deceased from those terrible realms. Therefore, it is also called Haedohyeon or Gudohyeon, meaning the “release from hanging down.”
This day also marks the end of a three-month summer meditation retreat of monks. At this time, a practitioner, who completed this cultivation, receives offerings from the laity, and goes before an assembly of monks to ask questions from their study, as well as spend time repenting for their faults. Additionally, it is known that the good virtue of giving offerings to monks greatly contributes toward the rebirths of ancestors in the Pure Land.
The story of the existence of this day, created to save the beings in hell, is quite dramatic. Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha's ten disciples, used his power to learn of the afterlife, and found out that his mother, who had committed many terrible sins, was suffering awfully in hell. He begged Buddha for a way to save her. In response, the disciple offered his sincere offerings to the high monks on the last day of a meditation retreat. It is said that these offerings were accepted, and she was able to be reborn in heaven and receive unlimited happiness and joy.
To detail the ceremony on that day, it can be inferred that strong emphasis was placed on filial piety. According to one of the Buddhist customs, the Ullambana Ceremony aims to save ancestors’ spirits, sending them to the Pure Land, pay respect to monks and ultimately protect Buddha Dharma. Whereas, Baekjung is a seasonal rite which regards ancestors as heavenly gods, honors workers and ultimately guarantees abundant harvests.
According to The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, it is written that government officials raised their voices to criticize people scrambling to make offerings to monks, who had completed their summer meditation retreat. The officials urged the banning of such activities in the early period. In response, the fourth King Sejong (1397-1450) responded explicitly, “Monks are also my people. Even though they live in temples, they need to eat. If they are starving, how the country can ignore them? Therefore, there is no harm done making offerings to them.” It can be inferred that a deep connection existed between the summer meditation retreat and the Ullambana Ceremony on the 15th day of the seventh month.
Even nowadays, Cheondojae and Ullambana Ceremonies, held on Baekjung in temples, continue to be viewed as important for the honoring of ancestors. Though the festivities of farmers have disappeared, the significance of the Buddhist traditions came to dominate this day. To accumulate good deeds for their forefathers and troubled ancestors, including the subjects of ceremonies, many people rely on temples. For this reason, the ceremony on Baekjung came to include this devotion. Cheondojae on Baekjung starts on the 15th day of the fourth month with the prayer to the Bodhisattva of Hell, and ends on the 15th day of the seventh month. Nowadays, it takes the form of a ceremony held seven times every seven days for 49 days more, with the final day being the 15th of the seventh month. On the last day of the ceremony, everyone may bring his or her own letter of aspiration and burn it along with spiritual tablets, as well as the clothes of deceased.
like manner, the Baekjung and Ullambana Ceremonies are Buddhist
customs that clearly represent the harmony between religion and folk culture.
Folk culture tends to take on the innate religious characteristics of human
culture, while religion needs the traditions of the land in order to take root
in the livelihoods of people. The common denominator of these two areas is absorption,
and the religious and folk traditions become fused in harmony. The Ullambana Ceremony on Baekjung continues to be celebrated as a
result of this fusion, addressing both spiritual and practical needs from the
* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "The Day We Go to Temple" and is contained in the autumn 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 23~29.