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[The Day We Go to Temple] 10. Buddhist Customs on Hangawi or Thanksgiving ()

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Writer Jogye Date03 Nov 2016 Read1,399 Comment0

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Buddhist Customs on Hangawi or Thanksgiving

The Origin of Thanksgiving


It is often said, “Do not wish for either more or less, just the abundance of Hangawi.” Thanksgiving, or Chuseok is the best holiday. Moreover, the phrase, “A farmer of the fifth month, and a great hermit of the eighth month,” means that if one wraps up the hard labor of summer, the delightful time of the eighth month comes along with the sound of ripening grains and fruits, and one becomes affluent like a mountain hermit. On Thanksgiving, songpyeon, or half-moon-shaped rice cakes, are traditionally made as seasonal food to be served as an offering to ancestors. Many also enjoy the day by playing various games. Chuseok means literally “a fall evening;” the character ‘Chu ()’ refers to the season of the ripening of rice, and ‘evening’ was emphasized to reflect the rising of the moon. For that reason, we can assume that Chuseok is the holiday of harvest or the moon, as it is the day of the full moon when grains and fruits are ripening. However, it has been called ‘Jingchu’ in China and Japan since ancient times. Therefore, we know that the term ‘Chuseok’ is written in characters that are used only in Korea.

There are two main theories about how the term ‘Chuseok’ originated. First, it is said that the term refers to the full moon in the eighth month, with the terms ‘Jingchu (中秋)’, and ‘Weolseok (月夕)’ compounded, creating the new term, ‘Chuseok’ in the mid-Silla period. Another theory stated that the collection of annotations and the original text of Shiji by Sima Qian, a Chinese historian of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), had been edited in the fifth century - The Records of the Grand Historian. According to the records, it is said that the term came from the clause, “The emperor holds a ceremony to the sun in the spring and to the moon in the fall.”5

5 Though many believed that this was literally written in The Record of Rites or Liji, it turned out that it was in Shiji, or The Records of the Grand Historian, the work of an Internet patron.

        According to Samguk Sagi, or The Chronicles of the Three States, written in 1145, it is written that Chuseok was a widely-celebrated holiday during the periods of Silla and Goryeo. In the ninth year of King Yuri’s reign during the Silla Kingdom, in 32 A.D., women of six regions were divided into two groups. They competed in Gilssam, or Weaving Competitions, for a month, beginning on the 16th day of the seventh month. On the 15th day of the eighth month of August, the winner was decided and the losing team had to prepare food for them. They enjoyed a delightful day, which was called Gabae. The word Gabae is a Korean term, which means ‘the middle day.’ This word was compounded from the words ‘ga’ or ‘the center’ and ‘bae’ for a day’. It means ‘the middle of the fall,’ the Korean version of ‘Jingchu’ in Chinese. The sound “ga” went through several phonological changes and became “gawi.” Furthermore, the prefix of ‘han’ or ‘great’ was added, resulting in “Hangawi” in the end. Therefore, it became Hangawi in Korea, following the phonological changes from Gabae in Chinese letters.

        However, a Japanese monk named Ennin, put forth another theory. Ennin was the writer of The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law, which took nearly ten years to write during his travel during the Tang Dynasty around the ninth century. This work refers to records indicating the unique holiday of the Silla Kingdom, held on the full moon of the eighth month. At that time, there was a temple in China called Sillawon in the area called Sillabang. Many Silla travelers visited the temple, as well as a number of migrants from the kingdom. Ennin indicated that he had received a lot of help there, while he was staying in the Tang Dynasty.

        Temple food included rice cakes and handmade pasta. I spent the holiday there on the 15th day of the eighth month, which is not celebrated in other countries, yet unique to Silla. According to elder monks, the celebration of good music and dance has been taking place for a long time, since it was designated as a holiday to commemorate the victory in the war against the ancient Balhae Kingdom (692-926). On this day, we made various dishes and joyfully danced to music day and night, resting for three days. Those, who were homesick, spent the holiday at Jeoksanwon Temple. 

        In addition, it is said that Chuseok was observed in a Buddhist way, by making rice cakes and other food in Silla temples in China at that time. In China, there was no record of Jingchu Day prior to the Tang Dynasty, and Double Yang Day on the 9th day of the ninth month was believed to be a much bigger celebration than Jingchu Day, up until the Song Dynasty. Considering the popular custom of Gabae in 32 A.D. in the period of ancient Silla, and the record of the Japanese monk, “Chuseok is a Silla holiday day,” around the 800s, the idea that Chuseok originated in China must be reconsidered. 

Buddhism and the Chuseok Ceremony

        Recently, an increasing number of people have been holding group ceremonies in temples on New Year’s Day and Chuseok. The word Charye, or Ceremony, traditionally referred to “a ritual of tea offering,” but in a Confucist ceremony, alcohol is used instead of tea, a change that caused a stirring among many people.

        Since the tradition of the tea ceremony has such a close relationship with Buddhism, it has been used as not only a means of cultivating the mind and body of practitioners, but also a part of the main offering to the Buddha. Carvings of tea offerings can be found on Buddha statues as well as pagodas or stupas. Offering tea in a Buddha hall, specifically in form of a tea ceremony, first took root in early history, and has now become one of the six offerings: incense, light, flowers, fruits, rice and tea.

        During the Goryeo Era, tea was widely popular, and not just among the royal family and ruling class. The ceremony of offering tea appeared in every major national event without exception. A Daebang in the palace dealt with all matters related with tea, and Daecheon, a tea-growing village, sprang up to provide tea to temples. In the midst of the coming of the Joseon Period (1392-1897), tea was regarded a product of Buddhist culture; thus, its culture gradually fell into decline with the government’s oppression of Buddhism. However, unlike the government’s unfavorable policy, the tea offering ceremony of the Goryeo took on a new name, Daerye, and its widespread practice continued.

        Notably, the history of using tea in ancestral rites is very old. According to Samguk Yusa, Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, the thirteenth King Munmu (626–681) of the Silla Period announced King Suro (?~199) as his 15th-generation maternal forefather, and commanded the ancestral ceremony to be held after having his private shrine moved to Jongmyo, the royal place. During this seasonally-held ancestral ceremony, many kinds of food were prepared: alcohol, sweet rice drink, rice cakes, rice, tea and fruits. This is the first record of a tea ceremony being offered in Jongmyo in Korea.

       In the record of the 29th year of the fourth King Sejong in The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, the term ‘Judarye’ surfaced. Unlike an ancestral memorial ceremony, seasonal or memorial services at gravesites, along with holiday rituals, Judarye were observed in the daytime. The term ‘Judarye’, comes from the words meaning “daytime tea ceremony.” Additionally, there were a number of debates whether tea or alcohol was to be used in memorial ceremonies. The decision regarding the order of offering alcohol and tea was finalized in the proceedings of the service as Confucian rituals were systemized. After offering alcohol three times: the initial offering of Choheon, the second of Aheon, and the final of Jongheon, the tea offering of Heonda or Jinda was subsequently observed, following the ancestors receiving their meals. 

        Thereafter, following a transitional period of selective drinking of tea or alcohol in the early Joseon period, the term Heonda was kept but water came to be used. At that time, rice was mixed with water after serving the soup. A well-known scholar of Joseon named Yulgok Lee commented that tea should be used but water had come to replace it. He insisted that tea must be used in seasonal ancestral ceremonies.

        However, the decision of whether to use alcohol or tea were the considerations of the ruling class, as an alcohol prohibition was in effect due to its negative influence on discipline and customs, and it was not allowed freely. As it was a privilege only available to the noble class at the time, the offering of tea at an ancestral ceremony was inaccessible for commoners. This is the reason behind the disappearance of tea in memorial ceremonies. Although it was discouraged, alcohol was the only option, since tea was considered a Buddhist element ideologically, and could not be acquired. However, it must be noted that it was a matter of accessibility and selectivity, rather than a sign of the gap between the rich and the poor.

        Meanwhile, according to Yeollyeo silgisul, the ancestral ceremony in Munsojeon, the shrine of King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty and his Queen, was begun by the fourth King Sejong. By imitating the system of Wonmyo of the Han Dynasty, Sochan, simple meals without fish or meat, was served twice for breakfast and dinner and Daerye, the tea offering, was given once. It was done not just in Daerye, but also memorial ceremonies.

        According to Sangbyeon Tonggo, the use of Sochan in memorial ceremonies was improper, according to a number of scholars. Yi, Hwang (1501-1570), one of the two most prominent Korean Confucist scholars, made the criticism that it was not natural for meat to be used in memorial services. If the chief mourner of a ceremony was not affluent enough to afford meat or fish on the table during the service, it was said to be most unfortunate. However, other scholars, Yi, Sukwang and Wang pointed out that the use of Sochan was not just a matter of the practice of vegetarianism of the chief mourner, but also closely related to the memorial ceremonies taking place in temples. Wang commented that ancestors were unable to take any meat as memorial services were held in temples, whereas Yi, Sukwang elaborated that due to the custom of holding ceremonies for the deceased in temples, the nobility came to use meat for the occasion. However, Sochan came to be used in national ceremonies for the deceased.

        In the case of food on the table for memorial services, offerings such as meat or fish should be presented, following the tradition of Confucianism, so the spirits of ancestors could enjoy the offerings. Meanwhile, the chief mourner of a memorial ceremony should refrain from getting intoxicated or eating any meat. Regardless, as ancestral ceremonies in Goryeo as well Joseon were held in temples, the use of alcohol and meat was not encouraged; consequently, these customs were not applied even when following the Confucist tradition.

        Accordingly, as memorial services in temple and Charye reflected the religious wishes for the rebirth of ancestors in the Pure Land, they were widely practiced among the royal family as well as the ruling class, not just during the Goryeo period, but also the Joseon era. Though the practice of holding memorial services in temples had declined steadily, the number of ceremonies being held in the institution have not only been increasing lately, but the number of group ancestral ceremonies held on holidays is also growing. As a result, it seems that the old tradition of ‘the Memorial Service and Buddhism’ has shed new light on modern circumstances.

* 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. 

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