Over the past five years living in Sasang-gu, I’ve explored many of the local temples, and have even come to know some of the monks fairly well–well enough to get good access for photographs and share the occasional tea, coffee or beer. Sorry to spoil any illusions–some monks drink beer.
The Buddha’s Birthday is a major holiday in Korea, and temples across the country light up with beautiful paper lanterns, drawing crowds who come to pray, eat bibimbap, and take lots of pictures. As the Buddha’s Birthday approached this year, I decided I wanted to stay local, stay away from big crowds, and try to make some intimate photographs of this important part of Korea’s Buddhist heritage.
Neunginsa (“sa” is the Korean word signifying a temple), located at the base of Baekyang Mountain in western Busan, is only one hundred years old. The temple, however, plays an important role in the neighborhood, and also has strong ties with older and more well-known temples in the Jogye Order. The temple is just a five minute walk from my apartment, and my wife and I have visited it many times, even having tea on occasion with Yong-un, the head monk.
Yong-un, the head monk at Neunginsa
I approached Yong-un about a week before the celebrations to see if it’d be okay for me to photograph on the big day. He’s pretty fond of saying in English, “Sure, no problem,” and this time was no different. With Yong-un’s permission, I now had the access I needed to get really close to the story, and to make these images.
If you’d like, listen to an audio recording from the final ceremony of the day as you view the images:
In the evening, devotees lit paper lanterns and walked in a procession through the temple grounds, chanting and praying.
Some more portraits of Yong-un:
All images in this post by Ben Weller, all rights reserved. See more pictures from this series and others at www.wellerpix.com.
For more (amazing!) pictures of Buddha’s Birthday celebrations, and for some great photography tips, check out my friend Jason Teale’s excellent post on his approach to photographing the holiday this year.