Happy B-day, Buddha!

The band was a clamor of drums and cymbals. Behind them glided a women’s choir, their delicate, pink hanbok floating across the asphalt like flowers on a pond. A dragon chased them, skin shimmering and sliding between colors as it torched the air with fiery breath. The Buddha riding its back remained serene; a pretty good testament for enlightenment, if you ask me.

We met the parade by chance as we left the grocery store. A giant papier-mâché brahma bell was rolling through the crosswalk, tolling an unearthly sound. A second Buddha followed on an elephant, looking pretty pleased with the way his birthday party was going.

Buddha will turn the big 2,557 on May 17th. It’s a federal holiday, like December 25th, though the festivities begin about a week before. Hence the parade and the countless paper lanterns strung around Chungju.

 Buddhism has existed in Korea for a good 1,600 years. Its followers have been aristocrats and outcasts, recluses, saints, politicians and even guerilla fighters. The religion is as ingrained in Korean history and culture as kimchi.

Today, Buddhism and Christianity have a roughly equal hold on spiritual South Koreans.So each faith gets a national holiday, which is not only awesome and tolerant but also means I don’t have to go to work this Friday.

Near the end of the parade, an army of children scurried between floats, each carrying a lotus lantern. It’s clear these Buddhists know how to throw a party. I am of the opinion that a dragon or two would greatly improve most local Christmas parades. Or at least a fire-breathing Rudolph. You know, just to liven things up.