Monks Bring Tradition to Finney
A half hour after the beginning of the program, the audience in Finney Chapel on Tuesday night was deep in supplication, responding to the dances and chants of Korean Buddhist monks. A portrait of the Buddha hung center stage, a robed woman before it and on the side, an accompanist sitting cross-legged playing the hand drum. The woman was the Venerable Dong Hee; she had also personally prepared all ritual objects seen onstage. Her prayer was the Hwach’ong, a bid for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to transfer blessings secured through the ceremony toward international peace.
This performance of the Young San ceremony is the dogged pulse of a tradition historically suppressed in Korea. In the past, the ritual — which on Tuesday clocked in at a tad short of two hours — was a three-day affair of offerings, music and sacred dance put on for celebration or in times of national need.
During the Choson era (1392-1910) and the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), however, Young San fell into disuse due to political disfavor of Buddhism. The complex logistics of the ritual may very well have disappeared had not a handful of exiled Korean Buddhists, prominently the Venerable Song-am Park, dedicated their lives to its upkeep. Ven. Dong Hee, Park’s pupil since age thirteen, is the first female to enter the ranks of Young San and the head of the Young San Preservation Group, which bears onward the torch.
The audience was treated to the “Butterfly Dance,” a staple of Young San, accompanied by ritual chant. As with all chants performed that evening, the song of “Butterfly Dance” was of the pompae style, the rhythmic, melodic and textual nuances of which are difficult to notate and therefore rely largely on oral tradition for posterity. Against this elaborate, memorized line held by a single chanter at the axis, four monks drew out and closed in slow orbit with blossoms bursting from their fists as an offering to the Triple Gem — the Buddha, Buddhist Law and the Monastic Order. Decked in high, peaked headdresses and full sleeves, the monks represented butterflies and bespoke metamorphosis.
Other pieces performed include the parach’um (“Cymbal Dance”), a difficult six-part dance using small cymbals, and the popkoch’um (“Buddhist Law Drum Dance”) which featured an arresting barrel drum solo and acrobatic choreography.
“The Sound of Ecstasy and Nectar of Enlightenment: Buddhist Ritual Song and Dance from Korea” will close its two-week, cross country circuit in New York at the American Museum of Natural History on Nov. 2. The monks’ performance at Oberlin was sponsored by the Korea Society, the Freeman Foundation Undergraduate Asian Studies Initiative, Oberlin’s Religion and East Asian Studies departments, Oberlin Korean Student Association and the Conservatory.