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Business booms before Buddha’s birthday

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 44th in a series: Gyeonji-dong Buddhist Street]
‘When I need to purchase Buddhist goods I usually come to this street.’

Apr 28,2009
Passersby including a Buddhist monk walk along the Gyeonji-dong Buddhist street in downtown Seoul near Jogye Temple.
With Buddha’s Birthday this Saturday, the shops near Jogye Temple are all dressed up and bustling with activity.

Colorful lotus lanterns ranging in quality from those made of cheap plastic to those made of luxurious handmade paper or silk adorn storefronts, and inside, clerks are busy processing special orders, including one that came in last week for a set of 100 short prayer beads called hapjangju.
“I came here to purchase hapjangju to distribute them to fellow believers as Buddha’s Birthday gifts,” said the customer, a woman in her late 20s who declined to be identified. “When I need to purchase Buddhist goods in a large amount like this, I usually come to this street.”

The street, commonly known as Gyeonji-dong Buddhist street, has about 30 stores selling Buddhist items lining both sides of Ujeongguk-no in central Seoul. The stores began to appear 30 to 40 years ago because Jogye Temple, which is the center for the Jogye Order, the main branch of Korean Buddhism, is located here, store managers said.

The stores sell incense and tea, making them popular even with non-Buddhist visitors, and big gold-plated copper Buddha or Bodhisattva statues for temples.

A few stores specialize in items like monks’ robes or tea, while most deal in everyday items like books, candlesticks and incense burners.

Every store was filled with the fragrance of incense or aromatic candles.

“I am a Buddhist and a fashion designer. One day, I started taking interest in how monks’ robes were designed and that’s how I came to manage this store,” said Hwang Soon-mee, chief executive officer of Lumbini Department Store.

Lumbini is in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Buddha is said to have lived till the age of 29.

Hwang’s store mainly sells monks’ robes and other goods made with natural fabrics but it also sells Buddha statues and mandala paintings imported from India.

“Buddhists aren’t the only ones who visit our store. People interested in organic things including natural fabrics visit our store, as all monks’ robes are made of natural fabrics dyed by hand with ink water,” she said.

“Even Catholic nuns come to our store from time to time to purchase cushions made of natural fabric,” she continued, pointing out the big prayer cushions. She said the nuns use the cushions when they pray.

The managers of the stores on the street say that while lotus lanterns, which are priced between 5,000 won and 10,000 won, are the most popular items during this season, the best-selling items on regular days are prayer beads, including baekpal yeomju, which is made of 108 beads, hapjangju and danju, which are made of especially big beads, the store managers said.

A customer in Lumbini Department Store on the Gyeonji-dong Buddhist street. By Jeon Min-kyu
Prayer beads, which are just like rosaries, can be made of plastic, which are worth about 1,000 won, or precious materials, such as the nuts of the Bodhendrum, or bo tree, which are worth hundreds of thousands of won. The bo tree is highly valued because it was under this tree that the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, achieved enlightenment, said “T,” the owner of another store, who refused to allow her name or the name of the store be printed here.

“I don’t like being known,” she said. “I don’t care if the story will bring more people to our store. Those who are destined to come our store will come and those who are not will not.”

But she always welcomes visitors, because she links their arrival with fate. “Many foreign tourists visit our store to just take pictures with Buddha statues and other things unfamiliar to them. I allow them take pictures freely,” she said.

In this way, the Buddhist street gives visitors a chance to see and experience many aspects of Korean Buddhism.

Hwang of Lumbini also emphasized that store managers on the Gyeonji-dong Buddhist street think of their businesses as a kind of “dana,” which means “offering” or “generosity” in Sanskrit, rather than profit-making.

In this economy, even businesses related to religion are not free. A manager of a roadside shop who refused to be identified said his sales had declined from a year earlier, without giving the exact figures, under the impact of the global economic crisis.

On this street, most stores open at 9 a.m. and close at 7 or 7:30 p.m. The days that they are closed vary from store to store.

Most stores accept credit cards. To get there, it is best to take the subway or bus as the parking lot at Jogye Temple is not spacious and it is difficult to find parking in the neighborhood.


By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]



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