[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]A glimpse into the inner sanctum

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]A glimpse into the inner sanctum

If you've ever lived with a Korean family, you may have wondered what was going on behind those closed doors when the family's living room turned into a sort of inner sanctum for ancestral rites on the mornings of Chuseok and the Lunar New Year's Day.

Because the rites are such private family affairs, outsiders are hardly ever asked to observe, and asking too many questions might seem intrusive. It's easy to let your imagination run away with itself, as I did early on, picturing them in there reciting incantations and performing magical gestures. As it turns out, this isn't actually so far from the truth.

These holiday rites are a somewhat modified form of the commemorative rite traditionally held at midnight on the night of the anniversary of the death of the person being honored, so that is the rite I'll describe here. But keep in mind that this is an idealized version. Customs vary from household to household, and changing times have brought about many modifications. For example, during the long period when Korea had a midnight curfew, families were forced to move the commemorative rites up to eight or nine o'clock in the evening in order to give those who'd come from some distance time to get home before 12. In consideration of urban traffic congestion and the participants' work schedules, most families continue to hold the ceremony at the earlier hour even though the curfew has long since been repealed. Also, busy city dwellers may simplify the ritual, and Christian families, depending on their denomination, may replace some of the Confucian symbolism with elements of their own religion or dispense with the ancestral rites altogether, replacing them with an appropriate Christian memorial service.

The direct lineal descendant of the person to be honored acts as officiant for the ritual. In principle, he and his wife are supposed to prepare themselves for the rite both spiritually and physically several days in advance. This involves concentrating the mind on the merits and accomplishments of the ancestor in life. The couple are supposed to stay at home during the preparatory period and should abstain from drinking and sex. Obviously, since places of employment don't give "ancestral rite leaves," the admonition to stay at home is today more honored in the breach, and I suspect the other preparatory rules get broken much of the time, too.

Before the ceremony, a sort of altar is set up at the north end of the room. It consists of a large table with a small one placed in front of it. Special ritual vessels kept separately from those for everyday use are arranged upon the large table along with foods that have been prepared with great care and devotion. When viewed from the participants' side, the first row of items on the table consists of various dishes of fruit; the second row is for vegetables; then come stews; behind that are meat and fish dishes; and finally, there are bowls of rice and soup.

Within each row there are rules for how the items are to be positioned. These are encapsulated in phrases that are easy to remember: for instance, "red, east -- white, west" is the key to the placement of the fruits while "fish, east -- meat, west" is the rule for the last row before the soup and rice.

On the small table in front are incense and an incense burner, and on the floor there is a small cup with straw or pine needles placed on sand or rice.

The rite begins when the officiant sits in front of the small table and lights some incense. Then he rises, kowtows twice and, sitting down again, pours three libations of whatever alcoholic drink has been prepared into the bowl of sand or rice. This is said to represent the meeting of the celestial realm and the earthly realm when the ancestor's spirit descends to the ritual table.

Now all the participants bow twice, and the officiant pours a drink and makes three circles with it through the incense smoke. One of the participants then opens the rice, and everyone bows twice again, after which a tribute to the ancestor is read aloud. A second and third drink are dedicated in the same fashion by the wife or brother of the officiant and by some other relative.

Finally, a screen is placed in front of the ceremonial table briefly (or in some homes, everyone leaves the room for a while), symbolizing that the ancestor's spirit is partaking of the food that has been offered. Then the screen is removed, and the soup is replaced with a bowl of water, marking the end of the rite. Everyone bows twice again and shares the food and drink from the ritual table.

Such rites may seem excessive to Westerners, but for Koreans they are a manifestation of the belief that deceased ancestors continue to play a role in the lives of the living.


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The writer is a columnist for the JoongAngIlbo English Edition. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com

by Gary Rector

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