Lighting it up for Buddha's Birthday

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Lighting it up for Buddha's Birthday

May 12 marks the 2,546th birthday of the Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. The religion was introduced to Korea about 1,500 years ago, and prospered especially during the era of the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), which endorsed Buddhism as the national religion.

Ancient Koreans used to celebrate special religious days like Buddha's Birthday with lantern festivals. The standard lantern would be shaped like a lotus flower, which symbolized the virtue of the Buddhist saint and the ultimate enlightenment of Buddhahood. Although the religion was suppressed during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911), the local tradition of lighting lanterns on Buddha's Birthday survived, and thrives today.

The last century's colonization era and war were harmful to many Korean traditions; as a result, the only places that fashioned and lighted lotus lanterns on Buddha's Birthday were temples. It wasn't until a few years ago that Koreans began to revive this part of their heritage and again celebrate Buddha's Birthday with spectacular lantern parades.

The renewed interest in traditional lanterns began when the Jogyesa Order, Korea's largest Buddhist sect, commissioned a study of traditional lanterns to a group of seven art students in the mid-1990s. The main creative force in that team was Jeon Young-il, who has gone on to become an expert in the field. He says the simple beauty of seeing deung, or lanterns, in the night is enough to inspire young, creative minds.

The objective of the study was to find out what lanterns looked like and how they were made in ancient Korea. The students interviewed craftsmen, monks and scholars and examined historical records and folktales. Eventually they decided to educate the public about the lost traditions, and perhaps make a living in the process, and they started Korean Traditional Lanterns Mac (

In 1998, the support for the research ended, and most of the students went on to other things. But Mr. Jeon, who had just graduated from Hongik University, wanted to continue the endeavor. "Most of the original members dropped out because it was hard to make a living by making lanterns," he says.

Mr. Jeon, now 32, began to recruit new members, but still had trouble with the financial part of the enterprise. The business earns money by making lanterns for events or making custom lanterns. Mr. Jeon, 32, says he feels responsible for inspiring those he works with, but has to balance that with giving the customers what they want. The publicity he gets every Buddha's Birthday from working the exhibition and parade at Bongeunsa temple in southern Seoul helps, he says.

Mr. Jeon and his six assistants don't just copy the old lantern designs. They create a new design by sketching a raw idea after a brainstorming session. Then he applies traditional motifs, but puts a lot of effort toward making them more up-to-date. "It takes time to successfully incorporate classic and modern elements," he said.

In fact, his goal is to make lanterns that appeal to modern tastes while establishing new basic standards for the craft. He frequently reminds his crew to make sure their traditional-based designs are attractive to contemporary folk. "But when it comes to details, conflicts are unavoidable," he said. "If we show traditional Korean colors, for example, people think the contrast is too strong; modern eyes are more used to color gradations."

When drawing patterns on his lanterns, Mr. Jeon starts with classic motifs like dancheong (red and blue tones) and wanja (Buddhist swastikas). But when he puts modern twists on them, his assistants start to debate.

Mr. Jeon and his team don't use computers to help them with their design work; they determine the size of each wire of the frame as they go along. If the wire is cut badly, it's impossible to mend or cover up. "It's a shadow art," he says, "the miscut wire won't be smooth on the surface and can be seen in the shadow."

He uses Korean traditional paper called jangji, which is handmade in Jeonju and Wonju in the south of the peninsula. He prefers using two-ply jangji because it's better for absorbing watercolors and for its resilience. Depending on his subject, he paints either on the front or the back of the paper. "When I'm doing details, I use the front, because it has a smoother surface," he says. "I use the back to express deep colors, because it is more absorbent."

Once the lantern is crafted, the problem of lighting it arises, so lantern makers need to know some basic electric lighting principles. When a very large lantern project comes along, Mr. Jeon says, it's time to consult a professional electrician.

Perhaps the most important and trickiest part of making a lantern is placing the bulb or bulbs so that they diffuse light evenly. The goal is to disperse the light without casting shadows off the frame. "To prevent having shadows of the many pieces of the frame in a multicolored dragon lantern can be tricky, but experience helps," Mr. Jeon says. The dragon in question, he points out, has been a work-in-process for nearly two months inside his spacious loft in Gyeonggi province, where he recently set up shop.

The highlight of Mr. Jeon's lantern exhibition this year will be the image of the Sacheonwang, or the four menacing gods who stand guard at the gates of Buddhist temples. The exhibition will run from May 13 through May 20 at the Bongeunsa temple in Samseong-dong, Seoul.


The Buddhist Street Festival in downtown Seoul kicks off May 11, the eve of Buddha's Birthday. A parade will start from Dongdaemun Stadium, pass Jongno 3-ga and end at Jogyesa temple near Insa-dong.

At the temple, visitors will be able to make prints of Buddhist sutras from wooden blocks, write wish notes, sample temple food, play folk games, watch traditional martial arts dances and shop for souvenirs.

A lantern-making event will also be staged, at which everyone is invited to participate. The first 100 participants will receive Buddhist souvenirs, and prizes will be given out for the best lanterns.

For more information, call the organizers at 02-722-2206 or contact them by e-mailing The official Web site for the event is

Here's how the experts do it

One of the most popular traditional designs for lanterns is the Buddhist punggyeong, or windchime. The real windchimes are regular features at temples, which are usually built in places of natural beauty. As a result, the windchime-shaped lanterns symbolize peace, serenity and natural beauty.

While bamboo was used for the frames in ancient times, wire is more frequently used today. Wire is both easier to buy and easier to work with, because it's more pliable. The purists stick with bamboo, which is stronger. But bamboo is difficult to cut in the correct dimensions, and it must be warmed over a flame before it can be bent.

Here's how the experts make a punggyeong lantern:

1. Sketch a draft of the lantern plan.

2. Make a frame out of wire or bamboo.

3. Mark four red dots on each layer of the frame as shown in the image.

4. Using thin wire, tie the green wire from the top layer of the frame to the bottom. Then work on the blue followed by the gray and yellow.

5. Cut the rice paper to fit each unit of the wire and glue on.

6. Let the glue dry completely.

7. The chime of the punggyeong usually has the image of a giraffe or a fish. Trace a drawing on the thick paper and color it.

8. Paint the lantern using Korean colors.

9. Attach the chime to the center of the punggyeong by a string.

10. Work the light bulb into the completed lantern and plug it in. Voila!

by Inēs Cho

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