For Buddhists, the brightest night of 2004There is something inescapably divine about light.
One of the first prophecies of the coming of Christ in the Old Testament refers to him as the “light of the Gentiles.” Christ himself often used light as a metaphor for renewal and spiritual enlightenment. Light is also key to Christian architecture and religious practice; think of candlelight prayers, and stained glass windows in cathedrals.
In Buddhist tradition as well, light ― lanterns, more specifically ― is significant, almost iconic.
Every year during the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday ― April 8th on the lunar calendar, or next Wednesday on the Western ― followers of Buddhism carry handmade lotus lanterns in street parades.
In Seoul, the Buddha’s Birthday festivities begin today and continue through Wednesday. They’ll be centered largely around Jogyesa temple in Insa-dong, headquarters of the Jogye Buddhist order, the largest in Korea.
The celebration has become one of the city’s most popular festivals. Overall, the festival atmosphere is far from sacred, and offers foreigners a glimpse into the quirks of the faddish aspect of Buddhism in Asia.
The event this year begins today with an exhibition of traditional paper lanterns in Bongeunsa temple in southern Seoul, which continues through Wednesday.
Throughout the same period, bustling activity will be going on around Jogyesa temple. Booths will be selling a range of Buddhist souvenirs, such as incense, T-shirts and religious art. Visitors can get hands-on experience making Buddhist beads, Buddhist cell phone charms, lotus paintings and totem poles.
They’ll also be able to sample green tea, mold statues of the baby Buddha out of clay, play tug-of-war and even sit for counseling with a doctor of oriental medicine.
The heart of the celebration, however, is Sunday night’s Lotus Lantern Festival parade.
At 7 p.m., after a ceremony at Dongdaemun Stadium, thousands of Buddhists from temples throughout Seoul will depart from the stadium and move into the streets, each carrying a lotus lantern. The parade will move on to Jongno, passing Jonggak and Tapgol Park, and conclude at the entrance to Jogyesa temple.
Last year, the parade attracted an estimated 300,000 people. Stands for spectators will be installed in front of Tapgol Park and Jongmyo, but the streets will likely be lined with spectators for the entire route.
Traditionally, when the parade was over, participants hung the lanterns in the temple’s backyard, prayed before Buddha statues and made offerings to the monks.
A preview of the parade will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, with a smaller contingent leaving the temple and taking a shorter route through the Insa-dong area. There will also be a shorter march through Insa-dong at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, featuring traditional instruments and performances.
Festivals in Korea would be unthinkable without good food. An important aspect of the festival, in the past, was eating roasted beans and dancing to drums made from gourds.
During the three-day event near Jogyesa temple, female venerables will sell temple food, which is strictly vegetarian, made with ingredients like wild greens, roots, grains, tofu and seaweed. The Buddhist diet prohibits meat, garlic, onion and green onion, as they believe those plants stimulate aggressive impulses in the body. Spices are used minimally, and most dishes require only simple methods of cooking.
A special feature of this year’s festival will be martial arts dance and other performances by groups from a variety of Asian countries. At Wujeong Park next to Jogyesa temple, from Sunday to Wednesday, monks and performance troupes from Mongolia will be performing. Buddhists from elsewhere in Asia, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Taiwan and Thailand, will stage rituals from their respective homelands.
On Monday at 7:30 p.m., there will be a Buddhist music festival by performers from Korea, Japan and China at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, featuring chanting and dance.
The festival officially ends on Wednesday, with special services held in temples throughout Korea.
Originally in Buddhist practice, lanterns were intended for use in shrines or temples. It was only in recent years that these religious objects were incorporated into Japanese gardens by landscape artists, and redesigned versions of these lanterns became popular home accessories.
Records of lotus lantern festivals in Korea date back some 1,500 years to the Silla Dynasty, when they were held in Hwangryongsa temple in what is now Gyeongju. During the Goryeo Dynasty, the festival was taken over by a state organization, which expanded its scope.
The event became one of the most popular folk traditions of the Joseon Dynasty. Citizens of Seoul climbed Mount Namsan to watch the sea of flickering lights below. Then as now, the parade was held in Jongno.
by Park Soo-mee
For more information on the Lotus Lantern Festival, call (02) 2011-1744-8 or check the Web site at www.LLF.or.kr.