The glowing allure of Buddha’s birthday

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The glowing allure of Buddha’s birthday

If light is a symbol of God’s presence for Christians, a glowing lantern is the equivalent for Buddhists seeking nirvana.
The oldest reference to lighted lanterns in Buddhism comes from an Indian legend where a young Buddha prays in a room splashed with flower petals and offers his lantern to God.
That, at least, is the version that Korean Buddhists believe.
However, non-Buddhists have often viewed the day of the lantern parade as an important occasion for matchmaking. During the Joseon Dynasty, the event was one of the few nights without a curfew, a rare occasion where young, unmarried women were chaperoned on the streets by their maids, and they waited to be approached by young men.
So it’s hardly a surprise that Buddhists continue to fuss over lavish lanterns.
The history of the lantern parade in Korea is as long as the history of Buddhism. During the Goryeo Dynasty, the event was organized by the state and celebrated from the palace far into the countryside.
During the Joseon period, the parade mainly took place in Seoul, with citizens hanging one lantern on their home for each of their children.
Part of the tradition on this day was to climb to Jamdu Peak on the northwest side of Mount Namsan where Seoul Tower is today and watch the sea of lanterns on Seoul’s streets.
Since Buddha’s birthday became a national holiday in Korea in 1975, the parade ― which became part of the Lotus Lantern Festival ― takes place in Jongno, the home of Jogyesa Temple, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea.
Indeed, the main festival day on May 8 is no longer just a community event for local Buddhists. Last year, the festival had more than 300,000 participants and spectators, with monks and performers coming from all over Southeast Asia.
Within the past few years even the top Catholic bishop in Seoul has sent a greeting to the head priest of Jogyesa Temple.
This year, the festival begins on May 6 with a lantern exhibition at Bongeunsa Temple. It will include works by Jeon Young-il, who held an exhibit of Korean traditional lanterns in Paris back in March.
At 6 p.m. May 7 there will be a preview of the lantern parade on streets near Jogyesa Temple and Insa-dong accompanied by student percussion groups and traditional dance troupes who will march through Jongno.
Starting at noon May 8, booths will be installed along Insa-dong Street and part of Jongno, offering hands-on classes ranging from traditional embroidery to Buddhist painting.
Participants will also have the chance to make their own lanterns. At 2 p.m. May 8, a lantern-making class will be held in English at a booth in front of Jogyesa Temple. (Those who are interested in applying can contact Kim Yun-hee at 02-722-2206 or e-mail at
One of Korea’s most famous Buddhists, Monk Jiyul, will teach an embroidery class. She held a hunger protest earlier this year to oppose the construction of a tunnel for Korea’s high speed rail service through Mount Cheonseong, saying it would threaten an endangered salamander.
Following the afternoon street festival is the lantern parade at 7 p.m. The crowd will amass at Dongdaemun Stadium and walk to Tapgol Park, ending at Jogyesa.
In modern days, lanterns are embellished with many complex designs. The most common examples are lanterns made in the shape of animals and figures from folk tales, decorated with ornaments like colorful glass and jade. The subtlety of paper lanterns painted with lavish dancheong, a traditional vibrant Korean paint that’s often used in Buddhist temple paintings, is sure to attract eyes.
The most fetching lantern, which signals the highlight of the festival, is the golden dragon which is mounted on a pole. In ancient legends, the dragon is the god of the sea and controls water, one of four animals with supernatural powers and a spirit representing dharma in Buddhism.
In the temple’s courtyard, thousands of glowing paper lanterns will hang from Sunday evening through Buddha’s Birthday on May 15, a sublimely beautiful view for those who have never seen it. It’s also one of the few occasions in Seoul where the streets of Jongno will be car-free the whole day.
Organizers of Seoul’s lantern festival have always paid acute attention to attending foreigners. In the past, event organizers have come up with curious arrangements, such as separate seats for foreigners and special martial arts shows.
This year, monks from Cambodia will join the street festival in the afternoon, exhibiting their sand mandala statues.
As far as food, temple snacks will be prepared by monks at the Jogyesa courtyard, and participants from Southeast Asian countries will offer traditional meals at street booths on Sunday afternoon.

by Park Soo-mee

The best way to get to the festival is to take public transportation. Cars won’t be allowed to enter the streets of Insa-dong and Jongno on Sunday.
For those who want to participate in the parade, which starts at Dongdaemun Stadium, get off at Dongdaemun Stadium Station (line No. 2).
To watch the parade in Jongno, you can either get off at Jonggak Station at any exit or Anguk Station (line No. 3) through exit 6. The traditional lantern exhibition takes place at Bongeunsa Temple (02-545-1448) from May 6-15. For more information call 02-2011-1747.
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