Lighting the path toward nirvana

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Lighting the path toward nirvana

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Take a look at the colored lanterns hanging throughout Seoul’s streets and you’ll know what time of year it is: The time when Buddhists come together and celebrate the birthday of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of their religion. What the lanterns won’t tell you is that it’s also Children’s Day.
This year, the two holidays fall on the same day, May 5, though the festivities for the Buddha’s birthday kick off in late April.
Although obviously a Buddhist celebration, the festival attracts all sorts of people. The Seoul police estimate that 300,000 participants, including tourists, spectators, foreigners, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, will fill the streets of downtown Seoul. In a survey by the Seoul city government, the city’s foreign residents voted it the best festival in town, organizers claimed.
It’s also an opportunity to practice a bit of inter-faith relations, with the Catholic Archbishop of Seoul sending official congratulatory messages to the head monks.
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The main draw has always been the Lotus Lantern Festival. Since the religion was introduced to Korea in 372, its adherents here have celebrated the holiday with lighted lanterns. Buddhism initially prospered in Korea, particularly during the Goryeo period (918-1392), but was suppressed during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911). Even during the crackdown on temples, though, the tradition of lighting lanterns to celebrate the Buddha’s birth managed to survive.
During the 20th century, the festival ― as well as the rest of the country ― fell on hard times. The Japanese authorities made it as difficult as possible for Koreans to congretate in large groups, and war and its aftermath forced people to stick to higher priorities. Most temples lit lanterns only on April 8 of the lunar calendar.
In 1973, the capital’s Buddhists began organizing a yearly lantern parade to mark the occasion, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the parade was revivified by the Seoul government and major temples across the country, and turned into a cultural festival enjoyed by a broad spectrum of people.
Buddhist scripture indicates that lighting a lantern symbolizes the road to enlightenment. The lotus lantern has been used as a religious symbols from ancient times, but in Buddhism, the flower’s unfolding petals serve as a metaphor for the expansion of the soul. The flower itself, which grows out of the mud to bloom and float above stagnant water, represents the purity of the human mind and body over the temptations and ignorance of earthly existence.
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That’s why the process of making the lantern has been as important as the actual lighting of it. During the mid-1990s, Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, the Jogye Order, commissioned seven art students to study the making of traditional lanterns.
“The move toward a more sincere approach in making lanterns can be seen in the fact that it was only about 10 years ago that temples involved in the Lotus Lantern Festival bought all their lanterns from factories,” said Hong Min-suk, head of public relations for the Celebration Committee for the Buddha’s Birthday, which organizes the festival. “Nowadays, almost 90 percent of the temples make their own lanterns.”
This year, the committee has organized the festival around central elements and themes, aiming to broaden the festivities’ appeal to onlookers and participants. Because May 5 is also Children’s Day in Korea, many events and performances will be done for and by children. On April 30, the Borisa Children’s Association will perform at 2 p.m., followed by a children’s harmonica performance at 2:30 p.m., a puppet play by the Buddhist Children Choir at 2:50 p.m. and performances by teenage Buddhists at 6 p.m.
This year’s festival will also be “well-connected,” as all the booths will be provided with wireless Internet services. There will even be an “Enjoy e-Buddhism” booth, where participants can play games and wander through 3-D simulations of Buddhist temples that disappeared long ago.
Mr. Hong said that as interest in Buddhism is growing steadily internationally, it was “important for the committee to come up with new and interesting ways to connect people to the religion’s traditions.”
The festival kicked off with a lantern-lighting ceremony on April 18, with Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak and the president of Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Ji Kwan, in attendance, alongside around 3,000 Seoulites and Buddhists.
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From April 28 through May 5, there will be an exhibition of traditional lanterns at Bongeun Temple in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul. Visitors can experience the elegance of lanterns made out of hanji, Korean mulberry paper, and see the subtlety of dancheong, Buddhist temple-painting.
On April 29, the eve of the Lotus Lantern Festival, a parade of floats and traditional performances will wind its way through Insa-dong starting in front of Jogye Temple at 7 p.m.
The big festivities start on April 30. An opening ceremony will be held Dongdaemun Stadium from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. The ceremony will have song and dance performances by various Buddhist groups. A group named Seon Dogs (seon is the Korean version of zen), comprising six non-Korean Buddhists, will play contemporary “zen” music on the flute, a variety of percussion instruments, guitar, and keyboard.
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The biggest parade, the Buddhist Street Festival, is on April 30 and will start at noon and run until at least 7 p.m. along the street in front of Jogye Temple; 105 booths will be open to serve visitors. This year’s theme for the booths is woodcarving, and visitors will be able to find 20 monks sitting around in booths carving wooden sutras or patterns. There will also be booths offering Buddhist food and ones providing information on the traditions of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia, Tibet, Taiwan and Thailand. Other events include lantern-making lessons in English, lantern-making contests, writing wishes on strips of paper that are then hung on trees, martial arts performances and cooking ― and of course eating ― Buddhist temple food.
The parade will start at 7 p.m. at Dongdaemun stadium and arrive at Jogye Temple around 9:30 p.m. During this time, the streets of Jongno will be closed to traffic. Over 100,000 lanterns, in the shape of dragons, white elephants, Buddhas, lotus flowers and more will cover the metropolis with luminous colors and silhouettes.
The massive Lotus Lantern Festival will come to an end with the “Daedong (being together) Celebration of Unity and Hope” in front of Jogye Temple from 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. For the first time, contemporary musicians have been invited to perform at the ceremony, with Ahn Chi-hwan, Chung Soo-ra and Kim Hyun-seong performing their songs on the center stage.
How does it really end? Lots of fireworks, lots of confetti and perhaps a few steps closer to nirvana.


2006 Schedule of Events
Event Time Place
Lighting Ceremony at Seoul City Hall April 20, 7p.m. Seoul Square in front of Seoul City Hall
Exhibition of Traditional Lanterns April 28 - May 5 Bongeunsa Temple in Samseong-dong
Festival’s Eve Celebration April 29, 7p.m.-9p.m. Street in front of Jogyesa-Insadong-Tapgol
Buddhist Street Festival April 30, noon-7p.m. Street in front of Jogyesa
Opening Ceremony for the Parade April 30, 4:30 p.m.-6:30p.m. Dongdaemun Stadium
Lantern Parade April 30, 7p.m.-9:30p.m. Jongno street(Dongdaemun to Jogyesa)
Daedong Celebration April 30, 9:30p.m.-10:30p.m. Street in front of Jogyesa
Buddha’s Birthday Celebration May 5 All temples in Korea


How to get there:
Jogye Temple: Anguk station, line No. 3, or Jonggak station, line No. 1
Jongno street: Jonggak station, Jongno 5-ga station, line No. 1 or Jongno 3-ga station, line No. 1, 3, 5
Dongdaemun Stadium: Dongdaemun Stadium station, line 2, 4, 5
Bongeun Temple: Samseong station, line No. 2


by Cho Jae-eun
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