Candles can cloud the mindFew people would think of giving a light bulb as a gift to a loved one. To light up the heart of one’s beloved, one would offer a scented candle. Royal places in ancient Egypt were illuminated by candles made of beeswax and animal fats combined with reeds. In the courts of the Silla and Goryeo kingdoms in Korea, candle holders were decorated with gold, stones and copper. Candlesticks were a facet of ancient royal life.
Candles have become largely ornamental since electricity became commonplace. But they are indispensable in religious festivals and decorative occasions. The tradition of masses at dawn on Easter Day is upheld by Christians and Catholics around the world.
According to a German legend, Martin Luther, famous for his reform movement in Christianity in the 16th century, was the first to introduce a Christmas tree decorated with candle after he was impressed by twinkling stars on the eve of Christmas.
Candles are almost requisite in weddings and other ceremonies. Birthday cakes are unthinkable without candles. Candles have long been symbols of hope and love.
Why do we attach so much sentiment to the lighting of a taper that is nothing more than wax and a wick? Why has a burning flame survived so long as a symbol? Romantic attachment to old customs, the image of a vulnerable yet strong flame dancing in a light wind, and its embodiment of unquestioning sacrifice and devotion through its self-burning service may all be part of the reasons.
Candlesticks have long been silent companions in the darkness of solitude and meditation. Poets sought inspiration in candlelight and monks in secluded monasteries emptied their minds and gave themselves over to prayer as candles flickered in a whispering wind. Amnesty International chose the design of a candle in barbed wire as its logo. To fight for matters of conscience and human rights, one candle is enough. A message related to conscience is best represented through simplicity.
There is a time to light a candle and also to blow it out. An ancient monk Deshan, visiting another revered monk Longtang, borrowed a candle to walk into the darkness. When the candle was lit, the host blew it out. The visitor was shocked, but was soon enlightened with greater inner light. He realized that only in the deepest darkness did his sight and other senses become acute. The dim light hindered greater awareness.
India’s great poet Rabindranath Tagore on a full moon night was in a boat reading a book with the help of a small candle. When he blew out the candle, he was suddenly in a new world. The dancing moonlight poured into his cabin. He realized that the small candlelight had gotten in the way of the joyful experience of enjoying the splendor and beauty of the night. Korean poet Shin Seok-jeong wrote, “Mother, do not light up the candle yet ... The babies of my small thoughts are still flying in the blue sky.” A small burning flame can disrupt the flow of thoughts in silence and the pursuit of inner realization. Then what would an army of candles covering the downtown City Hall Plaza do to a mind’s peace?
In Western churches and in the Amnesty International symbol, candlelight burns. But in the presence of Asian poets and sages, a candle must be extinguished for greater clarity. Even when more and more Western societies are taking interest in the depths of Asian thoughts and attitudes toward life, lighting candles in public places has become the fashion in this land.
The candles that used to brighten ritual podiums and feasts serve to inflame social unrest through nighttime rallies in downtown streets. The opposition party members resorted to candlelight vigils to protest against the government and ruling party actions or inactions - the passage of a private school law, American beef imports, reform of the National Intelligence Service and the ongoing prosecution investigation of an insurrection plot by leftist party members. Some would say it is an evolution of a good sort. People now carry candles instead of hurling Molotov cocktails. But it is still a cunning political abuse of sacred rituals and ceremonies.
Someone commented that he discovered the spirit of an Athens-like direct democracy in one of the candlelight vigils in Seoul. Agora served as an open space for public meetings and debates for ancient Athenians.
But the open plaza in front of City Hall in a country of 50 million with a legitimate legislature is no Agora. The Agora in today’s representative democracy is the National Assembly. Lawmakers must fight for their cause in the Assembly not in the streets with candles in their hands.
Pro-North Korean forces who claim everything done in North Korea is righteous and everything in South Korea is wrong joined the vigils. They have stained the purity that candles stand for. It is lamentable that candles, tokens of love and holiness that inspire poets and meditating gurus, have become instruments to inflame the rabble by a group of radicals.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, PC, and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.
by Lee Woo-keun