In the few weeks that I have been in Korea, I have tasted amazing foods, seen beautiful places, and met kind, generous people. However, none of those experiences even begin to compare with the Lotus Lantern Festival. This weekend was by far the best time I’ve had in Korea, and I left the festival completely enamored with the Korean people and their culture. Exactly what a festival should do, right?
The Lotus Lantern Festival is held every year to celebrate Buddha’s birthday (over 2,500 years ago). Buddha’s birthday falls on the eighth day of the fourth month on the Chinese lunar calendar; this year it is on May 17, an official holiday in South Korea. However, the festival is held the weekend prior, which this year was May 10-12. Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in Nepal around 563 BCE and died around 80 years later. His religious quest led him to be known as “the Buddha,” or the enlightened one. He taught others not what he learned through enlightenment, but how to achieve their own awakened state. These teachings form the core of Buddhism. Fun fact, the Christian story of St. Josaphat and his teacher Barlaam is the story of Buddha’s life. I love it when religions share stories; we’re just one big, happy family!
Approximately a quarter of South Koreans practice Buddhism, which was first brought to Korea in 372 AD. Korean Buddhist monks saw some variations in the teachings they were brought, and they came together to form a more cohesive understanding of beliefs. The religion, like most, has had a turbulent history. Throughout the years, Buddhism in Korea has been a state religion, restricted culture, and has dealt with rifts, corruption, and persecution. Persecution has been as recent as within the past 30 years, as Korean Protestant fundamentalists have aggressively denounced Buddhism and even vandalized temples.
However, I saw no signs of the troubled past during the festival. There was pure joy everywhere. Once again, we failed to fully research before we set out on our adventure. (The two paragraphs of fact above are the product of my post-festival curiosity.) We knew that there was a festival, a parade, and lanterns. That was enough for us to decide to go, and I think this lack of preparation helped add to our sense of wonder. By not knowing what to expect, I was delighted and surprised by each turn of the corner. We went to the Jogyesa Temple, because we knew that the parade would end there and that there should be something going on in that area. I was not prepared for the for the enormity of the event.The courtyard of the temple was filled with lanterns of all colors. When I looked up, I couldn’t even see the sky because the lanterns were packed so closely together. Most of the lanterns were a solid color: orange, pink, blue, red, or green. At first I thought that they were just in rows, but I saw a picture that was taken from above the temple. The lanterns formed a symbol or character of some sort; I really wish I knew what it said. Below each lantern hung a white tag with calligraphy on it. I later learned that these tags denoted which family had made a donation for that lantern.
We arrived just in time to be given our own lanterns for free. Ours were white, with orange or green accents, and had various symbols on the side. One of the symbols is a swastika, but it is the opposite of the Nazi swastika in both shape and meaning. The swastika has been used by various religions and cultures dating back to antiquity. The Buddhist swastika symbolizes longevity and good fortune. It’s a shame that an ancient symbol of positivity has been etched into the brains of so many as a sign of hate. The entire festival is actually full of symbolism. The lanterns represent wisdom dispelling the darkness, as wisdom brings light. The lotus flower, which was displayed prominently, symbolizes purity and wisdom.
We had our lanterns, which did get rather cumbersome after a few hours, and we set off to see the parade. Unlike the US parades, we never saw a single lawn chair set to stake a claim or a pickup truck backed up to the street. At the main intersection there were bleachers set up for spectators, but otherwise, people just stood along the street. This had to be the longest parade I have ever seen. As far as I could see there were thousands of lanterns glowing and moving as one. It went on for hours. (Okay, just two and a half hours, from 7:00-9:30) There were gaps in the parade, and a few times we thought it was over, only to see another horde of people headed down the road. The parade consisted of either groups dressed alike who each carried their own lantern, bands, or large lantern floats. I couldn’t even begin to pick my favorite. Seeing hundreds of Korean women dressed in traditional clothes carrying glowing lanterns and singing? A Salmulnari dance troupe who danced and hit their drums in a intoxicating beat? Or enormous, ornate lanterns that depicted wildlife, scenes from nature, and even Buddha himself? Even now, I cannot decide what my favorite part was.
Part of the beauty was the happiness of all the parade participants. There were people of all ages in the parade, toddlers walking with monks, a group of elderly women wearing Hanbok robes, and surprisingly, a lot of young adults. The young people were all wearing traditional costumes, and seemed very happy to be doing so. I cannot imagine that there are many 20 year-olds in the US who would dress up in traditional costumes and parade around with such joy. Too many people would see it as nerdy or uncool to have so much pride in their culture. The best thing Jared and I could think to compare it to is Civil War reenactors, who participate to celebrate their love of history. (Sorry to compare a religious celebration to a war reenactment, but I couldn’t think of any American religious celebrations that involve a lot of people in costumes, any ideas?) Can you imagine even 1,000 20 year olds getting together to do that in the US? And being accepted for it? Doubtful. Here, though, thousands of participants were thrilled to be there and share what they love. So many of the people in the parade gave away their own lanterns. They would spot a person who was just watching the parade, run up, and insist on giving away their lantern. They were delighted to see foreigners and clearly wanted to welcome everyone to the festival. It made me happy to see them so happy.
One lady was especially welcoming. As her group marched by, she spotted me and asked where I was from. I told her and she grabbed my arm and pulled me into the parade. I was barely able to look back and make sure that Jared and our friend were following before this lady’s friends started hugging me and pulling me along. They said, “temple” and pointed to our destination. I felt completely out of place! I was surrounded by Korean women, in a parade honoring their culture, and I didn’t even have my lanterns lit. I was honored to be involved, but a little bewildered about what I should do. I think I fared better than Jared and our friend though. At least I had been welcomed by all these women; they just had to follow along. The lady who had pulled me in would occasionally spot other foreigners and would try to pull them in to the parade as well. We slid out of the parade after a few minutes, still in shock about the whole experience. Shortly after that, a shabby, older Korean man spotted our unlit lanterns and shared the candle from his to make sure we were properly lighting up the night.
At the end of the parade, we were back at the temple, where the parade had ended. There were dozens of the lantern floats lining the streets and people were everywhere. We were delighted to watch a Samulnari dance troupe for probably half an hour. (See Jared’s awesome video below) This group had marched in a huge parade, but showed no signs of slowing down. They would start beating their drums very slowly and softly and after a few minutes the beat would become frantic. As they beat the drums, they would also dance and swivel their necks. Their hats have a long rope with beads on it, and as they would swivel their necks the rope would swing around and around creating a circle around their heads. My neck hurt just watching them do it.
We ended the night with the Daedong Celebration. Daedong means “being together;” a theme of unity that was prevalent throughout the entire night. It was in the main square that the parade had passed through. Live bands were signing traditional Korean songs. The songs, though I have no idea what they were about, would repeat the same chorus over and over and over. I don’t mean that it was annoying though; it was like a chant that became mesmerizing after awhile. There were thousands of people in the streets and hundreds of them were either in long conga-line like trains that wove in and out of the crowd, or they formed huge rings and danced around and around. All the while, “lotus petals” (square pieces of tissue paper) rained down from the sky. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of being there, surrounded by thousands of people who are just full of happiness. Maybe like a rock concert, but with hugs and flowers instead of a mosh pit.
I would say it’s a once in a lifetime experience, but I hope this isn’t the only time I am able to go. The night was so full of light and happiness, that I couldn’t help but fall in love with living here even more. This experience was exactly what I had hoped for in moving to a foreign country, and I am so happy that I am able to share this joyful time with you!
Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. -Buddha