Photography and Celebration in Korea: The Lotus Lantern Festival

I’ve been at a loss for what to write about and stumbled on my photo of a radiant nun in the Lotus Lantern Festival Parade.  How could I not be cheered and inspired?

A little over a year ago I spent four days in Korea for the sole purpose of photographing the events celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment and passing.  Drawing on over 10,000 participants it’s an event not to be missed if you love what glows in the dark.

Literally several hundred Buddhist lay and monastic groups carry lighted paper lanterns for miles down the central streets of Seoul after dark.  Near dust I captured this shot as her group of nuns and monks waited to begin the march.  Those of us lining the streets seemed to glow as well as we clapped and cheered on the many groups of children, elders and marching musicians.

A cymbal band took my breath away as a collection of men and women monastics whirled
and punctuated the air with the synchronized bursts of their percussive instruments. How joyfully they affirmed the clarity each moment!  The Buddha’s teaching resonating into the night for everyone to hear.

Every group wore an emblematic color and carried matching lanterns in the shape of dharma wheels, bells, umbrellas and all things symbolic of the tradition.  A group of very young girls dressed in bright turquoise decorated their dharma drum lanterns with Buddhas  and cartoon characters.  Large groups of women dressed in pink chiffon streamed in unison as a light wind rippled their flowing gowns.

As the marching groups neared the packed stadium seats lining the final blocks of the procession, large floats of Buddhist saints joined the pageantry.  A baby Buddha riding on the back of an twenty foot elephant on top of a gigantic lotus flower stood above the floats of fire breathing dragons and storybook maidens riding tigers.

Constructed of paper each figure was magically lit from within.  I spotted the bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin, or Kwan Um as she is known in Korea.  Almost twenty feet tall she was one of many historical and legendary figures of the Buddhist pantheon celebrated in the final night of the festival.

In the days before the parade I joined hundreds of practitioners at holy sites to chant the scriptures of the faith.  For two weeks Buddhists had been gathering in central Seoul at the Jogyesa temple under canopies of lanterns.  The parade marked the culmination of many spiritual activities rejoicing in the life of the Buddha.

Heartened yet wistful I flew out of Korea the day after the parade. Without the photos to jog my memory it would be difficult to recall the colorful crowds and smiles that shattered the language barrier.  How else could I share the wonder of a centuries’ old tradition celebrated by thousands in the heart of a modern Asian city.


2 thoughts on “Photography and Celebration in Korea: The Lotus Lantern Festival

  1. It is very nice to see these photo’s and read about your Buddha’s Birthday celebrations. I lived in Korea and celebrated Buddha’s Birthday in a nearby Buddhist temple. Reading your article brings back lovely memories. Did you know that South Korea is the only (or one of the very few) countries where Buddha’s Birthday and Christmas is celebrated?
    Thank you and keep on writing!


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