Two years ago I spent four days in Korea for the purpose of photographing the events celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment and passing away. During the event, known as the Lotus Lantern festival, hundreds of thousands of lanterns are hung in every Buddhist temple across Korea. Each one represents an offering made by an individual or family to commemorate the day.
Jogyesa temple in Seoul was the center of activities and first place I visited when I arrived. For two weeks hundreds of practitioners had been gathering, praying and chanting under a canopy of lanterns and an old bodhi tree. In the last four days before the culminating activities the crowds grew and a sense of reverence was interwoven with joy.
The day of the Buddha’s birthday a street festival lined many blocks of one of the central avenues in Seoul. Venders sold food, non-profits brought attention to their causes and children were offered arts and crafts projects. At one booth young boys and girls lined up to have their photos taken as a Buddha. This young girl captured my heart.
Special tables were set up so visitors from other countries were assisted in making Lotus Lanterns. At another booth images of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, were colored in by children and adults alike.
Over 10,000 participants marched in the evening Lotus Lantern Parade. Starting at dusk everyone walked for five miles before arriving at the final stretch of the procession. At the end of the procession several city blocks were lined with crowded stadium seats waiting for the parade. The children particularly delighted in this sixty foot dragon that shot fire from its mouth.
A cymbal band made up of nuns and monks took my breath away as they 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.
At the beginning of the parade I joined the many onlookers as we clapped and cheered on the groups of children, elders and marching musicians.
A group of young girls dressed in bright turquoise decorated their dharma drum lanterns with Buddhas and cartoon characters. Groups of women dressed in chiffon streamed in unison as a light wind rippled their flowing gowns.
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. Several hundred Buddhist lay and monastic groups carrying lighted paper lanterns walk down the central streets of Seoul after dark. The final parade marked the culmination of many spiritual activities rejoicing in the life of the Buddha.
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.
Everyone wanted to photograph these young monks whenever they were spotted during festivities.
A bus trip took me to the Doseon-sa temple in the mountains just outside of Seoul. Strangers became friends as they held my hand and assisted me in finding my way. At the temple this lovely Guanyin figure riding a dragon was set off by the colorful lanterns and flags from many nations.
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.
Vesak, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, death and nirvana was made more meaningful by joining in a centuries’ old tradition celebrated by thousands in the heart of a modern Asian city.
The quote below is by one of Korea’s most revered living teachers. I’m delighted she happens to be a woman.
Spiritual practice means having faith that there is a great treasure within your mind, and then finding it. Learning to discover the treasure within you is the most worthwhile thing in the world. If you can put this into practice, you can live freshly, with a mind open like the sky, always overflowing with compassion. What could be better than this?
Daehaeng Sunim, Zen Master