White lanterns for Buddha’s Birthday

Written by on May 4, 2014 in Arts

Every spring, the streets of Seoul are lined with colourful paper lanterns, lighting the streets after dark in commemoration of Buddha’s Birthday. This year, due to disastrous circumstances, the festivities have been understandably muted.

Although many cherished events of Yeondeunghoe (Lotus Lantern Festival) have been cancelled, lanterns were strung up as usual, bringing back that warm glow to the streets at night. Prominent among the colourful lanterns are plain white ones, serving as a memorial to the tragedy of the Sewol sinking.

White lanterns are hung prominently in front of the Anguk Zen Center.

White lanterns are hung prominently in front of the Anguk Zen Center.

Over at Jogyesa, Korea’s main temple of the Jogye Order of Zen Buddhism, white lanterns were hung over the temple grounds.

Taken on 13 April, before the lanterns were lit for the festival.

Taken on 13 April, before the lanterns were lit for the festival.

On April 26, the Lotus Lantern Parade took place as scheduled, beginning with the Eoulim Madang (Buddhist Cheer Rally) at the campus of Dongguk University. However, the parade took on a unique atmosphere this year.

At first, I was worried that nobody would attend. Just 15 minutes prior to the road of Jongno closing, barely any of the seats were filled.

Last year at the same time, all the seats were filled and many more spectators milled around.

Last year at the same time, all the seats were filled and many more spectators milled around.

Fortunately, once the parade started, enough people arrived and filled the seats. Shortly after 7, the parade reached my vantage point.

Participants carry colourful lanterns down the main thoroughfare of Jongno.

Participants carry colourful lanterns down the main thoroughfare of Jongno.

This year’s parade proceeded without a key component: in previous years, the procession was punctuated by percussion-heavy music, thumping like a heartbeat off downtown Seoul’s high-rise buildings. Without the drums, we could hear the subtler sounds of the parade: the hum of the monks and the gentler ringing of the wooden moktak.

From my seat, I could see far along the street.

From my seat, I could see far along the street.

Without the musical accompaniment to slow them down, this year’s parade hurried through the streets to Jogyesa, ending much earlier than previous years.

 

In a long exposure, the parade flows past spectators like a gently running stream.

In a long exposure, the parade flows past spectators like a gently running stream.

 

Over at Jogyesa, the same colourful lanterns illuminate the temple grounds welcomingly. But signs such as the one in the foreground mark the tragedy that has affected the Korean people, as well as foreign residents of Korea and global citizens all around the world.

The lanterns are scheduled to hang until May 11.

Tables are set up for donors to sponsor their own lanterns for the festival.

Toward the far end of the temple grounds, the memorial lanterns illuminate the night through pure white light.

This sign also memorialises the lives lost at sea.

This sign also memorialises the lives lost at sea.

People come from all over the world to enjoy the glow of the lanterns for Buddha’s Birthday, a holiday that is not celebrated as extensively in any other country.

Leon Bakker, an engineer from the Netherlands, hugs his son under the white memorial lanterns.

Leon, an engineer from the Netherlands, holds his son close under the white memorial lanterns.

This is a unique sight at Jogyesa I hope not to see next year.

White lanterns at Jogyesa.

White lanterns at Jogyesa.

Personal messages and names decorate the individual lanterns.

Donors are able to write messages on their lanterns which are hung at the temple.

Donors are able to write messages on their lanterns which are hung at the temple.

From directly below, the lanterns look like living cells in a human body.

Looking straight up.

Looking straight up.

Just a little south of Jogyesa, Cheonggyecheon is also adorned with elaborate lanterns depicting Buddhist figures.

Lanterns on Cheonggyecheon.

Lanterns on Cheonggyecheon.

This year’s Yeondeunghoe runs until May 11. Visitors are welcome to see the lanterns at Jogyesa, Cheonggyecheon, and Bongeunsa in southern Seoul. On Tuesday, the day of Buddha’s Birthday, a Dharma ceremony will be held at temples across the nation, where lanterns will be lit. I’m relieved that the festival proceeded, because what better time is there to take solace in religion?

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats