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A measure of Buddhism’s currency: Lanterns

By Lee Jung-yoon, JoongAng Daily, May 10, 2011

Seoul, South Korea -- At last weekend’s Lotus Lantern Festival in Jongno, central Seoul, a helmet-and-goggle-wearing baby penguin cartoon not only symbolized Korean Buddhism’s attempt to appeal to youth, it also presented a unique measure of the religion’s currency: lanterns.

<< Buddhist believers carry lotus lanterns during a parade to celebrate the upcoming birthday of Buddha, which falls May 10 in South Korea, in Seoul

More than 10,000 lanterns shined brightly at this year’s May 5 to May 8 festival, but a lantern that wasn’t even there due to a licensing dispute drew the most attention.

On May 3, Ocon Animation Studio accused the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism of failing to acquire the licensing rights for the popular children’s character Pororo, prompting the lantern to be pulled from the festival.

Pororo is a wildly popular animated television show named after the character of the same name. The cartoon is exported to 110 nations including France’s TF1 channel and even Qatar’s Al Jazeera.

Although Ocon backed down the following day after a public outcry, allowing Pororo lanterns to appear in regional festivals such as in Daegu and on Jeju Island, the lantern in Seoul had already been pulled from the event.

Lanterns, specifically lotus lanterns, are an iconic symbol of Buddha’s Birthday. They arise from more than 2,400 years of venerable tradition in which the faithful light lanterns in a sign of devotion.

The economics and modern presentation of lanterns are signs of the times. Lanterns, once only octagonal, pleated and bell-shaped, now come in all shapes and sizes - LED lights and all - including popular cartoon characters.

Gone are the days when all lanterns could be had for next to nothing: Today’s lanterns range from 4,000 won ($3.62) for a basic 24 centimeter-diameter (9.4 inches) lantern to several million won for a specially designed piece.

Official data is hard to come by (Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival organizers would not divulge the cost of their 10,000 lanterns), but tradesmen say that demand for everything Buddhist is booming.

“The orders begin flooding in from April, and there are tens of thousands of temples nationwide, each of which puts up strings of basic lotus lanterns or displays bigger lanterns for Buddha’s Birthday,” said Kim Jae-hong, owner of Hajinsa, the largest lotus lantern manufacturer and distributor in Korea.

“Plus, lanterns are hung in streets, and there are several million Buddhists in Korea [who light and pay for lotus lanterns] so it’s impossible to say how many are sold,” he added.

The Association of Korean Buddhist Orders, which has 26 sects, estimates that there are roughly 20,000 temples in Korea. And 22.8 percent of the Korean public, or 10.72 million people, identified themselves as Buddhist in the 2005 census.

“The production cost of the hand-crafted, 10-meter-high lanterns in the shape of the three-tiered pagoda of Bulguk Temple, displayed in Seoul Plaza, were several dozen million won,” said Choi Jin-mi, a public relations representative of the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul.

There have been changes in the lotus lantern tradition.

“The shapes of lotus lanterns have basically remained the same over the years: lotus, octagonal, pleated, bell-shaped and some that can be assembled,” said Kim Gi-chan, CEO of lantern maker Chanduk Lotus Lantern. “[But] many lanterns now come with LED lights in them to lower the risk of fire, while the shapes are held up not by wire but plastic bodies.”

On Saturday, the street in front of Jogye Temple in Jongno was packed as crowds gathered for the Lotus Lantern Festival.

“These are some of the busiest times of the year for us,” said Park Heung-chan, owner of a Buddhist goods shop some 100 meters from the temple. “We’re short-handed as one employee is on a business trip to take care of a lantern malfunction at a regional temple.”

Some two dozen customers, ranging from older women tracking down obscure devotional items to foreign tourists debating whether the purple or pink lotus lanterns were prettier, passed through the store in the space of 20 minutes.

“I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and a lot of things have changed. There used to be fewer than 10 shops near Jogye Temple, now there are more than 30. There is a bigger Buddhist population, better products, many of it manufactured overseas,” Park said, holding out a battery-charged children’s light-up wand with a lotus lantern at the end. “Back then, I would have never imagined this.”

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