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Lotus Lantern Festival
By Yang Sung-jin, The Korea Herald, April 18, 2009
Seoul, South Korea -- The Lotus Lantern Festival will kick off its three-day run on April 24 in Seoul, the biggest annual Buddhist event, known for beautifully lighted lotuses symbolizing spiritual renewal.
<< Seoul's Lotus Lantern Festival will kick off its three-day run from April 24
"The Lotus Lantern Festival is not limited to Buddhists in Korea but designed for non-Buddhists, regardless of nationality," said Shin Young-jin, a publicity chief at the International Dharma Instruction Association under the Jogye Order, Korea's largest Buddhist sect.
The festival includes exhibitions of traditional Korean lanterns, Buddhist performances and a massive lantern parade near Insa-dong and Jogye Temple. Shin said that as with previous years a number of foreign tourists are expected to join the festival filled with a variety of programs geared toward those interested in Korea Buddhism.
Korea's Buddhists turned the lantern festival into a national event 14 years ago. Each year, around 300,000 people fill up the streets in Seoul and some 1,000 volunteers help arrange the events. Organizers said more than 100,000 handcrafted lanterns of diverse colors and design will be used to spice up the festival.
The annual festival is also a testimony to the time-honored traditions of Korean culture, one of which is Buddhism. Although the country has a large population of Christians, the majority of Koreans still observe various traditions and practices initiated by Buddhism, handed down for many generations.
Rev. Yong-soo, a renowned monk engaged in the English translation of Korean Buddhist texts, notes that the festival's success lies in its identity that goes beyond the domain of Buddhism.
"The festival is a celebration of the birth of Buddha. However, it transcends religious and cultural borders. It has become a fun event for Koreans and foreigners," he said.
"The scale of the festival is impressive, with several venues, numerous performances and activities, and the countless lanterns. For Buddhists, it is a time to offer innumerable hours of service in preparation for the event," Rev. Yong-soo said.
For over 1,600 years, Buddhism strongly influenced Korean culture and history, serving as the state religion for centuries. Buddhism or "Buddhadharma" is a way of improving inner experience for a beneficial and happy life in Korea.
But it is a philosophy without cultural or ethnic characteristics. "In Korea, this philosophy has taken on the form of religion and culture. Today's Korean culture is a product of Buddhism with influences from Confucianism, Shamanism, Taoism and Christianity. The festival is a perfect opportunity to experience this culture firsthand," he said.
The spirit of the festival is also said to reveal the fun-loving, jolly and warm nature of the Korean people. Rev. Yong-soo said this festival illustrates the spirit of Koreans who have endured a great deal of hardship, yet have come through it to preserve a distinct and valuable culture with a positive and enduring spirit.
Rev. Chongan, currently abbot of Wonkwang Temple in Hungary who regularly gives lectures in English on a Buddhist TV channel, said participants should be aware of the implications of the celebration. "The festival is a wonderful fiesta," he said. "Once a year we remind ourselves that we are capable of attaining the same awakening as Shakyamuni Buddha himself. The lanterns are like sparks of the human spirit, and carrying all of them together means that we care for and offer the results of our practice to all beings."
For foreign Buddhist monks, the festival is a chance to link with Korean people, Rev. Chongan said. "The warm reception by the public, all the bystanders along the way made us feel accepted and appreciated," he said.
Both Korean and non-Korean participants also tend to be drawn to the artistic appeal of the lanterns and all the decorations through the festival, a natural channel that leads people to the temples that produce such artworks.
"In the temples, the real work can begin: what the symbols, pictures and animated stories conveyed during the festival can be discovered by one's own effort and with the help of the teachers and other Sangha members," Rev. Chongan said.
Numerous lanterns are already decorated in many parts of downtown Seoul and other regional temples across the nation ahead of the festival. But the formal exhibition of traditional lanterns is scheduled to take place at the Bongeun Temple in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul from April 24 through May 5.
"Yeondeungnori," the inaugural evening celebration of the festival, will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Insa-dong and nearby streets leading up to the Jogye Temple near Anguk Station on Subway Line No. 3.
The Buddhist Street Festival is to be held from noon to 7 p.m. on April 26 in and around Jogye Temple, and its programs include lotus lantern making, sutra printing, Buddha painting, meditation lessons, temple food tasting and traditional Korean games. The festival will be followed by the much-anticipated massive lantern parade from 7 p.m.
For further information about the festival, visit www.llf.or.kr/eng.