Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Lighting the Lotus Lanterns
I did not want to see the Lotus Lantern parade. Or, to be more precise, I very much wanted to see the Lotus Lantern parade; I just didn't want to see it by myself. Nonetheless, the weekend before Buddha's birthday, the day when all of Korea stirs the land in celebration, I found myself very much alone.
I spent the morning fidgeting in my dorm room. Then I spent the afternoon fidgeting through the aisles of overpriced goods at the Hyundai Dept. Store. After I had finished spending a large portion of my day doing nothing particularly useful, I forced myself onto a packed subway train, finally tumbling off at the Insadong stop with hundreds of other Koreans, all of whom seemed to arrive in large groups of family members and friends.
Exiting the subway, I quickly and instinctively walked to Jogyesa Temple. I was uncertain exactly where Buddha's birthday celebration was to be held, but Seoul's main Buddhist temple, housing three resplendently large, gilded Buddhas, seemed a likely starting point for my quest. The temple was busy -- packed with people -- just like the subway and surrounding streets. As I was to later find out, there were thousands of people both as spectators and participants in the parade. I took out my camera and took exactly two shots of the temple, which had a rainbow of paper lanterns hooked to wires above it, when I thought I heard my name.
But that couldn't be. I didn't know anyone who was coming here. I ignored what I assumed to be the voice of my overactive imaginatio and took a third photo, when I heard my name shouted more loudly. And there they were: Jeff, BB, and Goan,* three swing dancers I knew slightly from the local dances. After speaking a few minutes, they kindly invited me to drink makoli with them. So, we found a quiet corner of park just outside the temple (no drinking on temple grounds) and had a picnic of Korean pancake, gimbap, fried mandu, and makoli.
During the picnic, we were joined by two other dancers, Robin and his fiance Yeoni.* Soon after the picnic, we heard a clanging of drums and bleating of horns from the street outside the temple. We rushed to the street and saw the start of the parade. Row upon row of lantern bearers passed. They were dressed differently according to their group's affiliation, and also carrying lanterns in different shapes and colours. Women were dressed in hanboks luminescently pearl-sheened, green, white, rose-petal pink, fushia . . . every colour imaginable . . . and the lanterns they lifted on poles above them were fish-shaped, bell-shaped, square-shaped, sock-shaped, etc. There were even a group of brown-garbed monks with shaven heads, carrying lanterns in both their hands -- lanterns that were russet-coloured and shaped like alms bowls.
As the parade progressed, the lanterns became increasingly large and elaborate. They moved from small ones held by individuals to giant lanterns on floats that were carried by four to six men, and even floats that had engines attached to them. A variety of giant Buddhas and giant lotuses were to be expected, but there were also a large number of tigers, white elephants, scenes from traditional Korean lore, and -- my favourite -- fire-breathing paper dragons!
It is my personal belief that more public events should include random bursts of contained fire. Even the stage performances we watched after the parade had several columns of fire shoot up from the edge of the elevated platform. At the parade's conclusion, after several hours of watching what seemed a never-ending multitude of almost-magical lanterns, millions of pink petals were released from the sky. They floated down among us and we leapt up to catch them in our hands.
*Some of the names have been changed to protect those** who can't spell.