When I was a young upstart back in my college days, I was a Deadhead (for the record, I am STILL a Deadhead). What is a Deadhead, you ask? In the correct terminology, a Deadhead is one who is a fan of the music of the band known as the Grateful Dead. I attended eleven Dead Shows back in my youth, and each show was spectacular (some more so than others). What was the draw of the Deadhead community for me? That word itself: Community. Nowhere had I ever experienced a huge group of thousands of strangers all getting along like family. Peace, love, and music were the order of the day. The beliefs of many Deadheads are similar to those of Buddhist traditions, and so I was also attracted to Buddhism. The scene around any stadium headlining the Grateful Dead was surrounded and filled with drums, music, and colorful, kind people.
That sense of community is alive and well in the Heart of Seoul at the Lotus Lantern Festival, which is held every spring to commemorate the birth of Buddha. There really is no better time to be in Seoul as the air is fresh, the temperature is perfect, and the festival is preceded each year by the hanging of colorful lanterns all around the city. Walking around Gwangwhamun, Insadong, and the Cheonggyecheon stream (all centrally located) during the springtime just makes a person happy – at least, it always made me happy. The colorful lanterns strung along the roadways, and the larger lanterns floating in the stream, along with Gyeongbokgung Palace, the statues of Yi Sun Shin and King Sejong, and Jogyesa Temple, one of the most significant Korean Buddhist temples… there is a lot to see in this part of Seoul. And the Lotus Lantern Festival ties it all together just beautifully.
The festival officially begins on April 8th of the Lunar Calendar, and commences with the traditional lighting of the Jangeumdang at Seoul Plaza. This large lantern symbolizes Buddhism and the enlightenment of the Buddha. The festival features weeks of programs in which anyone can participate on any given day, including cultural performances, traditional dances, foods, and booths for making Buddhist art and your own lotus lantern. And, of course, there is the main event – the large Lotus Lantern Parade that runs from Heunginjimun Gate in Dongdaemun to Jogyesa Temple. This is easily one of the largest parades I have ever seen. It gives the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City a run for its money. It is preceded by Eoulim Madang (Buddhist Cheer Rally) and culminates with the post-parade celebration in front of Jogyesa Temple (near Bosingak, AKA “the Big Bell”, for those of you familiar with Seoul). The festive atmosphere of this celebration draws people from all over the world, and quite a few Korean celebrities make appearances on the big stage as well. Based on my six years of attending this parade, I would say the best place to view it would be on Jongno, near Jonggak subway station on Line 1.
The atmosphere of this parade is peaceful, joyous and vibrant. The music, the drums, the brilliant and colorful lanterns and people, many in traditional dress… it is something to experience. There is just something about wave upon wave of Buddhist monks strolling past you, holding lanterns and smiling, some beating on gourds or drums or bells, mixed with dancers and giant lanterns of stunning colors, as drums and cymbals and other accoutrements ring in the night air, that seems to drive away any and all bad luck or ill vibrations you may have collected over the past year. You can’t help but smile and wave at the parade participants as they smile and wave at you.
The lanterns are made of hanji, or hand-made Korean paper, of the most striking colors, and the warm glow of the lights within create a visual marvel with each passing sight. Each elaborate lantern float tells a story, depicting royalty, elephants, tigers, a few fire-breathing dragons and weird peacock-like birds flapping their wings and spreading their resplendent tail feathers to the delight of the crowds of onlookers. Children run down the street, trying to keep up with their favorites, and parents rush to get their cameras ready. As with most parades, the children also get to collect some candy, and the luckier children may even get a lantern or two of their own to take home.
The radiant lantern floats and the myriads of hand-held lanterns in between turn the entire road of Jongno into a seemingly endless river of colored light. You can watch from street level or go up into the buildings for an aerial view from one of the many restaurants and pubs that can be found along the parade route. The parade is long enough that you can explore and enjoy many different vantage points. As you walk down the street – the lights, music and the overall peace of Buddhism all around you – smiles abound. And if you miss a picture of a float going past, don’t worry. They are on display in front of the temple or at the end of the parade route at Jonggak, and you can get some great up-close-and-personal shots.
The magic of the event is palpable. Even as Korea moves closer to its rainy season at this time of the year, for some reason it never rains on this parade. Deadheads would liken this to what we called “Karma Pooling” – the idea that if enough people at a concert wanted to hear a particular song, they just had to sing it in their heads and the Grateful Dead would inevitably play it. Here, at the Lotus Lantern Festival, the collective will of the people combined with the good Karma of the scene keeps the rain at bay.
This will be the first time in six years that I will miss this event, and I have to admit, just thinking about missing it is making me sad. It is just such a beautiful thing to see, and a beautiful time to be in Seoul, and I don’t like feeling far away. So I will wrap up this article with a hope that, if you haven’t already, you will get to experience this amazing event at some point. I will leave you with one final piece of a song by the Grateful Dead:
I am an American expat that has been living overseas since 2007. Most of that time has been spent in East Asia as I lived in Korea until 2012. Currently I reside in the Sultanate of Oman. I enjoy traveling, and I always bring a towel, but ultimately I hope to return home to Pittsburgh. So if you hear of any jobs...
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