[personal profile] niori_1709
So far, I've used this blog to tell you about all the amazing places you can see and go to in Korea. This month, I'm going to do something a little different. This month, I'm going to tell you not about a place, but an event. It's an event that's just as spectacular as any of the places I've gone. In fact, it's my favourite thing I've done during my time in Korea. That event is the Lotus Lantern Festival.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is held on the weekend before Buddha's birthday (which is a national holiday in Korea). Technically, it starts about a month or so before that, when the cities hang paper lanterns along the street, but the big event is just before Buddha's birthday.

The festival kicked off on Friday, with traditional paper lanterns being displayed all day both at Jogyesa and Bongeunsa temples and the Cheonggyecheon stream area. The lantern displays stayed up all weekend, but the festival events started on Saturday. I decided to start the Lotus Lantern Festival by going to Bongeunsa temple (the one I told you about last month) to see the displays.

The first thing you need to understand is that these lanterns aren't the small, hand held ones you're thinking of (though, there are enough of those as well). The paper lanterns that impressed me the most were float sized, gigantic and beautifully designed traditional lanterns. They were beautiful and I loved them. I, for one, wasn't expecting them to be so cool. The temple had lanterns hanging from the sky and lanterns decorating the paths through the temple. The lanterns were in all sorts of shapes, depicting many different things. There were traditional Buddhist symbols, animals (especially those important to the symbolism and history of Korea, such as tigers and turtles). On top of the displays, the temple was offering free shuttle services to Dongdaemun Gate in Seoul, where the lantern parade was starting later that night. The shuttle bus assured that we got a front row seat for the parade, so I highly recommend taking advantage of it. They also gave everyone a rod with two small lanterns attached to hold during the parade. Once it got dark, volunteers came and lit the lanterns for the people who had them.
There was one downside to taking the shuttle bus, and that was that I missed the first event, the opening ceremony. The opening ceremony consists of a few different parts. There is an awards ceremony for the lanterns, followed by an opening ceremony dance. It mainly consists of a Buddhist cheer rally and, in true Buddhist fashion, a dharma ceremony. I'm sad I missed it, and plan to make sure I catch it next year, but the pay off for missing it was more than okay.

The main event of the Lotus Lantern Festival is the Saturday night Lotus Lantern Parade. As mentioned earlier, I got a front row seat near the very beginning of the parade route. The parade itself is fairly long, from Dongdaemun Gate or Jogyesa temple, where there was a giant viewing screed broadcasting the parade and MCs giving commentary in both Korean and English. The parade began with an imitation of the old royal guard, followed by drummers and dancers, all putting aspects of Korean culture for all to see. There were many people who walked in the parade. Some of them were performers, using their lanterns in their dances, others were Buddhist monks. There were large groups, representing everything from universities, arts groups and temples. In true parade fashion, there were walkers handing out things to the crowd, be it candy or small lotus flower paper lanterns (which I was lucky enough to get).

All of that was interesting, but it wasn't what made the parade the most beautiful parade I ever seen. What did that, were the float sized lanterns I mentioned earlier. There were all these giant lanterns, lit up in the night, with hundreds of other, smaller lanterns lining the street where the spectators held them. Most of the lanterns were designed in the traditional Buddhist fashion, and if you've seen any Buddhist art, you know hoe absolutely beautiful it is. Other lanterns -a few looked more than a little anime-like-, not so much. There were lanterns of the many styles of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (Bodhisattvas are anyone who, motivated by great compassion, wishes to attain and gains enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings. It's one of the four sublime states a human being can achieve), and scenes that included them. My favourite of those types of lanterns was one of the Buddha meditating in the centre of the lotus flower (the lotus flower is one of the most important symbols in Buddhism). There were also many lanterns that used Buddhist symbols, including quite a few that had flashing lights. Important symbols of Korea in general, mostly animals but kings as well, were made into lanterns for the parade. The animal floats were my favourite in the parade- there were a number of fire breathing dragons, elephants who trumpeted and a phoenix who changed colour and mimicked flight. It was amazing what people had managed to turn paper lanterns into, magic even.

Here's where I tell you why I didn't mind missing out on the opening ceremony. I previously mentioned that temples had members walking in the parade, and each of them had a design of lantern particular to their temple. I had received one of the lanterns from Bongeunsa, and when the group from Bongeunsa passed us about a quarter of the way through the parade, they asked everyone with those lanterns to join in. Me, being me, couldn't resist. So yes, I walked in a parade in the capital of South Korea. That was a defining moment for me, when I looked around me and realized just how amazing my life was. It kind of took my breath away.
After the parade finished, there was a post-parade ceremony. This was another event I ended up missing, this time because, I had gone, I never would have made it back home before the subway closed. Much like the opening ceremony, there were performances, consisting of traditional art, music, dancers and singers. The main event of the night, however, is the flower rain. That is when a record number of flower petal shaped paper fall from the night sky.

The next day kicked off with day long cultural events in the area around Jogyesa temple. This is actually a two pronged event. The first is that both sides of the street are lined with tents. Those tents are filled with activities (many of them free, or at least extremely cheap), information, samples and even more. The main focus is Buddhism, but a fair bit was about Korea as well. Every section of Asian Buddhism had set up something, and I learned a lot. These tents had information about their particular branch of Buddhism, as well as displays. Monks were the ones who gave that information. Many of the activities were craft orientated, the main one being making paper flowers. You could sample food, have your face pained and even try on a traditional Korean wedding dress. I tried on traditional clothing, made a woodblock painting, decorated a mask, learned how to sit in and meditate in the lotus position and even tried green tea for the first time. Those were only a drop in the bucket of what was available. The events were open from 12-6, and I got there at four, assuming I'd have more than enough time to see everything. I was wrong- I could have used another two hours at least.
While all of those tents were open, there are cultural performances going in the centre of the area. Like the tents, the performances encompass all aspects and types of Buddhism. There were folk games, Tibetan chanting, monastic dancing, Korean tight-rope walking, the crane dance, Korean folk music and dancing, Zen martial arts, percussion instruments and dancing. Many national sects of Buddhism put on performances, including Mongolia, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. There was a wide variety, and something for everyone.

Later that night, there was a smaller lantern parade, one that started in Insa-dong (the tourism area). None of the large lanterns were there, but there were still quite a few, and many of the performing groups were in the encore parade. It's smaller, but it actually feels more intimate. Insa-dong is a very narrow street and, if I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched everything as is passed. In general, Insa-dong has a great atmosphere, and the lanterns only doubled it.

The parade length is also shorter, only about a twenty minute walk back to Jogyesa. Once there, the final ceremony began. Like always, there were performances, both traditional and not so much. The non-traditional performances, done by the dance groups that just walked in the parade, each did a dance, and I kind of felt like I was watching a K-Pop concert. There was a lot of energy and happiness, and it was a lot of fun.

The best part, however, came at the end. Once the last of the dance groups danced, the guard rails were taken away, and the performance area was opened up. From there, the MC invited everyone -and I do mean everyone- to join the performers for a group dance. In the beginning, it was a lot like a game of Just Dance, where you follow the moves of the dancers on stage. Eventually though, it turned into a version of the locomotion, with human chains twisting and turning all over the dance floor. There were all kinds of people, from all over the world, but through the music -through the dancing- we all connected. We high fived as out line passed another, we paused to let people who wanted to dance in, we laughed together and felt the unadulterated freedom and joy of that single moment. I have never felt that much camaraderie with so many people I will never met.
After a good fifteen minutes, the dancing ended, as did this year's Lotus Lantern Festival. Hours later, I was still smiling. Now, months later, I'm still animated whenever I get to tell someone about it. I think, no matter what else I do, it will be one of my defining moments in Korea. So, if you're coming to Korea and can plan your trip to happen over the Lotus Lantern Festival, I highly, highly recommend it.

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