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Illuminating Heartfelt Lanterns:
A Reminder of the Preciousness of Human Life & Sharing Life’s Suffering
2014 Lotus Lantern Festival:
Sharing Others’ Suffering and Bringing Hope to All
Their heartbreaking words were painstakingly written – tens of thousands of elegies painted on pure white cloth, fluttering in the heavens: ‘Sorry we could not protect you,’ ‘I miss you my dear,’ ‘I love you darling,’ and ‘May you all pass on to the Pure Land.’
‘Mom, I love you…’ When this lament, the last text message of a late student from Danwon High School, was heard by the mourning crowd, they could no longer hold back their tears and immediately began to wail.
While various multicolored lanterns may have lit up the streets of Jongro during past Lotus Lantern Festivals, several thousand members of the Buddhist community came to this year’s festival with yellow ribbons on their chests, commemorating the innocent victims of the capsized ferry Sewol. Calmly consoling each other after the shock of this unexpected tragedy, those still living had to accept the painful reality that with each passing day, no more survivors would be found. With each carefully crafted lantern held high in their hands, the festival participants came together to pray for the spirits of the deceased, for the benefit of all those youths who never had a chance to bloom.
At 5:00 pm on April 26, 2014 the Lotus Lantern Festival Preservation Committee (Chairman Ven. Jaseung, President of the Jogye Order) commenced the official Buddha’s Birthday celebration ceremony before a crowd of twenty thousand monks, nuns and laypeople at the Dongguk University stadium Seoul Campus. While the Eulrim Madang (Buddhist Cheer Rally) was the primary focus of all past festivals, this year’s program focused mainly on solemn prayers for the victims of the disaster so that they might take rebirth in the Blissful Pure Land, and for the safe return of those still missing to their loved ones. In particular, the president of the Jogye Order and the monks, nuns and laypeople offered their sincere support by making generous donations to the Sewol Ferry Tragedy Fund Raising Campaign.
With the theme of ‘Share the Pain and Bring Hope to the People,’ the 2014 Lotus Lantern Festival parade began marching at 7:00 p.m. from the Dongdaemun Gate (East Gate of Seoul) towards Jonggak station, a course which took approximately two hours to complete. The parade remained solemn, more so than on any other occasion. The words ‘Safe Return, Blissful Rebirth’ were written on yellow ribbons respectfully secured near the participant’s hearts. The waves of participants continued slowly throughout the parade while chanting, ‘Sakyamuni Buddha.’
Those gorgeous giant lanterns accompanied by rhythmic dancing and singing that could be seen in recent years were nowhere to be found. Approximately 300 Sangha members led the parade with white lanterns and funeral odes to console and pray on behalf of all Korean citizens. White lanterns were intended to honor the deceased victims and the red ones prayed that the missing victims might swiftly return home.
With one heart and mind, foreign participants also joined the parade and paid their respects to the victims of capsized ferry Sewol. Great waves of yellow ribbons, yearning for the swift return of the missing, filled the streets of Jongro. On this Saturday night, teenage female students firmly held onto their white lanterns with both hands and walked the streets the entire night chanting ‘Amitabha Buddha.’ Youngsters wearing white sneakers wore yellow ribbons on their shirts and walked on through the lantern procession without ever taking a rest. They started as far back as Dongguk University Stadium and marched all the way to Jogyesa temple.
The grand lantern procession stretched far and wide in the Jongro area on the night of April 26, 2014. Tens and thousands of people gathered and embroidered the Seoul sky with white lanterns, paying their respects and console one another. All felt tormented with resentment, bitterness, suffering and regret for the sacrifice the innocent students had made in such a needless tragedy.
A special stage was set up near the end of the procession on the Bosingak Bell Pavilion on Jongro, Seoul for a ‘Gathering of National Prayers to Share the Suffering of the Ferry Sewol.’ The general assembly and Buddhists bowed their head and shed their tears with the recitation of the following prayers. ‘This disaster is the mirror of our society, a society that pays no interest in the people. It is the consequence of placing little value on life and not recognizing the importance of safety first. It shows our selfish interest in focusing only on ourselves. Facing the mirror of truth in shameful regret, we repent.’
A dance that paid tribute with every gesture and movement memorialized the spirits of the deceased. Chanting for the deceased resounded throughout the evening, praying that the victims might peacefully enter into the Pure Land. Traditional Buddhist Bara dances were performed in ceremonies with the sounds of cymbals spread throughout the Coast of Jindo Island. A Canadian university student shared the creation of a unique lantern. A wish-fulfilling tree with thousands of yellow ribbons fluttered in the wind. Having to face the truth of our existence, of a tragedy which resulted from a monstrous country that has become rotten with entangled corruption, this year’s Lotus Lantern Festival of 2558 B.E. gave an opportunity for the people to share their grief and bring hope for the future.