Meditation & Health #21- Lanterns and Lights: The Time-Honored Tradition
Lanterns and Lights: The Time-Honored Tradition
By Mu Xi & Ning Qi Yuan
Su Weidao, a poet who lived during China’s Tang dynasty,
vividly depicted the brilliant lights and crowded streets of
the Lunar New Year celebrations in his famous poem
“The Fifteenth Day of the First Lunar Month.”
Describing the beauty of rows of lanterns hanging on trees
against a backdrop of glittering fireworks, he used the words
“harmony of lighted trees and silvery flowers.
The Lantern Legend
Festive lights, commonly called lanterns, hold a deep significance to the Chinese. They are auspicious items used in traditional festivals and represent reunion and celebration. During holidays, weddings and birthday festivities, lanterns are hung to spark a joyous mood.
The Lantern Festival is synonymous with Yuan Xiao Jie, which falls on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Legend has it that a Heavenly bird lost its way, landed on Earth, and was accidently killed by a hunter. The Heavenly Emperor was furious and commanded Heavenly soldiers to set a massive fire on Earth on the 15th day of the first lunar month as punishment. His daughter could not bear to see mortals suffer and secretly descended from Heaven to warn them. A plan was hatched. When the fateful day arrived, people decked their houses in bright colors and lights, and set off firecrackers and fireworks. When the Heavenly Emperor looked down, he saw that Earth was a mass of bright lights and loud sounds. He was satisfied that the mortals had met their fiery end. Having averted the disaster, people continued to celebrate yearly on the fateful 15th day of the first lunar month with brightly colored lanterns and firecrackers.
During the Song dynasty, the Lantern Festival celebration became a three-day extravaganza. By then, unique lanterns had become popular. The variety was dazzling, ranging from lanterns made from sheepskin and pearls to lanterns that could be rolled or juggled. During the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang extended the festival to 10 nights. The festival remained popular during the Qing dynasty, with lanterns found in every corner of various cities and floating on rivers.
Finely Crafted Art
Through the millennia, the art of Chinese lanterns has evolved into using an array of materials such as bamboo, silk, metal, paper, glass, jade, plants, feathers, and shells. The process of production is now an art and craft integrating coloring, gluing, knitting, embroidering, carving, and papercutting. Some lanterns are adorned with calligraphy or poetry.
Expensive, finely crafted palace lanterns have a history of over 1,400 years, originally used in palaces and official residences as an exquisite decorative light source. More commonly seen are linen lanterns, usually round or oval in shape, and often red to signify joy and abundant blessings. Revolving horse lanterns are one of the most traditional types. When lit, the hot air from the candle makes the lantern spin, projecting beautiful images of horses on the walls, galloping gracefully.
In traditional Chinese culture, lanterns symbolize the eradication of darkness and ushering in of illumination, auspiciousness and prosperity. Thus, during New Year, people write their wishes and prayers for a good start. Lanterns evoke the history of worship and have a spiritual significance. Ancient rituals involved the use of fire to pray to deities and supernatural beings. Fire was also used to bless marital unions.
In modern day, lanterns carry forth this tradition of worshiping with fire. People make light-offerings to Buddha, deities and ancestors as a powerful, beautiful expression of their deep respect and remembrance.
Merits of Light-Offerings
In Buddhism, lanterns and light-offering signify illumination and wisdom. Classical records state that there are immense merits in offering lights before Buddha statues, pagodas, and scriptures. In The Tune of Brahma Clarifying Karma Sutra, there are 10 merits of making light-offerings:
First, one becomes the beacon of light;
second, achievement of clairvoyance;
third, one achieves the vision of the devas; fourth, one gains the wisdom of knowing what is virtue and what is non-virtue;
fifth, elimination of the darkness of ignorance; sixth, one gains the illumination of wisdom; seventh, one will never experience darkness
in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth;
eighth, one enjoys great fortune;
ninth, one is reborn in the human
or deva realms; and lastly,
one speedily gains enlightenment.
There is a saying that China’s Yuan Xiao Jie originated from the light-offerings to Buddha. Emperor Ming of Han, the second emperor of the Chinese Eastern Han dynasty, caused light-offerings to Buddha to spread far and wide. Encouraging Buddhism to spread to China, Emperor Ming reportedly sent envoys to India to seek dharma. When the emperor heard that the monks in Magadha, a kingdom of Ancient India, held reverence ceremonies to worship relics and made light-offerings to the Buddha on the 15th day of the first lunar month, he mandated his palace and temples do the same.
Buddhists often liken dharma to lanterns, as spiritual wisdom banishes darkness and illuminates the way. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Festival of Lights is traditionally celebrated on the 25th day of the 10th lunar month of the Tibetan lunar calendar. It commemorates the passing of Master Je Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. On this day, devotees prepare different types of lanterns and offer them at the temples. The roofs of temples and houses are decked with numerous lights, and worshipers chant sutras in remembrance of Master Tsongkhapa. The sound of prayers and the brightness exuded by thousands of lights in the night make for a spectacular and moving scene.
Lanterns are an integral part of thousands of years of Chinese civilization. They shine forth a rich spiritual essence. An offering of light is a demonstration of reverence and makes tangible one’s wish for a better life. A lantern can only emanate light when one lights it. The warm glow turns darkness and shadow into brightness. Across time and distance, the light of hope, optimism and courage keeps burning.