Beneath the Lanterns: A Photographer’s Journey Through Buddha’s Birthday at Tongdosa Temple

Stepping into the annual Buddha’s Birthday celebration at Tongdosa Temple is like slipping into a parallel world where time slows, and every moment holds a story. On May 15th, I found myself once again among the mountains of Yangsan, visiting this sacred site that has been my haven for over two decades. There’s a timeless magic to Tongdosa, a place that continuously captivates me with its serene ambiance and historical depth, especially during this vibrant festival.

A Contrast in Celebrations

In contrast to the bustling spectacle at Busan’s Samgwangsa, Tongdosa offers a quieter, more introspective celebration. The whispers of history echo through the temple’s ancient architecture, and as a photographer, the challenge isn’t finding something to shoot—it’s deciding where to begin. With so many intricate details and fleeting moments, the task can be overwhelming. My approach is methodical: I scout the grounds before the blue hour, mentally sketching my shots and preparing for the evening’s visual feast.

The Rituals of Preparation

As dusk approached, I moved with purpose from the front gate to the heart of the temple, orienting myself and soaking in the atmosphere. The rhythmic cadence of the bell ringing and the drumming ceremony set the tone, grounding me in the present and readying my senses for the night ahead.

The Dragon Lantern and the Blue Hour

The dragon lantern, majestically coiled around the pond behind the main hall, stood as this year’s centerpiece. It was a challenging shot, with the crowd pressing in and the light playing tricks, but I thrive on such challenges. Adjusting my position, I retreated to the courtyard, ensuring I had the perfect vantage point for capturing the blue hour’s ethereal glow.

An Unexpected Encounter

Amidst the flurry of activity, I encountered one of my photography students. His surprise at my swift, purposeful movements was palpable. This wasn’t a leisurely class; it was a high-stakes mission to capture the essence of the celebration. Guiding him through the chaos, I hoped to impart a glimpse of the disciplined spontaneity that defines my work.

A Parting in the Rain

As we neared the temple’s entrance, I offered him a ride home. He chose to stay, drawn by the temple’s pull, despite the encroaching rain. Parting ways, I stocked up on snacks and caffeine for the drive, my thoughts lingering on the night’s shoot and the profound connection I feel with Tongdosa.

Memories and Mentors

This temple isn’t just a location; it’s a repository of memories. I remember bringing my parents here after my wedding, sharing the serenity of Tongdosa with them. It’s a place I visited often with my late friend and mentor, Dave Harvey. His spirit feels omnipresent, a guiding force reminding me to check my composition and avoid overexposure, subtly shaping my every shot.

The annual Buddha’s Birthday celebration at Tongdosa is more than a photographic opportunity. It’s a pilgrimage of the heart, a return to a place where past and present coalesce, and every captured image tells a story of reverence, history, and personal connection.

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Jason Teale 

Photographer, educator, podcaster

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Photographing Korea and the world beyond!