The Lotus Lantern Festival Volunteer Program Reflection
In the past month I have written quite a few posts on the Lotus Lantern Festival and mentioned that I had taken part as a volunteer this year. I was chosen along with 70 other people, half Korean and half foreigners, to be a member of the 2013 Yeon Deung Hoe International Volunteer Program. The program took two months. We met weekly for classes on Buddhism, took part in a temple stay and talked about Buddhism from around the world and how Korean Buddhism is different. We were the first, and being the first means we were the guinea pigs of sorts. This past weekend, our leaders called us together once more to present us with our certificates of completion as well as to listen to our presentations on the good, the bad and our suggestions for the future of the program.
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Before we started, I had wondered how open and honest people were really going to be. Though it was great to meet some wonderful people, the program itself had quite a few flaws in my opinion and I wasn’t sure if anyone else felt the same way. I was glad to learn that I was not the only person that felt that way and I hope that our suggestions make for a better program in upcoming years.
First The Good:
- The program brought together people from all over the place. Most of the volunteers were university students as they need to complete a certain amount of volunteer hours to graduate, and some were teachers. There were foreigners from Laos, Ecuador, the US, Kazakhstan, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, the Netherlands and more. This was a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world and share ideas as well as foster friendships.
- It offered the opportunity to talk with monks about Buddhism, take part in a temple stay, and learn a little more about Korean Buddhism and its history. It offered information on ways to further Korean Buddhism education while in Korea.
- We got to take part in every aspect of the festival from the very beginning at Dongguk University for the opening ceremony on Saturday to the parade, the closing dance party and Sunday’s cultural experience tents as well as gave us the chance to push floats in the parade on Sunday evening.
The Not So Good:
- The program promised a bit more than it was able to deliver. The first day we were told the goals of the classes, mainly learning more about Korean Buddhism. This proved to be much more difficult when actually done. The history is just so long and our monk leaders weren’t quite sure where to start. Some classes we watched videos on different aspects of Korean Buddhism, but weren’t explained of the relevance, so they seemed unnecessary.
- The day of the parade, we were told our job was to monitor and control the crowds, but apparently the police that were also lining the route weren’t told about us and told many of our “volunteers” to move behind the line. There seemed to be so many volunteer groups, but no communication between them or between them and the police, so our jobs overlapped and most of the time was spent sitting and waiting. Therefore, many volunteers didn’t feel like volunteers, but supporters with front row seats to things.
- Though we learned some about Korean Buddhism we weren’t actually prepared for the festival itself. On Sunday, when asked where certain tents were, we didn’t know. When asked for times of events, we didn’t know. Really, the pamphlets at the information centers were of more use than we were.
- Focus more on what we will do and will see at the festival. Covering all of Korean Buddhism and its history didn’t allow us time to cover information that we would actually need for the festival itself. Instead focus more on symbols, as we may be asked what the elephant and the dragon floats represent. Focus on the particular crafts available, so that we can help people make them and act as guides when there is no translator in a tent. Give us more relevant information including: parade routes, nearby subway stations and exits, directions to places, and times of big events.
- A lot of time was spent on translating. For some activities we were split into the English speakers and the Korean speakers, but more often than not we were together and wasted a lot of time getting things translated. If we were split for some of the other explanations, we could have gotten more time to learn rather than wait. The Korean speakers also said that the videos we watched in English were difficult to understand for them and that should have been split, but the classes could have been done all in English and they would have been fine. (Our main leader didn’t speak English, so I think this was the issue with not splitting. He was nice, but wanted to be the leader for every class, which meant we had to sit through hours of Korean and then the translations. The monks we met, on the other hand, spoke English quite well and it could have done more to meet with them more than an hour here and there.)
- Let us know of our real goals for the festival itself. We participated in a flash mob on Sunday and pushed floats in the evening on Sunday as well. Those two parts went off without a hitch and everyone felt accomplished afterward. However, between those two events, there were four hours when we were told to monitor and help, but weren’t told which tents to help, who to help or how and most people ended up wandering around and finding a place to sit. It wasn’t an efficient use of us and everyone agreed more direction is necessary.
In the end, I really enjoyed meeting some great people and working together with them. We bonded over mutual interests and also the lack of direction possibly. As I will be here next year, I was told we will be mentors to the next years’ attendants in the program, so I really hope that some of our suggestions are heeded. Overall, the best parts were the chance to see every aspect of the festival up close and personal, get a free temple stay and meet new people. Accomplished!