Design and Location of Stone Lanterns
One of the most common stone structures that you’ll find at a Korean Buddhist temple is the stone lantern, which is known as a “seokdeung – 석등” in Korean. So what exactly do they look like? What do they mean? And where do you find them?
Stone lanterns are comprised of a base, a single long octagonal pedestal, a square or octagonal body that may, or may not, be decorated. This chamber typically has four vertical, rectangular openings. And atop this chamber is a roof-cap. Stone lanterns are typically made of white granite.
Stone lanterns are typically housed in the main courtyard between the Boje-ru Pavilion and the temple’s stone pagoda. The stone lantern stands in front of the stone pagoda, the seok-tap; both of which, stand together in front of the main hall of the temple. However, while this is the traditional location of a stone lantern, there are plenty of examples where a stone lantern is located in a different position on the temple grounds. Traditionally, there was only one stone lantern at a temple. The stone lantern is meant to represent the spreading of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma.
History and Variations of Stone Lanterns
The construction of stone lanterns became popular during Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) in the ninth century, as the spread of Seon Buddhism grew in popularity. The tradition of creating stone lanterns continued through to the early part of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Of these historic stone lanterns, of which there are 280, only about 60 of these extant stone lanterns are well preserved with all sections of the structure still intact. And of these 60, 24 are from the Unified Silla Dynasty.
Like all Korean Buddhist art, there is variation to stone lanterns. The most dramatic of these variations can be found at the Twin Lion Stone Lantern of Beopjusa Temple, the Stone Lantern at Gakhwang-jeon Hall of Hwaeomsa Temple, or the human image at the base of the stone lantern out in front of the Four Lion Three-Story Stone Pagoda of Hwaeomsa Temple. All three are National Treasures, and deservedly so. In fact, there are a total of 5 stone lanterns that are National Treasures. In addition, there are 22 stone lanterns that are Korean Treasures, 3 that are Tangible Cultural Heritage, and 1 that is a Cultural Properties Materials.
Symbolism of Stone Lanterns
As for the decoration that adorns the light chamber of a stone lantern, they are typically adorned with reliefs of the Four Heavenly Kings or Bodhisattva images. Carving deities like the Four Heavenly Kings on the light chamber of a stone lantern is important symbolically. The symbolism has a dual purpose. First, the stone lantern is meant to represent the light of the Dharma that destroys ignorance. Also, light is used as a symbol for the teachings of the Buddha and the Dharma. In fact, it’s believed that by lighting a stone lantern that it’s equal to making an offering at an altar inside a temple shrine hall. Now, however, the stone lantern is more typically used as a decorative piece. As for the Four Heavenly Kings, they are protectors of the Buddha and the Dharma, so that’s why they typically appear on stone lanterns.
So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple, have a look for these stone monuments that exude beauty, while also having the symbolic meaning of radiating the Buddha’s teachings. Often overlooked, stone lanterns are diverse in their appearance and overall aesthetic.