In Korea, Children’s Day, Parent’s Day, Teacher’s Day, and Buddha’s birthday all fall in May – making it known as the month of holidays. However, out of these, only Children’s Day and Buddha’s birthday are national holidays, or ‘red days’ as they are known. On May 3, millions of people across Korea will come together to celebrate the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.
Buddhism , or 불교 bulgyo, along with Christianity, is one of the two main religions of South Korea. Buddha’s Birthday is not only an important and auspicious day for the nation’s practicing Buddhists, but also a public holiday when Korean culture and tradition is widely celebrated across the country.
석가탄신일 Seokga tansinil, meaning ‘Buddha’s Birthday’ or 부처님 오신 날 Bucheonim osin nal (‘the day when the Buddha came’) has been widely observed in many Asian nations for centuries. In Korea, it falls on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar. The actual date of the holiday changes every year.
Most of the festivities surrounding the holiday start about a week prior to the day itself, Vibrantly colored, lotus-shaped paper lanterns are hung throughout the country as early as a month ahead of time.
Buddhist temples are transformed into kaleidoscopes of color. Take a visit to one of the temples in the country and one will see lotus lanterns around the temple and surrounding yards and streets. On the day of Buddha’s birth, many temples provide complimentary vegetarian meal such as 산채 비빔밥 sanchae bibimbap and tea to all visitors who make the trek. The temples also host traditional Korean games and performances, such as mask dances and acrobatic shows with tightrope walkers.
Many participants make a small donation to hang their own paper lantern in the temple complex. These colored paper lanterns are mostly red, pink, or gold and have candles inside. A small paper tag is hung from the bottom of the lantern where they write their name and a wish that they carry in their heart.
The highlight of the celebrations is the 연등회Yeon Deung Hoe, also known as the Lotus Lantern Festival. Originating in the Silla period more than 1,200 years ago, the tradition has been passed down through the Goryeo era, the Joseon era, and is still an annual tradition today. This traditional festival is designated as Korea’s National Intangible Cultural Property No. 122.
In major cities like Seoul and Busan, the festival features an annual lantern parade which usually takes place on the weekend before the holiday. The largest lantern festival happens in downtown Seoul where the participants in the parade first head to Dongguk University, one of Korea’s main Buddhist universities. They watch dance performances and ceremonies in the afternoon and the parade usually starts at seven in the evening. The parade’s participants range from solemn looking Buddhist monks to excitable university students with magnificent lantern displays including animated dragons and replicas of the Buddha himself. By lighting lanterns at the festival, participants light up their own hearts as well as the world. In this way, the celebration also offers an opportunity in which participants can reflect on Buddhist virtues, teachings, principles and life in general.
After the lantern parade, there are a few other activities such as street festivals, lantern making, temple food tasting and lively cultural performances that express the aspiration for peace and happiness all over the world while bring all participants together as one, transcending nationality, gender, ethnicity and religion.
Korea’s Buddha’s Birthday celebration is truly both a spectacle for the eyes and a wonderful way to remember the man who established one of the world’s most influential religions.
Written by Krew Member: Miao Canlas