Buddha’s Birthday in Seoul – Seoul, South Korea

Buddha’s Birthday in Seoul
Seoul, South Korea

I stood quietly in the riot of color and noise, bathed in the warm light of thousands of colorful lanterns bearing images of Buddha, dragons, white elephants and lotus flowers. Before me marched robe-clad groups of monks and nuns and throngs of people dressed in brightly colored hanboke, Korea’s traditional dress. Other people on the street wore plain street cloths presenting a modern contrast to the otherwise, almost medieval atmosphere. Blanketing the street came the sounds of droning Buddhist chants and Korean folk music. The sides of the road were packed with believers and interested folks, like myself, who have turned out for this spectacular scene. Welcome to the Lantern Festival celebrating the 2,548th Birthday of Buddha in downtown Seoul, Korea, 2004.

Lanterns lit during the Lantern Parade
Lanterns lit during the Lantern Parade
One of my favorite Korean holidays is the annual, week-long festival of Buddha’s birthday. Although this week holds great significance to all Buddhists, it provides a fun opportunity for foreigners to see some of the most distinct contrasts between the Old and the New by providing a glimpse into some of Korea’s oldest cultural and religious traditions and how they are still practiced today. Attendance at my first birthday celebration was an accident that I have since tried to repeat every year.

To better understand what I saw, I had to learn a little of Korea’s Buddhist history. Buddhism was brought to Korea roughly 1,600 years ago and still enjoys great popularity with roughly half the population. In early times, Buddhism became the state religion but during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), it was replaced with Confucianism and severely discouraged to the point where public worship was no longer allowed. Because of the restrictions, monks moved their temples to Korea’s mountains and remote areas. Today, hundreds of active temples still dot cities and countryside. Jogyesa Temple is one of Korea’s principle temples and is located in downtown Seoul near Insadong. Jogyesa Temple plays host to Korea’s largest Buddhist sect and is the focal point to the local Seoul festivities surrounding this event.

As Buddha’s birthday is the most important day to Korean Buddhists, they party in grand style. Both in and outside of every temple, monks hang colorful lanterns. Many local governments around the peninsula also festoon city streets with lanterns as well as calling a national holiday. Although every temple holds some form of ceremonies, the largest and most festive is held in the capital city of Seoul.

Every year, Seoul hosts the celebration starting a week before the actual birthday of Buddha. In 2005, for example, the festival will begin on May 8 and last until the actual birthday on May 15. The opening day always starts with religious ceremonies in the morning and is followed by a large street fair near the temple. At the street fair, Buddhism-related products and Korean traditional crafts can be found. I have always enjoyed attending the fair, as there are always classes on making lanterns and Buddhist rosaries or traditional song and dance events.

I think the best part of this festival begins in the evening of the first day. Starting in early evening, thousands of people congregate at Dongdaemun Gate (the original East Gate of Seoul when there was a wall around the city) to join in the Lantern Parade. The parade will stretch for several kilometers through the heart of Seoul to culminate at the Jogyesa Temple.

Lantern outside of the temple on my university campus
Lantern outside of the temple on my university campus
If you wish to take an active role in the parade, show up at the gate with a lantern you purchased or made at the street fair. For the less adventurous, join the crowd on the streets lining the parade route. Either way, be prepared for a memorable evening filled with heavenly lanterns of every description. Most lanterns represent some aspect of significance to Buddhists. A common lantern is the lotus design. The lotus and candle inside represent the blossoming of wisdom and enlightenment.

Another nice aspect of this holiday is that it serves not only the religious needs of Korea’s Buddhist community, but also acts as a method to reach out and educate non-believers. Many events surrounding the festivities serve to explain and demonstrate the religion, its practices and even give glimpses into the daily lives of the monks. The event also helps Korean Buddhists bond with believers from other countries. Starting in 2004, Buddhists from countries such as Taiwan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Mongolia began participating in Seoul’s celebration to bring an international spirit to the celebration.

Buddhist temple preparing for the big day!
Buddhist temple preparing for the big day!
Every year, I look forward to seeing the strings of brightly colored lanterns strung up along the streets. Although I am not Buddhist, this holiday always feels a bit like Christmas Eve to me – a joyous anticipation leading up to this unique and spectacular evening and a sense of peace and serenity afterwards. If you want a chance to experience Korea’s Buddhist heritage, Buddha’s Birthday is an extraordinary place to start.

For more information about the Lantern Parade and other festivities, visit here. More information about Buddhism in Korea, visit this site.

Brandon Walcutt is a university professor, history buff and budding travel writer based in Seoul, Korea. He can be contacted at travelingman2 at lycos dot com.

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