Buddha’s Birthday in South Korea (부처님 in 오신 날/bucheo-nim osin nal in Korean; literally, “The Day Buddha Came”) is a spring festival that commemorates the birth of the Gautama Buddha, who was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama.
This particular holiday is celebrated by Buddhists in East Asia. In other parts of the world, Buddha’s birth is celebrated together along with his enlightenment and death during the holiday of Vesak. Vesak usually falls around the same time as Buddha’s Birthday.
This post is your quick introduction to Buddha’s Birthday in South Korea, including when it is and how it is celebrated.
When is Buddha's Birthday?
Maitreya Buddha and haetae statues at Bongeunsa Temple
Buddhism in Korea
Buddhism has had a long history in Korea, with Mahayana Buddhism being brought from China in the 4th century CE, during the Three Kingdoms period. Its practice grew throughout the peninsula over the centuries, and it was adopted as the state religion by each of the Three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekjae, and Silla).
Buddhism was particularly important during the Unified Silla period (668–935 CE). Eventually, Buddhism was repressed by the government during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910 CE).
As of 2015, about 15.5% of Koreans are Buddhists, with 56% of Koreans having no religious affiliation, 19.7% identifying as Protestant, and 7.9% identifying as Catholic.
Lanterns for Buddha's Birthday
A lot of lanterns
The decorations are put up a few weeks before the actual festival date, allowing for plenty of time to enjoy them.
Most of the lanterns hung up have the same basic design, varying only in color, but the appearance of all of them together is quite impressive. There can also be lotus-shaped lanterns strung up amongst the simpler lanterns.
Lotus flower-shaped lanterns, lovely against the traditional colors of the temples
Also on display around the temples are lanterns made out of hanji, traditional Korean paper. These hanji lanterns take a variety of forms, including animals, flowers, and mythical figures and creatures.
Around Seoul, these fancy lanterns are specifically displayed at Jogyesa Temple, Bongeunsa Temple, and the Cheonggyecheon.
Some hanji lanterns from Bongeunsa and Jogyesa Temples
Lotus Lantern Festival at Jogyesa Temple
Besides decorating with lanterns, Buddhist temples hold a Lotus Lantern Festival (Yeondeunghoe; literally, “lotus lantern festival”), with events and activities being put on.
A massive parade of lanterns for Buddha’s Birthday takes place in Seoul, going along Jong-no and ending at Jogyesa Temple. The parade is quite long, lasting well over an hour.
The parade features gigantic floats with lanterns of various shapes, various groups of people carrying small lanterns (including Buddhist groups and international groups), musicians playing traditional Korean music, and more. Some of the dragon-shaped lanterns even breathe fire!
Events held include traditional performances, crafts, cheer rally, and sprinkling of baby Buddha with water (gwanbul).
Lantern parade at Jogyesa Temple, featuring ladies in hanbok and hangul lanterns
If you are in South Korea around Buddha’s Birthday, definitely check out the decorations at the Buddhist temples! They are gorgeous both day and night. Right around Buddha’s Birthday is one of my favorite times to be in South Korea because of all the decorations.
If you are able to attend the parade and lantern-lighting at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, I would absolutely recommend it. By doing so, you will be able to take in an important and interesting part of Korea’s cultural heritage. Plus the lanterns are super cool.