Buddha’s Birthday in South Korea

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Buddha’s Birthday (부처님 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, as Buddha’s birth is celebrated together along with his enlightenment and death during the holiday of Vesak in other parts of the world; Vesak usually falls around the same time as Buddha’s Birthday.

Usually the festival takes place in April or May, but the specific date within the Gregorian calendar fluctuates each year, as the date is based on a lunisolar calendar. For example, the holiday falls on May 19th in 2021, and fell on April 30th in 2020, and will fall on May 8th in 2022. In South Korea specifically, Buddha’s Birthday is on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Maitreya Buddha and haetae statues at Bongeunsa Temple

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, but 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.

Buddha’s Birthday in South Korea is a very bright and colorful holiday. To celebrate the occasion, an innumerable amount of lanterns are festooned all around the Buddhist temples across the country. There are so many lanterns on display that if you stand in the right spots, there will be a rainbow of lanterns, swaying in the wind, as far as your eyes can see.

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

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. Events held include traditional performances, crafts, cheer rally, and sprinkling of baby Buddha with water (gwanbul).

The Yeondeunghoe festival was designated as National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012, and was inscribed onto the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2020.

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. If you are able to attend the parade and lantern-lighting at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul, you will be able to take in an important and interesting part of Korea’s cultural heritage.

Interested in other holidays in South Korea? Learn about Chuseok and Pepero Day!

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