Every year, one of Asia’s biggest celebrations takes place in the months of April and May. This major celebration is known as Buddha’s birthday. Buddhism plays a dominant role in many Asian countries including Korea, where every spring the country turns aglow in honor of the birth of Buddha. This also happens to be one of my favorite festivals.
There are few places in the world that can match Korea’s love for Buddhism and bright lanterns. Nearly fifteen percent of the Korean population practices Buddhism which makes up the largest spiritual group in the Land of the Morning Calm. The celebration is one of the biggest of its kind in the world and they call it the Lotus Lantern Festival.
Depending on the time of year, Buddha’s birthday can fall any time between the beginning of April to the end of May. At this time, the Korean peninsula magically transforms as it prepares for the celebration. From city streets to mountaintop temples, lanterns begin to appear just about everywhere. The displays are charming and intriguing and the capital city of Seoul pulls out all the stops to make sure it’s a celebration Buddha would surely approve of. For two weeks, the city becomes a mecca of everything Buddhist. The city’s streets, parks, and temples become even more special during this time of year as hundreds upon hundreds of lanterns are hung throughout the city.
According to Buddhist beliefs, lanterns symbolize wisdom and light in the world. The hope is to bring more prosperity and peace to the world. It is an important ritual in Buddhism that honors the founder of the spiritual teachings. The lantern lighting in Korea began more than a thousand years ago and still continues to this day. The festival attracts people from all over Korea and the world. There are an array of festive programs scheduled throughout this two week period, everything from a luminous parade to traditional lantern making.
The festival begins with the Lighting Ceremony on the first day in Gwanghwamun Square where various large sized lanterns are lit. The next major event is the Buddhist Cheer Rally which take takes place at Dongguk University. This event is an exciting celebration that is full of songs and rhythmic beats. Later that day, the main thoroughfare of Seoul is shut down to make way for the festival’s oldest and largest event, the Lotus Lantern Parade.
The parade is considered by many to be the highlight of the celebration as tens of thousands of lanterns are carried by various Buddhist congregations. It is truly a magical thing to witness as all the lanterns are being paraded down the streets of Seoul. You can expect to see brightly lit lanterns in the shape of dragons, pagodas, white elephants, lotus flowers, and more. All this lasts for nearly three hours and concludes with a festive celebration on the streets which I found to be inspirational and a lot of fun.
The following day, various traditional and cultural events take place along the main street in front of Jogyesa Temple. Here visitors can learn more about Buddhism by participating in an endless amount of cultural experiences. With more than one-hundred booths set up by Buddhist Monks and Nuns; there is something for everyone, whether it be traditional lantern making or learning proper meditation techniques. My friend and I really enjoyed crafting traditional lanterns of our own.
Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival is a unique cultural experience and one of the most beautiful festivals I have witnessed yet. I highly recommend visiting Seoul during this magical time, you’ll surely enjoy taking in all the whimsical sights and sounds that the celebration has to offer. For those interested in checking out the festival, this year’s festivities will take place from May 15th to the 17th. The festival’s program can be found at Korea’s Official Tourism Website.