Three Ways to Celebrate Buddha’s Birthday in Seoul

By Minhee Lee, Student Service Manager, South Korea

Although many people rightly think of South Korea as a fast-paced and modern country, it is also filled with many ancient traditions that date back over a thousand years. Several of Korea’s oldest traditions have their roots in Buddhism, which is still practiced today by roughly a quarter of the country’s citizens. These Buddhist traditions have become so closely tied with Korean culture that they are celebrated today by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The largest annual celebration of Buddhist culture takes place every year on Buddha’s birthday, which falls on May 19th in 2021.  In Korean, the holiday is called 부처님 오신 날 (Bucheonim Oshin Nal), which literally means the day that Buddha came. Here are three ways that locals celebrate Buddha’s arrival! 

1. Traditional Lantern Exhibition 

Paper lanterns hanging in temple

One of the best things about Buddha’s birthday week is that Korea becomes so colorful with so many traditional lanterns. Most of the time they look like lotus blossoms, and they are lined up on the streets until the end of May. There are a few places you can visit if you’d like to experience various types of traditional lanterns in one setting: Jogyesa Temple, Bongeunsa Temple, and Cheonggye-cheon Area. They are all made from Hanji, which literally means Korean paper. Hanji makes these lanterns more authentically Korean, and it brings out the natural brightness of their colors.  

2. Lotus Lantern Parade

People marching down street in Seoul at night

The highlight of the Lotus Lantern Festival is the lantern parade! Normally, the parade takes place on the street from Dongguk University to Jogyesa Temple (about 2 miles) with more than 20,000 lanterns. However, due to Covid-19, it’s going to be conducted online this year and instead of one large parade, monks throughout the country will be having their own mini-parades at their temples.

Lit parade floats coming down street in street parade in Seoul

3. Temple Visits

Paper lanterns hanging in front of temple

When you visit temples in Korea during May, you will be amazed by the number of beautiful lanterns illuminating every corner. The light spreading out from the lanterns symbolizes Buddha imparting his wisdom on the people and bringing light to a dark world. You will notice that the lanterns in the temples often have someone’s name written on them. This is a way for people who visit the temple to wish for happiness for their family, friends, and Buddha.

Happy Buddha’s Birthday to everyone! Want to experience Buddha’s birthday yourself? Learn more about our programs in South Korea.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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