Buddha’s Birthday lantern festival will come to full light this year
Exactly 100 days before Buddha’s Birthday, Jung Seon-sook, 86, visited her usual Buddhist temple in Gangbuk District, northern Seoul and placed two lanterns: one with all the names and birthdays of her family and another special white lantern for her late husband.
“It’s to make the world a brighter place,” Jung simply said. “May his wisdom and kindness lighten up this dark world.”
Awaiting Buddha’s Birthday on April 8 of the lunar calendar, which falls on May 27 this year, she has followed the tradition of hanging lanterns for over 40 years now.
The lantern lighting festival, called Yeondeunghoe, celebrates the days leading up to Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday, and is one of the oldest festivals in Korea. “Samguk Sagi,” a historical record of the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla kingdoms, states that Yeongdeunghoe was held as early as the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 935).
The act of lighting lanterns, as Jung said, is symbolic of illuminating the world with Buddha’s wisdom and a way to make an offering to Buddha. The tradition comes from the Buddhist text “Binnyeonantapum.” It says a woman named Nanta wanted to make an offering to Buddha but did not have any money so, instead, she lit a small lantern. The text goes on to say all the other costly lanterns blew out at dawn, but Nanta’s lantern stayed lit because Buddha explained “a lantern lit with sincerity doesn’t die.”
Today, Yeondeunghoe is a nationwide celebration and was added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Unesco stated the festival was added to this list due to its ability to “encourage dialogue among communities and cultures.”
“Non-Buddhists form an integral part of the festival by participating in lantern lighting events organized by local celebration committees, which are formed in different regions of the country to oversee each local festival,” said the Cultural Heritage Administration. “Yeondeunghoe is a festival where individuals can participate as equal members of society regardless of gender or age.”
While the festival does have a religious background, it is not limited to being enjoyed only by Buddhists. So the event is considered a cultural festival, rather than a religious one. Only 16 percent of Korea’s population are Buddhists, according to Gallup Korea’s poll in 2021.
The theme of this year’s festival is “Peace of the Mind, The World of Buddha.” The local government declared an end to Covid-19 earlier this month and lifted nearly all restrictions, so the upcoming Yeondeunghoe will be the first time to be held at full scale since the pandemic started. Last year, the festival operated at only about 70 percent of its normal scale due to the restrictions.
At sundown on May 20, one week ahead of Buddha’s Birthday, Jung’s lanterns as well as millions of others hanging on temples across the country will light up.
On the same day at 4 p.m., there will be traditional dance performances at Dongguk University Stadium in Jung District, central Seoul. Afterward, thousands of monks from all across the country’s Buddhist temples and festival participants will parade the streets of central Seoul, each holding two lanterns. This parade is called the Lotus Lantern Parade. Some 100,000 lanterns are expected to light up the streets during this march, according to the Yeondeunghoe Preservation Committee. The parade will also have large installations depicting various animals, symbols said to bring good luck in Buddhism and Korean folk tale characters and national heroes.
The parade starts at 7 p.m. at Heunginjimun Gate in Jongno District and will continue to Jogye Temple, which is about 2.9 kilometers (1.8 miles) away from Heunginjimun Gate. Jogye Temple is the main temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The building dates back to the late 14th century.
This year’s lantern parade promises to be more interactive with the public. The Jogye Order of Buddhism said it will set up booths in front of Jongmyo Shrine, also located in Jongno District, and invite up to 250 people to make their own lanterns for the march. Registration to make your own lantern will be available on parade day at the booths.
Traditional lanterns can already be seen hanging around Seoul, at the Gwanghwamun Plaza, Jogye Temple and Bongeun Temple. The lantern installation at Gwanghwamun Plaza in the shape of the Sumanotap Pagoda of Jeongam Temple was the first lantern lit to mark the start of Yeondeunghoe, on the evening of April 26.
The traditional lanterns will be displayed through May 28.
On May 21, the day after the parade, immersive cultural events will run from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the streets in front of Jogye Temple. Activities will include drawing traditional designs, lantern making and eating temple cuisine. A special lantern-making class with hanji (a type of mulberry paper traditionally used in Korea) for foreigners will be available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., next to Ujeongchongguk in Jogye Temple. There will also be a traditional show called madangnori (a traditional Korean outdoor performance). Audiences are welcome to join the dance and engage with the performers. Activities will continue into the night, and at 9 p.m. a small-scale lantern march will begin at Jogye Temple to Insa-dong, just about a one-kilometer walk.
Registration and further information on the activities leading up to Buddha’s Birthday can be found at www.llf.or.kr/eng/. The website is available in English, Japanese, Chinese, French, German and Spanish.
The Yeondeunghoe Preservation Committee expects around 50,000 people to join the celebrations in central Seoul.
To prevent overcrowding, the committee announced it will deploy 1,000 safety guards in areas expected to gather large groups of people. Areas around Jogye Shrine and Jonggak Station will be closed. Roads from Heunginjimun Gate to Jogye Temple will also be closed off for the lantern parade.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]