Lotus Lantern Festival (Yeon Deung Hoe Festival) is an annual festival associated with the Buddha’s birthday celebrations. This festival takes place in all countries where Buddhist temples are located, but the main celebrations take place in South Korea, where this tradition has over 1300 years of history. The first celebration of the Buddha’s birth took place during the Silla Dynasty.
Currently, more than half of Koreans declare as atheists, and Buddhists constitute the second denominational group after Protestants. Even though Buddhism is not even considered a religion, Buddha’s birthday is a day off for all Koreans. The Lotus Lantern Festival is so deeply rooted in the local culture that it is considered the intangible national heritage of Korea.
It is believed that the Buddha was born on a full moon day, and his birthday falls on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. For this reason, the date is flexible and may occur at the end of April or early May. According to legend, Prince Siddhartha Gautama – future Buddha, was born around 563 B.C.E. in the royal family who lived in a place that today belongs to Nepal.
During preparation for the Buddha’s birthday, all Buddhist temples are decorated with colourful lanterns. In the past, all lanterns were made by hand from Hanji paper, which was famous all over Asia for its excellent quality, durability and beauty.
Currently, ready-made lanterns can be bought, although the tradition of hand-making them is still cultivated in traditional temples. Lanterns can have different shapes and colours. Anyway, most of them have a shape of a lotus flower, which is a symbol of the disappearance of ignorance and the emergence of wisdom. Lanterns are hung up and lights are turned on. So, faithful have the possibility to find their way to the temple and prepare for this holiday in spiritual terms.
In preparation for the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, the faithful are also preparing grand ornate lanterns. They often are depicting figures of deities associated with Buddhism. A week before the Buddha’s official birthday, all grand ornate lanterns take part in the solemn parade that passes through the city’s main streets.
Schedule of the event
Several days before the Lantern Festival – colourful lanterns are being hung not only in temples but also in all cities. They decorate not only the area of the temples but also the road that leads to them. In cities, lanterns hang along main streets and on the largest squares. In Seoul, they were also hung along the entire Cheonggyecheon Stream, which is a tourist attraction in itself.
Grand ornate paper lanterns are exhibited in the main Buddhist temples. They depict various characters and forms. The theme can be deities, animals, children, historical characters, movie characters or even – characters from fairy tales. All lanterns are beautiful and the way they are made can be considered as works of art. After sunset magic begins, because all the lanterns are illuminated from the inside and shine with vibrant colours. Visiting the city and temples during this period is a great experience. Nothing looks realistic, the blaze of colours and the magic of lights are breath-taking.
In Seoul, the main places where grand ornate lanterns are exhibited are the Jogyesa Temple, Bongeunsa Temple and the Cheonggyecheon Stream.
Lotus Lantern Festival Day
The day when the Lotus Lantern Festival takes place – falls 8 days before the Buddha’s birthday. On this day a great parade passes through the city with thousands of participants carrying lighted lanterns. During the march, all big lanterns prepared for that day are also presented.
Official figures say that there are 300,000 residents and around 50,000 guests from abroad attending the festival.
Buddhist Cheer Rally
All the celebrations, however, begin with a Buddhist Cheer Rally. In Seoul, at the stadium of Dongguk University, all participants of the parade meet. It is a feast of laughter and joy.
On the main stage, there are children presenting folk dances in national costumes and all dance groups that will take part in the parade. The most important guests sit at the honorary places. They are representing various Buddhist schools from around the world. All guests are dressed in their traditional Buddhist robes, characteristic of the countries they came from. I saw many of them, but remember the most representatives from Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, China and Nepal.
At the stadium, there are also all those who are associated with individual temples and Buddhist schools. The majority of them are lay followers of Buddhism, however, dressed in festive costumes. Many women are dressed in traditional Korean hanbok type costumes that day.
Everybody in the stadium has with them small paper lanterns, characteristic of the school they represent. All these lanterns will also be presented during the solemn parade.
During preparations, some moderators appear on the stage and teach all folk dances. Learning takes place with the sounds of loud music and the singing of the crowd. Everyone gathered in the stadium is laughing, dancing and having fun – also such guests are us.
anyone can enter this event
Yes, anyone can enter the stadium. There are no entrance tickets or invitations needed. You can sit anywhere, but you must reckon with the fact that around you will sit people in festive costumes and with lanterns in their hands. It is important not to disturb anyone. We were treated very kindly, we got seating pads to put on concrete benches, we were given some cookies and grapes. During the rehearsal of folk dances – I was dancing along with the rest of the people gathered at the stadium. It was an unexpected experience, extraordinary impressions, unforgettable adventure.
Preparations at the stadium start at 4.30 p.m. and last 1.5 hours
Lotus lantern parade
At 7.00 p.m., a solemn parade sets off from the stadium of Dongguk University. Participants march along Jongno Street, and the entire march lasts about 1.5 hours. On this day Jongno Street is closed to traffic. Bus stops streetlights and all road barriers that are standing in the middle of the road “depart” from the entire width of the road. It’s hard to believe but it takes only one day to prepare the street for this festival. Bus stops and lanterns are standing there on special movable large platforms. On this special day – they are taken from the middle of the road and set aside in neighbouring streets.
Along the entire road, on both sides, there are thousands of plastic chairs with backrests. They are arranged in three rows and you can sit on them according to the principle: “first come first served”. We took seats in the first row about an hour before the parade began.
Before we saw the colourful crowd of festival-goers, first we could hear singing, prayer bells and musical instruments that the participants of the march had with them.
This festival is a great cultural event. Laughing and dancing crowd – positive and smiling people. In front of us, there were marching more than a few thousand people dressed in colourful costumes, carrying lighted lanterns. Participants were marching in groups; each group represented their school or temple. Guests from abroad also had national flags with them.
However, the biggest impression on us was made by the show of grand ornate lanterns. Some of them were towed on special platforms. Some of them were carried on the shoulders of the participants. The largest of them were transported on specially prepared car trailers.
All grand ornate lanterns were beautiful and the largest of them aroused admiration and great ovation of the viewers. Figures of The Four Heavenly Kings of Korean Temple Gates made a special impression.
The movable dragon that breathed fire and the beautiful peacock with the tail spread that flickered with colourful lights also aroused great admiration.
Appeared among others white elephant, tigers, big drums and an impressive dragon boat.
Everyone waved at us and we waved at them. My blonde hair stood out against the background of residents, so many people greeted me with a special hand gesture, popular in Korea, meaning love.
Few people stopped in front of me and gave me their lantern, shaped like a lotus flower. It’s a wonderful and touching gesture. At the end of the day, I had three such lanterns.
After passing the parade, all participants gather at Gwanghwamun Plaza, at the Jonggak metro station (line 1). From 9.30 p.m. to 11.00 p.m. there is great urban fun. They come together to end the festivities in a spirit of dedicating one’s merits to others. Buddhist entertainers put on a show and the audience gets into the act, dancing hand in hand. On the stage that is set up especially for this day, there are artists and the same fun moderators we saw earlier during rehearsals at the stadium.
Finally, I had the opportunity to show what I have learned earlier today. Artists on stage played and sang the same songs that I had learned to dance at the stadium. Finally, I could feel the energy of the city, the positive vibrations of the people gathered around me, and the child’s joy of knowing steps and dancing with the locals 😊.
Along Jonggak Street, all the grand ornate lanterns taking part in the parade were exhibited. It is possible to look at them closely and take a picture. All lanterns were beautifully illuminated. You could see all the smallest details and appreciate the high skills of craftsmanship.
We entered the Jogyess Temple for a while, which looked stunning that evening. Above the temple hung a colourful roof woven of a thousand lanterns. Inside there was an amazing atmosphere and the visitors of the temple that day were accompanied by reverie, admiration and calm.
City by night
When the party ended, all grand ornate lanterns were packed into cars and parade attendees went home. We were returning to the hotel tired but full of impressions. We did not take with us those lanterns that I have received from festival participants that day. All of them had a burning candle inside, so I knew I couldn’t take them to the hotel. After taking the pictures, I gave them to a nice girl who ran to me and asked if I could give them to her.
On the way back to the hotel, we noticed that Jongno Street, which the entire procession had recently gone through, was almost completely ready for use. Bus stops, lanterns and road barriers returned to their original place. Almost all chairs were taken from the street and stacked on the trucks. We were surprised by how many people worked at night to clean up after the party. We were impressed by the very efficient organization of the entire undertaking and … cleanliness of the streets and pavements. Despite the thousands of people who marched this street during the festival, there was nowhere rubbish, drink cups or abandoned lanterns. We were really impressed.
Traditional Cultural Events
A day after the Lantern Festival, and a week before the Buddha’s official date of birth, the Traditional Cultural Festival takes place. The festival takes place from 12.00 to 6.00 p.m. In Seoul, all booths are set up along the street leading to the Jogyessa Temple. It is the largest temple of the Jogye Seoul Order and is one of the most thriving Buddhist schools in Korea.
On this day, all Buddhist schools that came to the Lotus Lantern Festival – display their information booths. There are one hundred exhibits where you can find out about the possibility of visiting a given school or about the principles of its functioning. You can also buy small souvenirs prepared by each school: guides, tea, cookies, temple food, herbs and hand-made paintings. It is also possible to learn their Buddhist art techniques, how to meditate or even receive a simple massage tip.
However, the real curiosity of the day is street multiculturalism. All honourable guests are dressed in their national Buddhist robes: in white, orange or red clothes.
A cultural festival is taking place on the street. In the central place, there is a stage where numerous folklore performances take place: mainly dances and martial arts shows.
People sit on the street and represent various fields of art: painting with a brush on silk, glueing lanterns, painting flowers or drawing mandalas with colourful grains of sand.
A great place, close contact with local culture, an unforgettable experience.
Buddha’s birthday celebrations (Seokgatansinil) are very festive. That day is a sacred moment in Buddhist temples. In all main temples, a joint meal is prepared for monks who live in the temples and for the faithful who will visit the temple that day. Inside, in front of the Buddha statues are placed bowls with sacrificial rice grains and fruit.
In front of the main temple, there is a small statue erected, symbolizing the young Buddha. Visitors take water from a bowl placed next to it and pour it on the statue of a small Buddha. This ritual symbolizes the purification of sins.
There are tables set up in the temple grounds, and since early in the morning monks and lay employees prepare a small free refreshment: bamboo or seasonal fruit juice, fruit, rice and tea. Everyone can taste it. Again, there are no restrictions or regulations. You can visit any temple on this day. You can walk around and take pictures. However, your visit should be short and quiet.
Since early in the morning you can hear the sounds of the wooden knockers used by monks, songs and prayers. That keeps in mind not to disturb those who want to take part in the festivities. Due to the large number of visitors, benches or chairs are placed outside so that everyone can sit down.
Also, that day you can order a prayer or simply enter your name on a piece of paper. The card will be hung by temple staff on lanterns hanging over the temple. This is to guarantee happiness and success. This service is paid and quite expensive (about 12,5$), but it is one of the temple’s methods of earning money.
We have spent a Buddha’s Birthday at the Donghaksa Temple in Gongju. More about the visit to that place, I will write in my next post.
Lotus Lantern Festival 2021
In 2021, the main activities are scheduled for May 15th -16th, 2021, although the exhibition of the traditional lanterns will start as of April. The solemn parade will pass through the city on May 15th, and the Cultural Festival will take place on May 16th.
The Buddha’s birthday will be celebrated on May 19th.
Detailed information about the event, addresses and maps can be found on the lotus lantern festival official website: llf.or.kr
Lotus Lantern Festival – can’t be missed
Without any doubts – coming to South Korea just during the Lantern Festival week was an excellent decision. Taking part in the festivities allowed us to get to know better the local culture, history and customs. From the entire stay in South Korea, this event was the most important to us. We had the opportunity to experience close interpersonal relationships. We had fun together, celebrated the joy of life and shared mutual acceptance.
Koreans are often said to be conservative and not very friendly to foreigners. However, if you make a little effort and spend a few days with them, e.g. during such cultural events – it will open the door to mutual respect, understanding and many expressions of kindness. Unforgettable moments, great emotions and priceless memories that will stay in our hearts forever.
UNESCO Heritage List – update 12.2020
At the end of 2020, the United Nations announced, that a famous festival from South Korea has received very special recognition. UNESCO decided to add South Korea’s Lotus Lantern Festival to the list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The Lotus Festival was one of 25 things the UN decided to add to its heritage list this year.
A spokesperson said: “We will try to make the festival a cultural heritage that can be loved by people around the world regardless of their religion.”
SOUTH KOREA – MY OTHER POSTS
I also encourage you to read my other posts about Seoul and South Korea: