It’s been quite a few years since Buddha walked the earth, but his life and example are still celebrated across the world. Although each country honors the icon a bit differently, nowhere can you get a more thrilling crash course in all things Buddha than at Seoul’s annual Lotus Lantern Festival. For three glorious days in May, when the big guy’s turns a year older, Korea pulls out all the stops and throws the best birthday party ever.
Although the festival begins Friday evening with the traditional lantern exhibition at Bongeunsa Temple, things don’t really get moving until the song and dance-filled Eoulim Hanmadang (Opening Celebration) the following day. However, if you can only squeeze in one event, the Lotus Lantern Parade is by far the must see. The 2.5 hour parade runs from Dongdaemun History and Culture Park down Jongno Street to Joygesa Temple and literally brings the city to a standstill.
Imagine more than 100,000 locals in traditional dress (hanbok) carrying illuminated lanterns in the shape of flowers, fruits, animals and other Buddhist symbols down one of Seoul’s busiest streets. It’s truly a magical sight. Tapgol Park near Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station is the best bet for a perfect view of the festivities.
The paper and silk lotus lanterns don’t just make for great photo ops; they are an important reminder of Buddha’s life and mission – symbolizing wishes for health, long life and abundance. Buddhism dictates that, in the lighting of a lotus lantern, one commits to doing good in the world and being a proverbial light in the darkness. It’s a wonderful opportunity for followers to focus and rededicate themselves to the tenets of Buddhism. The ceremony has been a staple of the Korean calendar as far back as the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, and is as much a celebration of Korean heritage as it is of Buddha’s birth.
Following the parade is Hoehyang Hanmadang, or simply the post-parade celebration. The Hoehyang Hanmadang is a flurry of events and performances culminating with the traditional ganggangsullae (basically a big, tricky word for a circle dance). Take the opportunity to grab a stranger’s hand while you dance and sing amidst scattered flower petals. End the night with the great lantern release. Traditionally, wishes and resolutions (seowon) are jotted down on small scraps of paper and burned as thousands of wish lanterns float up into the night sky. The evening ends with the Yeondeungnori (Final Celebration) procession from Insa-dong to the front of Jogyesa Temple.
Generally held on the final afternoon of the three-day event, the Buddhist Street Festival and performances near Jogyesa Temple are also worth checking out. Visitors can stroll through more than 100 booths highlighting various aspects of Buddhist culture. This is the place to perfect your Buddhist bow, take part in tea ceremony demonstrations, practice Zen meditation and breathing or paint your very own Buddha portrait. If that hasn’t satisfied your Zen lust make your own lantern, taste temple dishes or strike up a conversation with a friendly monk. A tip: they’re the ones in grey who can’t seem to stop smiling.