Over a 100,000 lanterns ranging in shape from tigers, elephants and birds to lotus flowers and mythical creatures could be seen this past weekend in the ever amazing Lotus Lantern Festival in celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Traditionally celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, this year Buddha’s birthday falls on May 28th. Since the beginning of the month lanterns have been strung up throughout the country to get everyone in the festive spirit and that spirit could certainly be felt throughout the crowds that filled the streets from Dongdaemun to Jogyesa Temple on Saturday for the lantern illuminations.
Buddhism was first introduced to Korea in 372, a time when the main religion was Shamanism. Seeing no conflict between Buddhism and the nature worshipping of Shamanism, a special kind of Buddhism emerged. The fundamental teachings of Buddha combined with the three highly regarded spirits of Shamanism to produce Korean Buddhism. Still today, shrines worshipping the Shamanistic spirits Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, Toksong, the Recluse, and Chilsong, the Spirit of the Seven Stars or the Big Dipper, can be seen in many Buddhist temples around the country. Korean Buddhism was at its height during the Goryeo Dynasty, which reigned from 918 to 1392, but suffered a long repression during the Joseon Dynasty that would last some 500 years and it wouldn’t gain importance again until after WWII. Today, some 25% of the Korean population practices Buddhism.
The festival manages to bring together some 300,000 people, some Buddhist, some not Buddhist, many Korean, many foreign. It has become one of the biggest draws in the country for not only religious reasons but also for cultural and artistic reasons. Being able to trace this particular festival all the way back to the Silla Kingdom that reigned from 57BC to 935AD, it has a long history and as such this year it was also officially designated as an intangible cultural heritage by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea. This designation came after many months of discussion over whether the festival still holds the same traditional practices as it did during the days of the Silla Kingdom. Ultimately, it was decided that the practices being the same were not as important as the fact that this festival has lasted over time and, though changing with the people, has held a place in the peoples’ hearts.
The parade lasts for about two and a half hours with lanterns starting in Dongdaemun and making their way down Jongno Street to Jogyesa Temple. Even before the parade officially starts the parade participants gather together in Dongguk University Stadium for the Buddhist Cheer Rally, or Eoulim Madang, to get in the spirit of what they will partake in. Together for an hour and a half to laugh and dance surely makes that first step for the parade that much more exciting. The parade begins at 7, but to get a good seat, in the seats that are provided along the route, it is best to arrive a half hour to an hour early depending where on the route you plan to be. The closer to Jogyesa Temple you get, the earlier you should plan to arrive. Finally, to wrap up the parade, at 9:30 at the Jonggak Intersection participants in the parade and spectators enjoy a huge dance party under a shower of flower petals. The dancing and laughing lasts for an hour and a half in the spirit of dedicating one’s merit to others. Before leaving the area, make sure to see Jogyesa Temple with a ceiling of lit up lanterns to end the night.