This weekend is the annual Lotus Lantern Festival here in Seoul in celebration of Buddha’s Birthday. It’s an event not to be missed. In my almost seven years here, I think it is the only event that I have attended every year. I’ve done everything from take part in the many cultural experience booths to make the small and large lotus lanterns, Buddhist beaded bracelets, and masks to watching the parade and finally ending by dancing in the finale party under thousands of lotus petals falling from the sky. It runs for two days and this year, I am a part of the first group of foreign volunteers to help with the event. Look for me in a white traditional Korean shirt on the street in front of Jogyesa Temple. Each member of my team will be conducting interviews with festival attendees and if you help us with the interview, you get a special gift! Other teams in our group will be providing assistance in different languages at booths along the street to those that hope to make some Buddhist gifts to take home. We’ll be dancing as well and if you’re nearby, certainly don’t hesitate to jump in!
The Lotus Lantern Festival, called Yeon Deung Hoe in Korean, will celebrate Buddha’s birthday, which is next Friday, May 17th. The festival will bring together over 300,000 people, some Buddhist, some not Buddhist, many Korean and many foreign. This is a festival that truly brings everyone together and is a great event to remember how close we all really are.
This festival can be traced all the way back to the Silla Kingdom period in Korea (57BC - 935AD) and as such was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Cultural Heritage Administration in Korea. It draws one of the biggest crowds of any event in Korea and is important not only for religious reasons but also for cultural and artistic reasons as well.
Saturday evening is the highlight of the whole festival, the lantern parade. The parade will start with a Buddhist Cheer Rally, or Eoulim Madang, at Dongguk University Stadium. Here all of the people who will carry the lanterns in the parade will dance in unison to prepare. There will be a ceremony to bath the baby Buddha, and a Dharma ceremony to start everyone off.
The actual parade will begin at 7 on Jongno Street in Dongdaemun and will end at Jogyesa Temple. Spectators will be able to see floats in the shapes of elephants for the Bodhisattva of Action, the baby Buddha in a Palanquin Lion for the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and the Four Guardians as well as many many more big and small floats and lanterns that will light up the night sky for two hours. The lanterns are made by more than 100,000 Buddhists at more than 100 temples.
The parade starts at 7, however chairs will be set up for spectators along the route a couple hours before and I suggest getting there early to get a good seat. I have generally tried to get there an hour earlier or more to get a seat in the front row. Also, as the final celebration will be celebrated at the intersection where Jonggak Station is, those seats will be taken much earlier. Don’t fret though, grab a seat closer to the beginning of the route and then you can follow the parade to the party once they pass.There are areas specifically designated for foreigners to make sure you get a seat, but in my experience, you can sit anywhere. It’s really first come first served, except in the VIP section which is designated for certain special guests in front of Pagoda Park.
After the parade, don’t leave! There’s an opportunity for you to get involved as well. The Post-Parade Celebration, Hoehyang Hanmadang, will take place in front of Bosin-gak at the Jonggak intersection. There will be concerts and to get everyone good and happy a huge train dance, as they call it here. Be ready to jump in to the line and hold on as the train goes and goes until finally the best part at the very end when the petals rain down on everyone. A great way to spend a Saturday night.
Sunday, from 12 to 7 the street in front of Jogyesa Temple, from Anguk to the Jonggak intersection will be covered with cultural experience booths. People can make their own lantern, A Buddhist bracelet, a traditional doll, a traditional mask and learn about not only Korean Buddhism but Buddhism in Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka and other places near and far. There is tons to experience and it’s great for families and friends.
There will be performances and concerts along the street as well and even a mini parade in the evening if you didn’t make it out on Saturday night.