Celebrate Buddha’s birthday May 12

by ChiHon Kim
Stripes Korea

Every spring, millions of people across South Korea come together to celebrate “The Day of Buddha’s Coming,” illuminating the streets with colorful lotus lanterns that symbolically convey the wisdom and compassion of the sage, while temples hold cultural performances and spectacular parades. Though Buddhism and Christianity are major religions in the country, Buddha’s birthday is a public holiday that is widely celebrated by Koreans. This year the holiday day falls on May 12.

This holiday is known as “Seokga tansinil” which literally means Buddha’s birthday, but the official name of day was changed to “bucheonim oshin nal” in 2017. The holiday serves as an opportunity to learn more about Buddhism and enjoy Korean temple food.

For my brother and I, this time of year meant my mother was taking us to different temples for the festivities and best of all – the bibimbap.

Bibimbap, a popular rice and vegetable dish in Korea, is a standard offering at these festivals.  During the celebrations, most of the temples offer complimentary or cheap temple food ($1-2), tea and other refreshments. Though my family is not Buddhist, we have never missed the opportunity to enjoy the festivals and great food served on the holiday.

Besides delicious food, Buddhist temples also host traditional Korean games and performances, such as mask dances or acrobatic shows. Enjoy the vibrantly colored, lotus-shaped lanterns that hang over the temple grounds and surrounding streets. For a small fee, hang your own lotus lantern after you write your name and wish on it.

Other countries also have birthday celebrations for Buddha, but due to variances in calendars and historical records, the date of the celebration differs from country to country.

Whether you’re in Korea or any other country in the Pacific, the holiday is truly both a spectacle for the eyes and a wonderful way to compare the similarities and differences like food and culture among the neighboring countries and even between local temples. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn more about Buddhism and enjoy some delicious bibimbap in South Korea this year.

Upcoming Lotus Lantern festivals in Seoul
Exhibition of Traditional Lanterns: Come and absorb the spirit of the lanterns! With soft, lovely light, the lanterns convey the aspirations and careful attention to detail of their creators. Schedule and location: Friday, May 3 to Sunday, May 12. Location: Jogye-sa, Bongeun-sa, Cheonggyecheon
Lantern Parade: Thousands of Lotus lanterns brighten the heart of Seoul.  Behold a brilliant ocean of light from the countless handheld lanterns and the grand ornate lantern floats in the festival’s main attraction. Not to be missed, Schedule and location: Saturday, May 4 from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.  From Heunginjimun Gate to Jogyesa temple Seoul’s Jongno district.

Information from Yeon Deung Hoe, Lotus lantern festival official website: http://www.llf.or.kr/eng/info/festival.php?wr_id=7

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