Korea to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday virtually May 19

Photos: 123RF
Photos: 123RF

Korea to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday virtually May 19

by ChiHon Kim
Stripes Korea

Every spring, millions of people across South Korea gather 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.

The widely celebrated public holiday falls on May. 19 this year, but, with the pandemic still to be reckoned with, the festival will go virtual again this year.

Known as “Seokga tansinil” which literally means Buddha’s birthday, the holiday’s official name was changed to “Bucheonim oshin nal” in 2017.

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, you can hang your own lotus lantern after you write your name and wish on it.

As last year, I plan to practice social distancing on the day of Buddha’s Coming with instant bibimbap instead. I will definitely miss spending time with my family in my hometown this year.

The holiday will be a reminder of Buddha’s extreme measures of eating only rice and sesame seeds a day for seven years to reach a state of enlightenment. Perhaps after this pandemic I might not reach this level, but it is clear that I will be more appreciative of once-simple things I took for granted, like being able to have bibimbap with my mom and brother.

Other countries in Asia also celebrate Buddha with variations on the dates as these depend on the calendars and historical records used.

Keep this event on your radar whether for this year or for 2022 as it is a great cultural event known for its brightly colored decorations and delicious bibimbap.

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