Korea’s annual Yeondeunghoe (연등회), a festival of light popularly known as the Lotus Lantern Festival and traditionally held in the spring to celebrate the birth of the Buddha, has been canceled for a second consecutive year due to concern over the ongoing pandemic, Korea’s Buddhist community announced on Saturday.
The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country’s largest Buddhist order, said that the famed lantern parade, which was scheduled to have taken place on 15 May, four days before observations to commemorate the birth the historical Buddha, would no longer go ahead amid a recent upturn in the daily number of recorded COVID-19 infections.
The Buddhist community in South Korea traditionally holds a three-day lantern-lighting festival to celebrate the birth of the Buddha, with the highlight of the event an illuminated parade through downtown Seoul. This year, Buddha’s birthday, which falls on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Lunar calendar, will be observed on 19 May in South Korea. Buddhist temples may choose to hold individual small-scale events to mark the occasion or hold services and ceremonies online.
Despite the suspension of major public events, the Korea Herald newspaper reported that a traditional lantern exhibition would still be held around Bongeun-sa, an eighth-century Buddhist temple in downtown Seoul, as well as the city’s Cheonggyecheon waterway and public park from 14 May, with social distancing measures in place. In addition, the lighting of a pagoda in celebration of Buddha’s birth will take place on 28 April in front of Seoul City Hall with limited public attendance.
The annual Yeondeunghoe lantern parade, which usually sees more than 100,000 lanterns borne along a three-kilometer route through the streets of Seoul, has long been the traditional centerpiece of the festival, which also includes a variety cultural events, displays, and performances at Buddhist temples and public venues. Described as the largest festival of its kind in the world, visitors to the annual event have been recorded as exceeding 350,000, including local residents and foreign tourists. The annual celebration can be interpreted as sharing the light of wisdom, compassion, and peace with the world, as well as hopes and wishes for happiness and social harmony.
In December last year, Yeondeunghoe: Lantern Lighting Festival in the Republic of Korea, was confirmed as an intangible cultural heritage during the 15th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.* South Korea is now home to 21 UNESCO intangible heritage assets, including ssireum (traditional Korean wrestling), kimjang (the making and sharing of kimchi), the folk song “Arirang,” the royal ancestral rites and ritual music of the Jongmyo shrine, and pansori narrative folk songs.
By assigning Intangible Cultural Heritage status, UNESCO aims to help protect traditions, knowledge, and skills that have been passed along through generations, so they are not lost or forgotten with the passage of time.
“Lighting the lanterns . . . symbolizes enlightening the minds of individuals, communities, and all of society through [the] Buddha’s wisdom,” UNESCO explained. “The related knowledge and skills are mainly transmitted through Buddhist temples and communities, and the Yeondeunghoe Safeguarding Association plays a notable role through the organization of educational programs. The festival is a time of joy during which social boundaries are temporarily erased. In times of social difficulties, it plays a particularly important role in integrating society and helping people overcome the troubles of the day.” (UNESCO)
The lantern festival has a history that stretches back more than 1,200 years to Korea’s ancient Silla (신라) period (c. 57 BCE–935 CE). In the historical text Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), completed in 1145, during the Unified Silla kingdom (668–935), King Gyeongmun and Queen Jinseong visited Hwangnyong Temple to observe lanterns on the occasion of the first full moon of the year in 866 and 890.
Commemorations for the birth of Buddha, a public holiday in South Korea, are known as Bucheonim Osin Nal (부처님 오신 날) meaning “the day the Buddha came,” and Seokga Tansinil (석가탄신일) or “the Buddha’s birthday.” The festival is observed on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls during May, but last year fell on 30 April.
In May last year, Korea’s Buddhist community announced that the annual festival had been canceled as a precautionary measure following a cluster of COVID-19 infections in the Korean capital.** The lantern festival has been canceled only four times in modern history, including once in 1961, when martial law was proclaimed in Seoul during the April Revolution, and in 1980, during the Seoul Spring pro-democracy movement.
At the time of writing on 12 April, the Korean government, which was one of the fastest in the world in its response to contain the outbreak, has reported 110,146 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,770 deaths, with 100,804 people reported to have recovered.
According to census data for 2015, the majority of South Korea’s population—56.1 per cent—holds no religious affiliation. Christians make up the largest religious segment of the population at 27.6 per cent, while Buddhists account for 15.5 per cent.
* UNESCO Lists Korea’s Buddhist Lantern Festival as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Buddhistdoor Global)
** Korean Buddhists Cancel Lotus Lantern Festival as Pandemic Caution Lingers (Buddhistdoor Global)
Yeon Deung Hoe
Yeondeunghoe, lantern lighting festival in the Republic of Korea (UNESCO)
Yeondeunghoe canceled for second year due to pandemic (Yonhap News Agency)
Buddhist community cancels annual lantern parade amid pandemic (Korea Herald)
Annual Buddhist lantern parade canceled for second straight year (Korea JoongAng Daily)