Korea’s annual Yeondeunghoe (연등회) festival of light, popularly known as the Lotus Lantern Festival and traditionally held in the spring to mark the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha, illuminated downtown Seoul on Saturday in a blaze of light and color. As the local government lifted all remaining pandemic restrictions earlier in May, this year’s festival of light was the first full-scale celebration since the outbreak of COVID-19, with some sources describing it as the biggest ever. The theme for this year’s lantern festival was “Peace of the Mind: The World of Buddha.”
To celebrate the Buddha’s 2,567th birthday on 27 May, major Buddhist temples and public spaces in downtown Seoul have been illuminated by thousands of delicate paper lotus lanterns. Notable among them, a host of colorfully glowing paper light offerings have been on display at the 14th century Jogye Temple in central Seoul, the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country’s largest Buddhist order. Although related events have been held since 11 May, Yeondeunghoe proper began on 20 May, with festivities and activities continuing through to 27 May when formal Dharma ceremonies will be held.
Sheyun, a young woman visiting from the city of Daegu, and who described herself as nominally atheist with Buddhist leanings, told BDG that the celebration in Seoul was much larger and longer than the festival held in her hometown, with more elaborate festivities.
“It was nice to see the bustling markets and commercial areas filled with people,” Sheyun explained. “When I visited Gwangjang Market, there were so many people. Although it was a bit crowded with little room to walk, it created a festive atmosphere. In Korea, even if one is not a Buddhist, there are many people who hold warm feelings toward Buddhism and feel a sense of closeness. I feel the same way, and that’s why I enjoy visiting Buddhist sites.”
Among the numerous cultural events, displays, and performances at Buddhist temples and public venues, for many people, Buddhists and non-buddhists alike, the highlight of the festival is the spectacular Yeondeunghoe lantern parade, during which tens of thousands of elaborate paper-and-frame illuminations travel a three-kilometer route through downtown Seoul, borne by representatives from a multitude of Buddhist traditions from across Asia. Such is its popularity, the lantern parade has become as much a social and cultural event as a religious celebration.
“I was surprised how large and sophisticated some of the lanterns are. They’re just made out of paper, but the designs are very elaborate, bright, and colorful,” Jeehung, a resident of Seoul who came to enjoy the festival, told BDG. “Seeing so many people come out to enjoy themselves was really heartwarming, I personally don’t have any religion, but among the various religions, I like Buddhism the most!”
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), “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.
Described as the largest festival of its kind in the world, visitors to the annual Yeondeunghoe celebration have been recorded as exceeding 350,000, including local residents and 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.
“For me this is the second time I’ve attended Yeondeunghoe—the first time was almost 15 years ago!” said Erin, a Buddhist participant from Seoul. “The lanterns nowadays are much brighter and more beautiful. I really enjoyed that now we can close the streets for the parade, it gives us much more fun and freedom; that was very impressive.”
“This is the first time I’ve attended the parade. I just returned to Korea last year from living in New York, so I’d never seen it before,” Seoul resident Jihea told BDG. “When I lived in Korea before, I wasn’t a Buddhist, so I wasn’t very interested. But now my favorite part was the traditional music and dancing when everyone gathered in the courtyard of Jogye Temple. Everyone was getting along together, singing together, moving together. It was wonderful!”
In December 2020, 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 that 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 Yeondeunghoe 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.
The lantern festival has been canceled only three times in modern Korean 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. Although the festival resumed in 2022, post-pandemic, it was only at about 70 per cent of its normal scale due to continuing restrictions.
According to data for 2022, the majority of South Korea’s population—50 per cent—holds no religious affiliation. Christians make up the largest religious segment of the population at 31 per cent, while Buddhists account for 17 per cent.
Related news reports from BDG
Korea Resumes Annual Lantern Festival to Celebrate the Birth of the Buddha
Korean Buddhists Cancel Lotus Lantern Festival as Pandemic Caution Lingers
UNESCO Lists Korea’s Buddhist Lantern Festival as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity