Celebrating Buddha’s birthday festival in Seoul a travel highlight

by Apr 7, 2016South Korea

Buddha’s birthday festival in Seoul, South Korea, was one of the highlights of our visit there. Here are the best things to do in Seoul during Buddha’s birthday festival.

Widely celebrated in many Asian countries, Buddha’s birthday festival in Seoul, South Korea, was one of the highlights of our visit there. We took part in temple celebrations, Buddha blessings and washings, were awed by colorful lanterns and candles, and attended parades…. Take the time to be part of Buddha’s birthday celebration. You won’t regret it.

buddha's birthday festival at Jogyesa temple under thousands of colorful lanterns

Lanterns engulfing a tree in the courtyard at Jogye-sa Temple create a mysterious glow at night. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

Of course, you’ll need to do a little research to find out on what day Buddha’s birthday festival falls each year unless you know the Chinese lunar calendar by heart. The holiday is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month, according to that Chinese calendar, meaning Buddha’s birthday festival in Seoul can fall sometime between late April and late May. In 2015, it was May 25. I discovered this date prior to booking our flight there in 2015 and extended our stay a couple of days so we could experience the celebration.

Buddha's birthday festival and lotus lantern displays

Lotus lanterns on display in a park next door to Jogye-sa Temple for Buddha’s birthday in Seoul. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

You’ll also need to be prepared for crowds at Buddha’s birthday festival in Seoul, and you’ll want to book any lodging and travel early. The day – also called the Festival of Lanterns or the Lotus Lantern Festival — is a public holiday as well as a time of celebration for 23 percent of the South Korean population that is Buddhist. A 1,300-year-old tradition celebrating the life and enlightenment of Buddhism’s founder Siddhartha Gautama, the lantern lighting is supposed to brighten the hearts of participants as well as brighten the world. We’re all for that!

Buddha's birthday festival at Jogye-sa Temple in Seoul

Crowds pack the courtyard with its “lantern ceiling” at Jogye-sa Temple hours prior to festivities. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

Lantern lightings for Buddha’s birthday festival

Most of the celebrations and lantern lightings start about a week prior to the big day, although lotus-shaped lanterns are hung all around the city starting weeks ahead of time. The Lotus Lantern Festival’s official website can also be of help in planning for your experience at the Buddha’s birthday festival.


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HITT Tip: The official tourist office for Korea, Visit Korea, has a good summary of events for 2016 on its site , and we expect it would have one live in a timely manner for other years too. Here is the link to the Visit Korea home page also. Or try the Visit Seoul tourist office if you are just in that city. 

What can you do for Buddha’s birthday?

Buddha's birthday festival prayers

In prayer at a Buddhist temple on the path to Inwang-san shamanist shrine. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

  • Visit temples – We particularly recommend the large, central Jogye-sa Temple in Seoul  where some of the main celebrations take place. We were floored at the masses of people the entire weekend at and around temples, the lanterns and lights that covered the sky, the lit displays and other performances. Take it all in both during the day and in the evening.
  • Attend parades and cultural performances – The lantern parade is about a week prior to the day Buddha’s birthday is celebrated. And cultural events are also in and around town as well as in front of the Jogye-sa Temple the weekend prior.
  • Walk through traditional lantern displays – Also in and around Jogye-sa Temple and the nearby Insadong neighborhood or Tagpol Park.
  • Just stroll around and soak in the serene air and bright colors! Keep your eyes open for lotus lanterns since they are hung everywhere, and nearly no two are alike.
Buddha's birthday festival

Lotus lanterns and blessings hung in a temple. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

Just because the big celebrations focus in and around Jogye-sa does not mean that’s the only place to experience the joy and color of Buddha’s birthday festival in South Korea. The Bongeun-sa Temple on the opposite side of the river farther south of there is another location for celebrations and lantern lightings.

Buddha's birthday prayers at Daegaksa Temple

We stumbled across the Daegaksa Temple accessed through an alley near the Shamhwa Paint Store just north of the Jongno station and jewelry shopping street. The monk invited us in for his evening prayers. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

HITT Tip: If you haven’t planned your schedule in the week prior to Buddha’s Birthday in Seoul, just wander on over to Jogye-sa Temple. You’ll be sure to find something to see there. To get there, take Line 3 (orange) to Anguk station and take exit 6 to walk south. You can also take Line 1 (purple) to Jonggak station and take exit 2 to walk north (a bit farther). Or to take in Tagpol Park on the way, take Line 1 to Jongmo station, and take exit 1 or 2 to walk east then north (or even north then east). Please refer to a map (like our map below) to help you maneuver the streets.

Think beyond scheduled events on calendars:

  • We came across a nearly private Buddha’s Birthday celebration in the small Daegaksa Temple temple hidden on a side street and was invited in by the monk to experience evening prayers and participate in the traditional washing of Buddha. Which we found out later we did all wrong…. Oh well…
Buddha's birthday festival at Jogyesa temple bathing baby Buddha

Traditional washing of baby Buddha at Jogye-sa Temple. (photo by Therese Iknoian)

  • On a fun albeit rather arduous hike at Bukhansen north of town, we were several hours up the mountain when we came across a temple and a display of Buddha statues, not to mention lanterns along the way.
  • We even came across lanterns and prayers on our way up to the Inwang-san shamanist temple.
Buddha's birthday festival lanterns

Lanterns along the steep, rocky trail toward Bukhansen peak. (photo by Michael Hodgson)

HITT Tip: IF you want to learn more about Buddhism in South Korea prior to experiencing Buddha’s birthday festival in Seoul, take a look at koreanbuddhism.net.



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