Of course, you’ll need to do a little research to find out on what day the 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.
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!
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.
What can you do for Buddha’s birthday?
- 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.
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.
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…
- 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. Click here to see our story on that experience at Inwang-san.