Buddha’s Birthday

Today is the day that Koreans celebrate Buddha’s Birthday (석가탄신일), an important date in the Buddhist calendar enjoyed across Korea by those from all religions and walks of life. This day is about prayers, hope, and light.

Buddhist temples all over Korea are decorated with lanterns throughout May, in the lead-up to this sacred day. On the day itself, they open themselves up to members of the public, who are offered tea and a basic meal of vegetables and rice or bibimbap. There are usually activities such as lantern hanging or candle lighting that visitors can participate in. This makes for a wonderful and unique day out for couples, groups, or families.

Whilst in Korea, I visited Seoul on the weekend before Buddha’s Birthday. The entire city was lit-up with the most fantastic lanterns including those in the shapes of birds and dragons. Cheonggyecheon stream took on a whole new persona, and was simply beautiful against the evening city twilight.

The photographs below do not do the decorative lanterns justice, but give an idea of just how illuminated, and illuminating, Seoul was on that evening.

Later on, there was a carnival atmosphere and a huge parade, which included lanterns of all shapes, sizes, colours, and designs. These were accompanied by graceful lantern bearers, energetic dancers, and those wearing a variety of traditional dress.

This really contrasts to the day of Buddha’s Birthday itself, which was far more calm, solemn, and pensive. We cycled to our local temple, which was laden with beautiful flowers, banners and sashes, not to mention (far more basic, but still delightful) lanterns.

This was the first time (of many) that I had visited a Buddhist temple, and I was struck its serene and soothing qualities, as well as by how inviting and welcoming it was.

Along with other temple-goers, we were handed white lanterns and pens. We wrote prayers, wishes, and positive messages on each lantern, and then hung them alongside many others, before lighting them with the help of the monks. Although most of the other lantern messages were written in Hangeul (which I couldn’t read at the time), it was really heart-warming to see so many symbols of love and peace, and well-wishes for the future in one place.  

By the time we left, it had started to get dark, and the lanterns looked gorgeous against a brooding grey sky.

Like the other Korean special days in May, this day represents respect and celebration. Of course, it is also a religious holiday with deeper meaning. To me, Buddha’s Birthday is a day of peace. If you can, take some time to make wishes or prayers today.

Happy Birthday Buddha!

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