World's Faithful Mark Buddha's Birthday

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World's Faithful Mark Buddha's Birthday

Event Schedule

Exhibition of Traditional Lanterns
Friday - May 3, 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Bongeun Temple in southern Seoul.

Street Events
Sunday, noon - 10 p.m., around Chogye Temple in Anguk-dong.

Lantern-Making and Tea Ceremony
Sunday, 2 p.m. - 5 p.m., in front of Korea First Bank head office near Jonggak station.

Watching and Joining a Lantern Parade
Sunday, 6:30 p.m., in front of Pagoda Park at Jongno 2-ga.

Lotus Lantern Festival
Sunday, Dongdaemun Soccer Stadium to Chogye Temple.

Opening Ceremony
Sunday, 4 p.m. - 6:30 p.m., Dongdaemun Stadium.

Lantern Parade
Sunday, 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. From Dongdaemun Stadium to Chogye Temple.

Closing Ceremony
Sunday, 10 p.m., in front of Chogye Temple.

Memorial Service
Next Tuesday, 10 a.m., Chogye Temple and all temples across the nation

Buddha is soon to turn the grand old age of 2,525. Since Buddhism entered Korean in 372, it has been an integral part of the Korean way of life along with Korea's indigenous shamanist religion. Buddhists believe that Buddha Sakyamuni was born on the eighth day of April by the lunar calendar, which falls on May 1 this year. In preparation for the celebrations, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist communities have been stringing colorful lanterns all over town, and excitement and anticipation for the big celebration is palpable on the streets.

The highlight of this holiday, which this year coincides with the national Labor Day holiday, will undoubtedly be the spectacular Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul. Along with floats and percussion troupes, over 100,000 lanterns of all colors and shapes will brighten the heart of the capital. Similar lanterns will light every nook and corner of the country.

The lantern is called a dipa in Sanskrit and deung in Korean. As prescribed in Buddhist teaching, lighting a lantern symbolizes the attainment of enlightenment and watching a lantern the brightening of our minds. "Pure mind, pure nation" is a motto derived from the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, which teaches that when you live an upright life, everyone around you becomes peaceful and at ease. Lotus flowers, which grow up from the mud and darkness to blossom in the sunlight, are a common symbol of reaching out from ignorance to enlightenment through Buddhism.

The tradition of lighting lanterns dates back to the period of the Three Kingdoms (4th-7th century), and continued through to the Koryo dynasty, whose leaders endorsed the lantern festivals as national events. Although the festivals were suppressed during Choson dynasty, they kept their roots in the traditions of the common people.

The factory-produced components of ready-to-assemble lanterns now hanging in the streets are made of plastic, wire and electric light bulbs; the traditional lanterns in old days were hand-made of delicate dyed rice paper or silk on bamboo frames and were lighted with animal fat or candles. To the faithful, lighting the lantern was one of the holiest religious rituals: The light centered along the wick meant their faith, the fire's consumption of the oil their generosity. The holder's clear thinking and compassion brightened the world, warding off the ignorance and greed of the mundane world. Making lanterns in the shape of lotus petals reenacts a person's aspiration to wisdom.

The appearance of the lantern was first recorded in 551 A.D. in the Shilla kingdom, and their popularity reached a climax in the Koryo dynasty, when parades of up to 10,000 lanterns took place.

One of the festivals celebrating Buddha's birthday includes an exhibition of traditional lanterns. Bongeun Temple in southern Seoul will offer visitors the chance to see over 40 different kinds of lanterns made in the shape of animals, flowers, fruits and mythical figures. Their exquisitely detailed craftsmanship and creativity make the traditional lanterns works of art. Understanding the symbolic meaning of various classic lanterns contributes to appreciating them.

The jongdeung (bell lanterns) reflects the metaphorical power of the ringing bell to awaken the populace. In Buddhist belief, the sounds of bells save sentient beings already in hell, putting a stop to their pain and suffering and draining their bad karma. The mogeodeung, in the shape of a large wooden fish that never sleeps, symbolizes the ardent practice of seon (zen) monks, who mediate with little sleep. It symbolizes the ascetic Buddhist monastic community. For a long and healthy life, turtle and crane lanterns were made; for prosperity and fertility, pomegranate, watermelon and garlic lanterns. A jar or vase lantern has the meaning of a "treasure jar," symbolizing harmoniousness both in the kingdom and at the hearth.

In order to revive and preserve the ancient tradition, since 1996 efforts were made to organize an official lotus lantern festival. These days, not many people have the time to make lanterns themselves, so temples make most lotus lanterns for people to buy. Anyone who wants a lantern must make a donation to the temple. Buddhists believe that the more generous we are, the happier we are. Once the lotus lanterns are purchased, participants write their wishes and family names on the lantern and hang them up in the temple grounds.

What makes this year's festival special is that some 3,000 lanterns are hanging at the ruins of Shingye Temple on Mount Kumgang in North Korea until May 15 as an expression of Koreans' desire for the reunification of the peninsula.

The Lotus Lantern Festival parade in Seoul will start from Dongdaemun Soccer Stadium on Sunday, and will be followed by an opening ceremony. The 90-minute memorial service will feature a Buddhist ceremony of conveyance, a bathing of Buddha ceremony, lantern lighting, performances by a choir and orchestra and a lantern and flag procession. Over 50,000 spectators are expected. The parade will include floats of white elephants, tigers, dragons and stupas along with performances by Korean traditional percussion troupes and the U.S. 8th Army band.

Events at the Chogye Temple grounds on Sunday include lantern making, wood engraving, making straw shoes, playing folk games and a lantern-making contest for foreign visitors. Visitors to this area will see tightrope walking, bompae or monk's songs, sonmudo (monks' martial arts) and various exhibitions. They can try Buddhist temple-style vegetarian food, view Buddhist paintings or buy souvenirs. For those who want to participate in the parade, a lotus lantern will be distributed at the information center in front of Pagoda Park in Jongno 2-ga on Sunday.

Next Tuesday, special services celebrating the birth of Buddha will be held in temples across the nation.

For more information about participating in the festival as an individual or in a group, contact Kim Youn-hee at 02-722-2206 (English service available) or visit the festival's official Web site (


To get to Chogye Temple, go to Jonggak station on subway line 1 or Anguk station on line 3.

To get to Jongno Street, go to Jonggak station on subway line 1.

To get to Dongdaemun Stadium station, take subway lines 2, 4 or 5

To get to Bongeun Temple, go to Samseong-dong station on subway line 1

by Ines Cho

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