Korea’s Lotus Lantern Festival

Previously while blogging about the Buddha’s Birthday in Japan, I stated that the celebration in Korea had already passed. Turns out I was way off (oops). The Buddha’s birthday or seokga tansinil (석가탄신일) is May 28 this year in accordance with the lunar calendar, and has lots of traditions leading up to it.

One famous tradition coming up this Saturday is a tradition called yeondeunghoe (연등회). According to the Yonhap News Agency, this is a festival that always comes before the Buddha’s birthday, and is called the Lotus Lantern Festival because it features a parade of floats that look like lotus-shaped lanterns.

Lotuses are very important symbols in Buddhism. As the Buddha said in the Pali Canon (AN 4.36, the Dona Sutta):

brahman: Then what sort of being are you?

The Buddha: “Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.’

–trans. by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Anyhow, I found this really nice site in English about the Lotus Lantern Festival. It explains that in the month leading up to the Buddha’s Birthday there are many family-friendly activities, and in the past, the festivities also served to pray for prosperity for the kingdom and for the well-being of others. There was of course lots of dancing, music and food to celebrate. Temples in Korea often open up and provide free meals and tea on the Buddha’s birthday itself.

I’d love to see it myself in person some day. The website above also has a nice photo gallery, and even a guide for making your own paper lotus. Check it out!

나무석가모니불

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Korea’s Lotus Lantern Festival”

  1. I’m really curious about the situation of Buddhism in South-Korea and what will become of it in the future. Because i find it rather strange that Cristianity is the biggest religion in the country and is still growing fast in numbers. How could it grow so fast in South-Korea and almost have no foothold in Japan. What made a lot of Korean elders and youngsters lose there faith in Buddhism and replacing it with Christian beliefs.

    People have a free choice to choose there own religion, but it makes me sad that fundamental Christians destroy old temples and statues of Buddha and other deities. I think there is still a lot of respect for Buddhism and the old ways, but i hope that Christians don’t try to erase there past because they think being Christians make there lives better and everything else is just wrong.

    Maybe you know more about this and could spend a post on this subject in the future.

    Like

    1. Hi dutchdharma,

      It’s an interesting subject indeed. A while back I posted a brief history of Buddhism in Korea and one of the things I learned was that the Joseon Dynasty (14th century to 19th century) was increasingly hostile towards Buddhism. It was a Neo-Confucian state (I’m writing a post about this soon), and tried to undermine the Buddhist establishment generation after generation.

      So by the time missionaries came, it was already in severe decline. Add Japanese imperialism and post-war politics too.

      Compare this to the parallel Tokugawa government in Japan which was actively hostile toward Christianity but nominally supported Buddhism.

      So in both cases history and political meddling play a big reason, I believe. This is true in European history as well (why are the Netherlands Protestant but nearby France is Catholic?).

      In any case, South Korea is has a healthy Christian community and a Buddhist community. Also a lot of people are just non-religious. So the picture is complicated.

      Also it varies by region too. The Seoul metropolitan area is more Christian while the eastern provinces are more Buddhist. Relatively speaking.

      Also Buddhism has plenty of problems of its own with politics, power and corruption, just like religious institutions elsewhere. A number of high-ranking monks were recently caught gambling and forced out recently, for example.

      Lastly, the rise and fall of Buddhism isn’t anything to worry about. It’s just the Dharma at work. The Buddha had predicted the gradual decline of Buddhism (until another Buddha comes) and maybe this is just Dharma Decline in action. :-/

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  2. I agree, politics and climate are indeed one of the strongest causes for religion change. I didn’t know the Joseon Dynasty were anti-buddhism though, but i just recently got a huge interest in the culture and history of this nation, so still got a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to your post on this subject.

    Knowing European Christian history, and it’s black pages, i just hope there will never be such bloodshed about religion in the east. In my opinion there were never really any troubles with religion in the East. Buddhism could grow relatively peaceful in all those countries and by my knowledge never really oppressed all other kinds of religions and philosophies, but off course there were some events that came close.

    I also read the article about the gambling monks. It’s bad for the order, but these things happen in all religions. We recently had a big scandal where bishops of the catholic church abused more than hundred children in the 1950s and 60s, and the church knew about these kinds of things. The human mind is so easily poisoned.

    I remember those teachings by the Buddha, and i’m not worried about it. It’s something that Buddhist must face in the future. It doesn’t have a conversion tradition or doctrine like Abrahamic religions so it would probably always be in an underdog position. It’s also not about the numbers of followers but about the way they take it serious that matters.

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  3. Yeah, I have a lot to learn too. I’ve spent years exploring Japanese subjects, and have covered that subject enough that there isn’t as much to talk about anymore, so lately I’ve been turning my efforts to learning about Korean culture/history more. Since there’s little (accurate) information on the Internet, I’m hoping to post more on the subject.

    It’s true that Buddhism doesn’t have a history of conquest or bloodshed, but it does have plenty of nasty politics.

    In general religion + power + politics = trouble.

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