Seoul Light Festival marks the birth of the Buddha in a blaze of colors

- through Henry Oudin

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Korea's annual Yeondeunghoe (연등회) Festival of Light, popularly known as the Lotus Lantern Festival and traditionally held in the spring to mark the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha, illuminated downtown Seoul in a blaze of light on Saturday. light and colors. As the local government lifted all remaining pandemic restrictions earlier in May, this year's Festival of Light was the first large-scale celebration since the COVID-19 outbreak, with some sources describing it as the biggest. never organised. The theme of this year's Lantern Festival was “Peace of Mind: Buddha's World”.

To celebrate the Buddha's 2567th birthday on May 27, major Buddhist temples and public spaces in downtown Seoul were lit up with thousands of delicate paper lotus lanterns. Among them, a multitude of brightly colored paper light offerings were displayed at the 11th-century Jogye Temple in central Seoul, the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country's largest Buddhist order. Although related events have been taking place since May 20, Yeondeunghoe proper began on May 27, with festivities and activities continuing until May XNUMX, when official Dharma ceremonies will take place.

Sheyun, a young woman visiting from Daegu City, who describes herself as nominally atheist with Buddhist leanings, told BDG that the celebration in Seoul was much bigger and longer than the festival held in her hometown, with more elaborate festivities.

“It was nice to see the bustling markets and the shopping areas packed with people,” Sheyun said. “When I visited Gwangjang Market, there were so many people. Although it was a bit crowded with little room to walk, it created a party atmosphere. In Korea, even if one is not a Buddhist, there are many people who have warm feelings towards Buddhism and feel a sense of closeness. I feel the same, and that's why I like to visit Buddhist sites.

Among the many cultural events, exhibitions and performances in Buddhist temples and public places, for many people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, the highlight of the festival is the spectacular Yeondeunghoe Lantern Parade, during which tens of thousands of papers Elaborate and -frame illuminations travel a two-mile route through downtown Seoul, carried by representatives of a multitude of Buddhist traditions from across Asia. Such is its popularity, the Lantern Parade has become as much a social and cultural event as a religious celebration.

“I was surprised at how large and sophisticated some of the lanterns are. They are just made of paper, but the patterns are very elaborate, bright and colorful,” Jeehung, a Seoul resident who came to enjoy the festival, told BDG. “Seeing so many people go out to have fun was really heartwarming, personally I don't have any religion but among the different religions I love Buddhism the most!”

The commemorations of Buddha's birth, a public holiday in South Korea, are known as Bucheonim Osin Nal (부처님오신날) which means "the day the Buddha came", and Seokga Tansinil (석가탄신일), "Buddha's birthday". The festival is observed on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in May.

Described as the largest festival of its kind in the world, visitors to the annual Yeondeunghoe celebration have been recorded to exceed 350, including local residents and tourists. The annual celebration can be interpreted as sharing the light of wisdom, compassion and peace with the world, as well as hopes and wishes for happiness and social harmony.

“For me, this is my second time attending Yeondeunghoe – the first time was almost 15 years ago! said Erin, a Buddhist participant from Seoul. “The lanterns these days are much brighter and more beautiful. I really appreciated that now we can close the streets for the parade, it gives us a lot more fun and freedom; This was really impressing.

“This is the first time I have attended the parade. I just returned to Korea last year after living in New York, so I had never seen it before,” Seoul resident Jihea told BDG. “When I lived in Korea before, I wasn't a Buddhist, so I wasn't very interested. But now my favorite part was the traditional music and dance when everyone gathered in the courtyard of Jogye Temple. Everyone got along well, sang together, moved together. It was wonderful! »

In December 2020, Yeondeunghoe: Lantern Lighting Festival in the Republic of Korea, was confirmed as an intangible cultural heritage during the 15th session of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. South Korea is now home to 21 UNESCO Intangible Heritage properties, including sireum (Korean traditional wrestling), kim jang (the making and sharing of kimchi), the folk song "Arirang", the royal ancestral rites and ritual music of Jongmyo Shrine, and dress narrative folk songs.

By awarding intangible cultural heritage status, UNESCO aims to help protect the traditions, knowledge and skills that have been passed down from generation to generation, so that they are not lost or forgotten over time.

“Light the lanterns. . . symbolizes the enlightenment of the minds of individuals, communities and the whole society through the wisdom of (the) Buddha,” UNESCO explained. “Knowledge and related skills are mainly transmitted by Buddhist temples and communities, and the Yeondeunghoe Safeguarding Association plays a notable role through the organization of educational programs. The festival is a moment of joy during which social boundaries are temporarily erased. In times of social difficulties, it plays a particularly important role in integrating society and helping people overcome the ills of the day. (Unesco)

The Yeondeunghoe Lantern Festival has a history dating back over 1 years to the ancient Korean Silla (신라) period (circa 200 BCE – 57 CE). In the historical text Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), completed in 935, during the Unified Silla Kingdom (1145-668), King Gyeongmun and Queen Jinseong visited Hwangnyong Temple to observe the lanterns on the occasion of the first full moon of the year in 935 and 866.

The Lantern Festival has only been canceled three times in modern Korean history, including once in 1961, when martial law was declared in Seoul during the April Revolution, and in 1980, during the pro-Korean movement. Seoul Spring Democracy. Although the festival resumed in 2022, after the pandemic, it was only around 70% of its normal scale due to the continued restrictions.

According to 2022 data, the majority of the South Korean population (50%) has no religious affiliation. Christians make up the largest religious segment of the population at 31%, while Buddhists make up 17%.

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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