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A Guide to Buddha’s Birthday Celebrations in Korea

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Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was the founder of Buddhism. He attained enlightenment after renouncing worldly and materialistic pleasures as a former Prince.

Buddha’s birthday typically falls in the months of April or May, though it usually varies from one year to another in the Western Gregorian Calendar. During leap years, it may be celebrated in June. 

This is an extremely important event for Buddhists across the globe and is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm in different ways in different cultures.

Koreans have a particularly interesting way of celebrating Buddha’s birthday, and the occasion is a source of joy and enjoyment for tourists and locals throughout the country.

If you want to experience Buddha’s birthday celebration in Korea, you may wish to know what to expect. Well, you’re in good hands—I’ve covered all there is to Buddha’s birthday in my nifty guide. 

Let’s explore all there is to this incredible Buddhist celebration!

The Origins and Practices of Holidays: Buddha’s Birthday

Gautam Buddha was born around 563 – 483 BCE in Lumbini, Nepal. The exact celebration date is based on lunisolar calendars used by Asian cultures. 

In the Buddhist and Bikram Sambat Hindi calendar, it is celebrated in the month of Baisakh. The term “Vesak,” used to refer to the traditional holiday or festival commemorating Buddha’s birth, gets its name from the month of Baisakh. In Sanskrit, it is known as Vaisakha, thus the term Vesak and other variants given to the birth month of Buddha.

Buddha’s birthday is celebrated with a lot of vigor and enthusiasm across East and South Asia. It is meant to commemorate his birth and enlightenment and how his philosophies are still essential parts of people’s lives. 

Vesakh, also known as Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti, is observed by Buddhists across South and Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. Vesak was first formalized as the celebration of Buddha’s birthday in 1950, during the first World Fellowship of Buddhists conference. In South Asian traditions, it is celebrated on the full moon day of the Vaishaka or Baisakh month, which varies across different cultures, countries, and traditions. 

Just like the date, the specific style of celebration also varies depending on the traditions within a particular area. However, there are some common customs and practices associated with the festivities. 

Here are some popular practices observed to celebrate Buddha’s birthday:

  • Paying respects to the Buddha by visiting temples. This often includes placing flowers, candles, and incense at the Buddha’s altar as an offering or symbol of their reverence.
  • Eating a vegetarian diet to show compassion toward all living beings. This is in line with Budda’s teachings regarding kindness and non-violence—the most important tenets of Buddhism as a religion and philosophy.
  • Releasing animals from captivity. This is the time to set birds and fish free to return to the wild. Considered an act of kindness and compassion, this practice is known as “mercy release,” and Buddhists believe it brings them good karma to do so.
  • Meditating to reflect on the teachings of Buddha. This is meant to cultivate mindfulness and enhance inner peace. Meditation is a common practice in Buddhism in general, and it is an integral part of the birthday celebrations.
  • Participating in processions and parades during the celebrations. People often dress up in traditional clothing and carry statues of the Buddha during the processions on the streets. These are also accompanied by music and dancing to thoroughly express their enjoyment and happiness.

The celebrations during Buddha’s birthday are great opportunities for people to reflect on his many teachings. They do so by practicing compassion and kindness and working to improve their mindfulness to follow in their leader’s footsteps.

© Seoul Metropolitan Government/Penta Press or Photo by Seoul Metropolitan Government/Penta Press

What Is the Significance of Buddha’s Birthday?

Buddha’s birthday is a significant holiday for Buddhists as it commemorates the birth of the founder of Buddhism. It is celebrated on the fourth month of the lunar calendar and is observed on a full moon. 

According to Buddhist traditions, Buddha’s birth was a miraculous event as he was born from his mother’s side. He is also believed to have been able to walk and speak immediately after his birth. This occasion is an auspicious event as it marks the beginning of his journey toward enlightenment and the eventual establishment of Buddhism as a religion.

The occasion allows Buddhists to reflect on the teachings of Buddhism. It will enable them to renew their commitment to following Buddha’s steps on a path to enlightenment. 

People take the time to visit temples and shrines to pay their respects to the Buddha and meditate on what he has preached with regard to non-violence, compassion, and kindness. They also participate in practices that further enhance their spirituality and encourage them to be kind and compassionate. 

The celebrations, in all their enthusiasm, also remind Buddhists about the importance of mindfulness, which helps them cultivate inner peace and harmony.

Traditional Festivals to Celebrate Buddha’s Birthday

In Korea, there are two major traditional festivals that commemorate Buddha’s birthday:

Busan Lotus Lantern Festival 부산연등축제

The Busan Lotus Lantern Festival is a fantastic event full of beautiful, bright lights and vibrant Buddhist culture.

It includes exhibits that display traditional lotus lanterns and feature various traditional cultural experiences. The main events, namely the Grand Buddhist Ceremony and Lotus Lantern Parade, attract hordes of crowds, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Busan Lotus Lantern Festival Information
  • Busan Lotus Lantern Cultural Festival
    • Period: April 22 (Fri) to May 8 (Sun)
    • Location: Song Sang-hyeon Square.
    • Featuring large-scale lantern displays, various experiences, and performances.
  • Lotus Lantern Parade
    • Date: April 30 (Sat)
    • Route: Busan Citizen Park → Hamajeong Intersection → Yangjeong Intersection → Song Sang-hyeon Square.

Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival

This Spring festival features multiple events that take place around downtown Seoul through the course of the day, from morning to evening. The city is usually covered in lanterns of all shapes and sizes. On the main day of the festivities, over 100,000 lanterns are lit up for a street parade around the capital’s most important areas.

Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival Information
  • Seoul Lotus Lantern Cultural Festival
    • Period: April 19 (Fri) to May 21 (Sun)
    • Location: Jogye-sa Temple & Cheonggyecheon Stream
    • Featuring large-scale lantern displays, various experiences, and performances.
  • Lotus Lantern Parade
    • Date: April 30 (Sat), 7-9:30pm
    • Route: from Dongdaemun to Jogye-sa Temple along Jongno Street
© Seoul Metropolitan Government/Penta Press or Photo by Seoul Metropolitan Government/Penta Press

How They Celebrate Budda’s Birthday in Korea

Buddha’s birthday is a national holiday in South Korea. It is called “Bucheo-nim o-shin nal,” which roughly translates to “the day when the Buddha came.”

The event is highlighted in the Korean lunar calendar. South Koreans celebrate by hanging lotus lanterns in temples at the beginning of the month. People also decorate their homes and public streets with lanterns. 

On what is believed to be Buddha’s actual birthday, the festivities include giving away free breakfast, lunch, and tea to all visitors in temples. Sanchae bibimbap, rice mixed with seasonal veggies, is a popular lunch option. 

The celebrations also include an elaborate lantern festival, known as Yeondeunghoe, or Lotus Lantern Festival.

How To Enjoy This Celebration During the Trip

If you’re lucky enough to visit South Korea during the festivities surrounding Buddha’s birthday, then you will have a magical, wonderful experience that will be truly unforgettable.

The entire country will be illuminated in traditional lanterns, which is a sight to behold as you stroll down the streets and bask in the glow of the beautiful lights. You will surely be mesmerized no matter where you go and what you do.

Visit a Local Temple

Popular temples to visit during Buddha’s birthday include Jogye-sa Temple or Bongeun-sa Temple in Seoul, as well as Samgwang-sa Temple in Busan. This temple is famous for its elaborate lantern decorations. Since it is a nationwide celebration, you can visit pretty much any temple and find beautiful lantern decorations.

My Korean parents-in-law usually visit Beopju-sa Temple in Songnisan National Park on Buddha’s birthday. They hold a big celebration and hand out free bibimbap for lunch. Read more about Beopju-sa Temple here.

Do a Temple Stay

If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, you should definitely consider a temple stay. It will allow you to truly experience Buddhist culture firsthand and as close up as possible. 

With a temple stay, you can witness the celebrations firsthand and indulge in a spiritual journey of your own. You can gain valuable insights into Buddhist teachings and begin to practice them in your own life. Pay homage to the Buddha and have a memorable experience surrounded by Buddhist culture, traditions, and spirituality. 

You can meditate and ruminate over Buddhist teachings, indulge in the delicious food at the temples, and allow the warm glow of the lanterns from the festivities to light you up from within. Through the course of this enchanting experience, you will more easily understand and apply what the essence of Buddhism is all about. 

If you want to visit Korea for Buddha’s birthday, this guide has all you need to know to have the best time! 

Conclusion

Buddha’s birthday is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm amongst Buddhist communities across the world, particularly in Asia. Different cultures have different ways of celebrating it, but the overall enjoyment and spirit are similar no matter where you are.

Celebrations span several days, so you can plan a holiday around it. If you want to enjoy a truly immersive experience for Buddha’s birthday, Korea is a wonderful destination. It will offer you a wonderful and enjoyable experience of this important Buddhist holiday. Korea is a fantastic tourist destination any time of the year. There are affordable and luxurious food, transport, and tour options to suit all of your preferences and needs. You can refer to my guides to plan all elements of your trip: packing list, shopping, parks, and many more.

Recommended Travel Guides for Korea

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Lonely Planet Korea

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Linda

Linda has been living in Asia since 2012 and loves sharing her travel and life experiences on her website. She currently works remotely in Online Marketing and also teaches various English classes in South Korea.

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