Happy Birthday Buddha! Celebrating Buddha's Birthday in South Korea

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


The air was thick with anticipation.

A hush fell over the crowded streets as the last light slowly disappeared behind the horizon.

Suddenly, without warning, the low, deep boom of a drum echoed in the distance. As the sound grew closer, I could feel its vibrations deep in my stomach and my pulse start to race as I gave in to the crowd’s excitement. 

We erupted in cheers, as the drummer rounded the corner and the dark street came alive from the glow of thousands of elaborately painted and intricately sculpted paper lanterns.

I couldn’t stop myself from joining the people beside me yelling, “Happy Birthday Buddha!” into the jubilant air.

In South Korea, Buddha’s Birthday begins with a massive night parade filled with people in traditional, colourful costumes carrying elaborate paper lanterns that light up the streets. 

For the week following the parade, these lanterns cover the ceilings and exterior open spaces of Buddhist temples all over the country. Prayers and wishes are written on thin strips of paper that hang from them, swaying back and forth in the spring breeze in rhythm with the chanting monks.

The lanterns create ceilings of pink, orange, yellow, blue and white so thick that you cannot even see the sky. Under these rainbow coloured ceilings, Koreans in stocking feet line up, waiting patiently for their turn to enter the temples so they can place offerings of food and incense in front of shiny gold Buddha statues. 

Followers of Mahayana Buddhism celebrate the birth and enlightenment of Prince Gautama Buddha (b.563BC) from the end of April to the end of May (some celebrations last a day, a week or the whole month). This ‘original’ Buddha — literally meaning ‘awakened one’ — was the spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.

Buddha’s birthday was by far the largest celebration that I witnessed while living in Asia.