The Lotus Lantern Festival, also known as Yeondeunghoe or the “Feast of Lanterns,” is one of the most celebrated Buddhist ceremonies held in Korea. On the eighth day of the fourth lunar month (late April or early May of the Roman calendar), hundreds of thousands of candlelit paper lanterns are raised throughout the country to commemorate the Buddha’s birthday. In addition to the popular eight-sided lantern painted with Buddhist symbols of longevity and good fortune, lanterns are also constructed in various shapes and sizes based on themes of birth—including turtles, watermelon, fish, and ducks. These decorative lanterns are suspended in the front of every household, one lantern for each family member, with their names and prayers written on narrow sheets of white paper that sway gently from the base of the lanterns.
The tradition of celebrating the Buddha’s birthday in conjunction with the lantern festival dates to the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). This ceremony, which became a Korean national holiday in 1975, honors the great teachings of a young Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived nearly 2,500 years ago and gave up his royal life in search of a way to end suffering in the world. After years of searching, the prince found enlightenment, or perfect understanding, and became the Buddha, which means the “Enlightened One.” In Korean Buddhist temples, preparation for this special day begins one week before the event. During this time, monks carefully repair lanterns used in the previous year’s festivities while also creating new decorative ones. The most cherished type of lantern made by the monks is the delicately crafted lotus lantern. The lotus flower, a symbol of purity and wisdom, holds special significance in the Buddhist tradition. The flower, whose strong roots allow it to rise from the mud and blossom with great beauty, represents the individual who overcomes greed and hatred to find enlightenment.
On the morning of the Buddha’s birthday, monks begin stringing row upon row of lanterns to adorn pathways surrounding the temple. The lanterns hang along the walkways of the inner courtyards. The monks then sweep the temple grounds in expectation of the arrival of the public, who are invited on this day to tour the monastery. When visitors arrive, they are invited to purchase a lantern and follow the Buddhist tradition of asking a monk to write a merit certificate in honor of a visitor’s family members and/or deceased relatives. The monk writes the family names in calligraphy on the certificate and pastes it so that it hangs from bottom of the lantern. This offering to the Buddha is said to contribute to the good fortune of the family. In the evening, family members return to the temple to light their lanterns, light incense, and pray. The culmination of the event occurs as chanting monks light the candles one at a time in each of the remaining lanterns to illuminate the temple.