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Lantern lighting path to liberation

By Kim Jongmyung, The Korea Times, Jul 29, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- A Buddhist ritual, the Lantern Festival, or "Yeondeung hoe," is emerging as an important part of contemporary Korean culture, but brings with it both positives and challenges. The festival has its textual origins and a long history in Asia, but its Korean version has unique features in many aspects, including its social role.

Textual origins

Buddhist canonical texts address the meaning, purpose and merits of lighting lanterns. Originally, lighting lanterns, as described in canonical texts, was an offering to the Buddha for the purpose of growing the three wholesome roots of desirelessness, non-hatred, and non-perverted views.

Therefore, the act was a way of cultivating of one's mind, and its ultimate purpose rested in the achievement of enlightenment. The scriptures also describe the merits of lighting lanterns including the attainment of a pure mind. As for the attitude of a Buddhist cultivator toward the lighting, the most important thing is not to offer riches, but to keep one's mind sincere.


The exact date of the Lantern Festival is unknown. However, texts indicate that the act of lighting lanterns first began in ancient India and Buddhism accepted the tradition and intended it as a religious offering to the Buddha, a path to liberation. That tradition was transmitted to East Asia, but its nature changed over time and space.

Chinese records indicate that the custom began in the second century and it was in the Tang dynasty (618-907) that it became a regularly scheduled custom, assimilating indigenous Chinese philosophical systems of thought such as Taoism and Confucianism.

In addition, the Chinese also transformed the original ceremony by adding a feast accompanied even by wine. Modeled after the Chinese tradition, ancient Koreans and Japanese also held such festivals.

Korean festivals

According to historical records of Korea, including the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa, ca. 1290), the first record of lighting lanterns appears in the mid-ninth century Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.E.-935 C.E.) Like China, the Korean Lantern Festival was initially performed with festivity rather than with religious solemnity, and was aimed celebrating royal events.

In particular, it was in Goryeo (918-1392) that the Lantern Festival became a regularly scheduled state festival and was performed more during the period than at any other time in Korean history, a frequency unsurpassed in China or Japan. In particular, the History of the Goryeo Dynasty, or ``Goryeo sa’’ (1451) points out that since the initial time of the dynasty, the festival had been regarded as one of the two most important Buddhist rituals of Goryeo, another having been the Assembly of Eight Prohibitions, or ``Palgwan hoe.’’

In character, the Goryeo Lantern Festival differed from that of China and Japan not only in the date and place of its performance, but in purpose and significance as well. The Lantern Festival of Goryeo consisted of three types: the Regularly Scheduled Festival, the Special Festival, and the Lantern Festival on the Buddha's Birthday.

Among the three, the Regularly Scheduled Festival was the representative Goryeo Lantern Festival and held with the highest frequency throughout the dynasty. The festival consisted of two days: small and grand. Its contents included the burning of incense, a royal reception of congratulations from government subjects, a performance of amusements, and a feast for government subjects.

The Goryeo Lantern Festival was usually held at the palace on the fourteenth to fifteenth days of the first or second month. The Special Festival was held as needed only during the specific period. However, the fortune of the Regularly Scheduled Festival and the Special Festival ended with the demise of Goryeo. The Lantern Festival on the Buddha's birthday, the eighth day of the fourth month, was initiated in the mid-thirteenth century and continued into the anti-Buddhist Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

Many works produced during the Joseon period such as the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, ``Joseon wangjo sillok,’’ (1413-1865), which was registered on the UNESCO Memory of the World list in 1997, describe the lighting of lanterns. These records indicate that some kings and people lit lanterns in the initial period of the dynasty. However, the government eventually restricted the lighting of lanterns. As a result, the Lantern Festival on the Buddha's birthday was no longer celebrated by the government, but usually by the commoners.

The Buddha's Birthday in contemporary Korea falls on the eighth day of the fourth month, early May on the solar calendar, and has been a national holiday since 1975.

The most important annual Buddhist ceremonies, including the Lantern Festival, are held on this day participated by monastics and the laity, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, including important political figures. Managed by the monastic circles of Korea, the Lantern Festival is held in grandeur on the Buddha's Birthday throughout the country.

This festival is noted for popular street parades and large displays of what are called lotus lanterns, or ``yeondeung,’’ which constitute an important part of contemporary Korean culture. Foreigners also participate in this festival and praise its beauty.

On this day, many Korean Buddhist followers purchase a lotus lantern in order to make merit for their families, thus making the Buddha's Birthday the most lucrative day of the year for Korean temples. Often the largest lamps inside the main shrine hall at a temple are dedicated to the president of Korea and his wife as well as other important political figures, thereby indicating the temple's desire to maintain close ties with political leaders.

Social Role

The position and role of the Lantern Festival in Korean history has changed. Although the Lantern Festivals during the Goryeo period were sponsored by the state, their position was lower than other important state holidays for ancestral worship such as “hansik,” literally cold food. The festivals possessed strong festive elements. Music and entertainment accompanied the festival and the king caroused late into the night, or even until dawn while composing poems with the participants.

The Lantern Festivals sponsored by the Goryeo government primarily aimed at the longevity of the king and the worship of the royal family's ancestors, which was a special characteristic of the Goryeo Lantern Festival that distinguished it from its counterparts in China and Japan. In Joseon, the Lantern Festival on the Buddha's Birthday was celebrated by the commoners and had no longer influence on the state level.

Contemporary Korea is a country of religious freedom and is adopting the principle of separation of politics and religion. However, financially supported by the government, though in part, the Lantern Festival often tends to ingratiate itself with political circles under the slogans of world peace and the unification of Korea and some political figures attempt to use it as their election campaign ground. The Lantern Festival has also been left as a victim of Korean modernization, in its commercialization. In contrast, the original meaning of lighting lanterns as a path to enlightenment is almost absent in the festival. Therefore, the Lantern Festival in contemporary Korea is faced both with both merits and challenges.

Kim Jongmyung is a professor of Buddhist studies in the Graduate School of Korean Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies.

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