Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival: Parents Tour #4
“Quite magical.” – Dad
Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival (삼광사 연등축제) takes place for about a month before Buddha’s Birthday and wraps up after the celebrations. During this time all the buildings and open courtyard areas are decorated with a variety of lanterns, coming to life every night with a myriad of colours and interesting figures.
This year Buddha’s Birthday fell on Saturday May 14th, but as we would be in Gyeongju (visiting Bulguksa) at this time, we went the week before. We decided to go in the late afternoon so we could experience the decorations in the daylight, but then not have too long to wait until nightfall, when it becomes truly beautiful. I highly recommend visiting Samgwangsa during this time if you can, as it’s a breathtaking and rather spiritual experience, even for the non-religious like me.
Samgwangsa (sa meaning temple) is most magnificent during Buddha’s Birthday celebrations strung with lanterns and lit up at night, but is open to visitors all year round. Even without all the decorations, it’s a beautiful temple and well worth a visit. Samgwangsa is also the most accessible of the large temples in Busan, located in the hills at the back of the Busanjin-gu district, in central Busan.
The Korean word for Buddha’s Birthday is 석가 탄신일 (seokga tanshinil) and this is what you’ll see marked in the calendar as a red day (national holiday). Most of the lanterns on the streets and temples will have 부처님 오신 날 (bucheonim oshin nal) written down the side, which means “the day Buddha came”. Buddha’s Birthday is also known as 초파일 (chopail), as it is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which is what the word 초파일 actually means.
My parents and I especially enjoyed walking among all the hanging prayers. Individuals, families and organisations can purchase a lantern to be hung at the temple with their names and prayers written on the tag that hangs beneath the lantern. Many families will pray for their children to do well on the 수능 (Suneung), the all-day university entrance test notorious for being very difficult and stressful for students.
When we went inside one of the temple buildings we were greeted by an abundance of colour and light. The ground floor held a statue centrepiece, while an elevator took us up four floors to another similar room, but with access to a balcony. The view from the top was great, as you could see some of the city below.
The most interesting thing about this building though, is the murals on the exterior. The best one depicts various methods of torture being carried out by some rather bored looking guys with colourful hair. People are being boiled alive, clubbed, crushed, and my personal favourite, having their tongues stretched out by use of an ox and plow.
Behind the temple buildings is a path wending through the trees and up and around the side of the hill. This trail was also hung with lanterns, that lit up as night fell. We all enjoyed the walk through nature, and you get some lovely views as you climb higher.
As often happens in Korea, we came across an interesting performance that we didn’t understand. There were some women on hoods doing a dance with cymbals, and a man banging on a large, intricately decorated drum. Everyone had crowded around, curious to see what was happening. I’m still not sure what was going on, though it was some kind of Buddhist ceremony and it was fascinating to watch for a while.
Out by the entrance are all the big lanterns, the largest being the two huge dragons perched high above the carpet of lanterns covering the courtyard. There’s an interesting mixture of animals and kings, and further down the road the animals of the Chinese zodiac line the curb in order. Down the front steps there are many hard plastic monk lanterns, all seeming to display different emotions or perhaps virtues (or maybe they just have different personalities).
I suggest planning your trip so you’re in Korea during the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations. All over the country temples are decked out in lanterns of all shapes and sizes, and many cities put on beautiful lantern parades through the streets. On the actual day, larger temples especially may offer food and tea and the more famous temples that usually charge for entry often waive admission fees.
How to get there (from Seomyeon subway station, Line 1):
- Take Exit 13 and walk around the corner to the right to the bus stop. Buses 54, 81 or 133 will all take you to 삼광사입구 정류장 (Samgwangsa Entrance Stop). It takes about half an hour.
- When you get off the bus, take the first left, walk straight until you cross the road and turn left in front of a school. Walk past the school and turn right at the corner. I think it’s at about this point you’ll start to see signs for the temple.
- Once you’re at the base of the hill, it’s a pretty easy walk up to the temple. There’s also a small green bus (마을 버스, village bus) that goes up the hill if you’re not able to walk it.
Have you ever been to a Buddha’s Birthday celebration or lantern festival? They’re held all over the world! If you do visit Korea though, I suggest checking one out here ^^ Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook!
P.S. If you have any idea what that Buddhist ceremony was, or what the monks are feeling, do let me know :p