Yeondeunghoe (Kor. 연등회, Chin. 燃燈會) is a tradition related to the celebration of Shakyamuni’s birth and refers to the hanging and lighting of paper lanterns outside homes, in temples and along streets. This practice is widespread in all Buddhist countries. In Buddhism lanterns are an important symbol of Buddha’s wisdom enlightening the world. Lanterns were used to worship Shakyamuni even during his lifetime. The practice of using lanterns in the context of a worship service originates from India where water, incense, flowers, lanterns and food were customarily offered to Brahman deities as sacrificial gifts. Lanterns, therefore, have been an indispensable component of Buddhist rituals from the earliest days of this faith.
The earliest written record of lantern rituals in Korea is contained in an entry in the “Samguk Sagi” (Kor. 삼국사기, Chin. 三國史記, History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145), dated to the 6th year of King Gyeongmun’s rule of Unified Silla (866). In Unified Silla, under the influence of Chinese custom, lanterns were lit on the first full moon of the year (the fifteenth of the first lunar month) and not on Shakyamuni’s Birthday. The event was made into an official Buddhist celebration by Wang Geon, the founder of the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392). During the Joseon period (1392-1910), the ruling dynasty’s pro-Confucian stance led to the oppression of Buddhism. All Buddhist temples within the capital city were closed down during the reign of King Yeonsangun. During King Injong’s reign, Buddhist monks were not allowed to enter the royal capital. As an exception, on Shakyamuni’s Birthday on the eighth of the fourth lunar month, all restrictions on passage in and out of the capital city were lifted. This exception made it possible for anyone to travel to Buddhist temples outside the city. There they could attend worship services, climb on nearby mountains and hills to watch the spectacle of the brightly lit lanterns, and hold boisterous celebrations until dawn. Lantern festivals were prepared days in advance: people bundled bamboo tubes to make lantern poles, which were placed outside private homes and government offices, in marketplaces and along streets. Banners made of colorful patches of silk were hung at the top of the lantern poles. The number of lanterns hung outside a house corresponded to the number of children in that household. The lanterns were usually kept lit until the day after the Buddha’s birthday.
After Shakyamuni’s Birthday was recognized as an official national holiday in 1975, lantern rituals experienced a revival in Korea starting in 1976. In 1996 Buddhist associations led by the Jogye Order organized among other events a large-scale lantern procession that followed a route from the Dongdaemun Stadium to Jogyesa Temple. This procession has become an annual event and all of the Shakyamuni’s Birthday celebrations have become known as the “Lantern Festival”. Currently Yeondeunghoe is the largest cross-denomination Buddhist event.