Chopail (Kor. 초파일, Chin. 初八日) is the Birthday of Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. The day can is referred to as Bucheonim Osinnal (Kor. 부처님 오신 날, Buddha’s Advent Day), Bultanil (Kor. 불탄일, Chin. 佛誕日, Buddha’s Birthday), Yokburil (Kor. 욕불일, Chin. 浴佛日, Buddha Bathing Day) and Seoktanil (Kor. 석탄일, Chin. 釋誕日, Day of Shakyamuni’s Birth). The most common name of this day, Sawol Chopail (Kor. 사월 초파일), meaning “the eighth of the fourth lunar month”, is also the date on which the holiday is celebrated in Korea and China. In Japan, Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated on April eighth according to the Gregorian calendar.
Shakyamuni’s Birthday is one of the four major Buddhist holidays. The other three are the eighth of the second lunar month (the day of Shakyamuni’s leaving home), the fifteenth of the second lunar month (the day when Shakyamuni reached nirvana), and the eighth of the twelfth lunar month (the day of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment). Shakyamuni’s Birthday is arguably the most important of all four Buddhist holidays. It is a popular holiday in Korea, and is often celebrated by people of all religious beliefs. Brightly-colored paper lanterns are hung in temples and homes and along the sides of streets, and various celebratory events are held.
The day of Shakyamuni’s birth is marked with religious symbolism. Considered to be the day of light, lanterns decorate the streets as symbols of wisdom and enlightenment. Since early times, lantern events became integrated with native farming rites and were held on other festival days as well. Other days that are celebrated with lantern festivals include Jeongwol Daeboreum (Kor. 정원대보름, the Great Full Moon Festival, the fifteenth of the first lunar month). During the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) there were three annual national lantern events. When Confucianism became the state ideology during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), lantern processions were no longer considered to be the events of national importance. They gradually disappeared from national celebrations and were organized only on Shakyamuni’s Birthday by Buddhist organizations and the faithful. This remains the case in contemporary Korea.
The eighth of the fourth lunar month is a symbolic date and not the actual day of the birth of Buddha, the Prince Siddhartha Gautama. In the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, celebrations are held in May or even in June. Nevertheless, Shakyamuni’s birthday is always in the spring when all creatures in the universe are reawakened to life. This idea may have contributed to the popularization of the holiday. Consequently, in Korea, it has become a folk celebration and not just a religious holiday observed exclusively by Buddhists.
The characteristics of a folk celebration can be easily seen in the festivities held on this day. Buddhist temples decorated with colorful paper lanterns are visited by people from all walks of life and all religious affiliations. Entire town centers are brightly lit until the wee hours of the morning; colorful lantern events are often accompanied by music. Children place rice cakes decorated with heather leaves, black beans, dropwort leaves and other wildgreens under festive lanterns. This activity has been interpreted as a theatrical reenactment of receiving and entertaining guests on the occasion of Shakyamuni’s birth. Another popular entertainment for children, known as subu nori (Kor. 수부놀이), involves eating elm rice cakes and grilled soybeans, and drumming on a gourd dipper placed upside down over a jar of water all while sitting on a mat under the festive lanterns. Historically in addition to a special Buddhist service, folk events for the adults were also held at the temples. In tapdori (Kor. 탑돌이), the faithful walked in a circle around a Buddhist pagoda until dawn, praying and making wishes. These family-oriented and child-friendly activities turned this holiday into what is known today as Children’s Day.
A major highlight of the Buddha’s Birthday celebration is yokbul haengsa (Kor. 욕불행사, Chin. 浴佛行事, lit. Buddha bathing). This ritual is derived from a legend that tells of the guryong (Kor. 구룡, Chin. 九龍, lit. nine heavenly dragons) who descended to earth at the birth of Shakyamuni and bathed the newborn. Today this ritual is carried out by placing the statue of Buddha inside a large basin so that the faithful can take turns pouring water on it. Buddha bathing is only second to lantern hanging and lantern processions in importance in celebrations of this day.