May 10th of every year is special for being the birthday of somebody near and dear to me. May 10th 2011, however, is special to many people around the globe for being the birthday of Prince Siddhartha Gautama a.k.a. Buddha.
East Asian countries following the Chinese Lunar calendar (all but Japan) celebrate Buddha’s birthday on the 8th day of the 4th month. For some, it is an event worthy of an entire month of celebrations, while for others, it is merely a day off work and an excuse to visit the local temple to take in the colorful displays of lotus lanterns.
My only direct experience with Buddha’s birthday comes from South Korea. Even though only about 20% of the population identifies as Buddhist (close to 30% are Christian, while most of the remaining population do not identify as any particular religion), Buddha’s birthday is a public holiday and is marked by celebrations at all of the major temples. Though I cannot speak for the other major cities in Korea, Seoul holds a big festival, typically the weekend before the official holiday, which culminates in a huge parade through the city. During the preceding month, colorful lotus lanterns are hung around temples and at strategic points throughout the city. The temples, gorgeous and peaceful during the daytime, become magical during the fresh spring nights when the lanterns are lit. It is truly one of the best times to experience Seoul, a brief sojourn into the world of perfect spring weather squeezed between the harsh winter and the oppressively hot, humid, and rainy summer. During last year’s festivities, even though I had to get up and work at 6 am the following morning, I made myself get out to soak in the parade and the flawless night. Though I typically am not a fan of the crowds in Seoul, it was totally worth it. I’d love to experience this holiday again in another part of the world. But until then… happy birthday, Buddha!