One of the last things I did with my parents before I left the United States to come to Korea was to visit the lantern festival at Fair Park in Dallas. The festival was designed to be an homage to Lunar New Year's festivals around Asia, but the whole ordeal came off as tacky. Yes, it was beautiful and well constructed, but it smacked of American concepts of Asia. Sure, there were the 12 zodiac signs brilliantly displayed in lights, and yes there were dragons, and there were lanterns depicting ancient Chinese legends, and yes all that is present here. But right next to the giant dragon boat, there was also a giant western castle reminiscent of Neuschwanstein (think of the Disney castle). There were panda lanterns, scantily-clad-lady lanterns, a village of ant lanterns, and a giant tower of china cups and plates which seemed, ironically, to be based more on Angkor Wat than anything I saw in China.
In short, the Dallas lantern festival, while pretty, did not accurately reflect what I've seen in Korea. My first time to see a lantern festival for Buddha's Birthday was in Gwangju, and the event was somber, coming in the wake of the Sewol ferry disaster. This year, I'm living in Busan, and evidence of the festivities was omnipresent. If you saw lanterns hanging in the street, you could follow them to some temple or another, each with their own small array of lanterns festooned with prayer cards.
Near Seomyeon (a major shopping/metro hub), I did see a display which somewhat resembled what I saw in Dallas. Lanterns portraying legends and tales from Korea's past were arrayed in rows for visitors to take selfies with. None were nearly as large or ostentatious as those I saw in Dallas, but they were nearly devoid of any religious affiliation. These were symbols of national pride, not celebrations of the Buddha. But this one case out of dozens.
Scattered around the city of Busan, there are large Buddhist temple complexes, which are still regularly used by partitioners (if that's the right word to use in reference to Buddhists). One such temple, which is relatively famous, is called Samgwangsa. Situated a short bus ride from Seomyeon, this temple puts on a massive display of lanterns for the holiday. Being a temple, every single one is in some way religious in nature. Guarding the stairs leading to the temple are a dozen humanoid figures, each representing a different creature from the Chinese zodiac. Standing sentry above the gates are two large, beautifully created dragons with articulated arms. Once you enter the temple, however, the only figure is a life-sized elephant lantern with a mechanically powered head. Unfortunately, the mechanism which allows the head to move was is desperate need of lubrication, and one could hear the squeal of the machinery from anywhere in the complex.
The majority of the lanterns at this temple are simple, round or octagonal lanterns hung from wires. What makes this incredible is that there are literally thousands of them. The massive courtyards of the temple complex are entirely covered in a tight-knit grid of the colorful lights, all hung at the same height. Every building is covered in them from base to eaves. Hanging from each of the lanterns is a prayer card, to which, for a small fee, you can have your own prayer attached. The lanterns are hung around six to seven feet off the ground, which means that the prayer cards hang down to where they constantly brush your shoulders like a car-wash for your karma.
I was lucky enough to go on a Friday night when most people are more interested in drinking than in piety. The actual holiday was on a Sunday, and I talked to a friend who went then, and reported that it was insanely crowded. While I was there though, there were more worshipers than tourists, so I was able to move around with little problem. There were quite a few photographers there as well, but I've come to expect that with any famous spot I visit in Korea.
I would love to say that seeing the beautiful lanterns and displays of piety moved me in some way, but I would also like to say that about the Cathedrals I've visited. If anything, the affair struck me more as a beautiful spectacle than a religious experience. Still, I have to say that I appreciate the holiday more, having seen it celebrated outside the shadow of tragic events. It was beautiful and impressive, and I hope to see it again some day.