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Brief History of Buddhism in Contemporary Korea

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South Korea is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world where traditional religions such as shamanism and Buddhism peacefully co-exists with comparatively recent religion Christianity. This paper will help in gaining a broad understanding about the nature and social impact of Buddhism in contemporary South Korea in order to bring into relief the relevance of Buddhism in modern Korean society and showcase the main characteristics of Korea’s Buddhist culture. 

The subject of this paper is contemporary South Korean Buddhism from late 1980s to till date. Late 1980s has been chosen because it not only marks the new era of rapid Democratisation after the end of military dictatorship of Park chung- hee regime and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, but also marked the beginning of free overseas travel and more direct inter-cultural and inter-faith exchanges. In this article, I will begin with the brief introduction of history of Buddhism in Korea and then explore the current status and influence of Buddhism in the society. Also its importance in tackling serious social problems arising in Korea such as stress, suicide and depression will be discussed. 

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This paper will also show that the influence of Buddhism is actually expanding in south Korea not only as a religion but also as a brand boaster for tourism, as various Buddhist organizations continue to not only expand their involvement in social and welfare services but also extend their ownership and operation of commercial enterprises in fields such as, mass media, education, health care and publications. As regard to the impact of Buddhism in contemporary Korean society, this paper with reference to various surveys shows that, although Buddhists have lower level of educational attainment or income, they tend to show lower level of depression level and suicidal acceptance as compared to believers of other faiths and religious non-believers. It also shows how the Buddhist meditational techniques are beneficial for the therapeutic treatment and helps in overcoming stress, combat depression and suicidal tendency. 

Buddhism came to Korea via China in 372 A.D. Its introduction led to the fundamental change in the Korean society and blooming of Korean civilization. Religious life was also directly and irreversibly affected by Buddhism. It was adopted as state religion during the three-kingdom period but had to go through the era of political repression during Confucian regime of Joseon period. Wherever we go or whatever we do in Korea, we will witness that ancient Korean heritage has influenced and dominated every aspect of Korean people’s life for over 1700 years. Korean Buddhist culture possess a unique characteristic by harmonizing with nature and helping people to overcome psychological disorders. It has played a crucial role in preserving the ancient art, culture and heritage of Korea in a very unique manner. The innovative programs like temple stay, food making competitions, lantern festival etc. are not only attracting tourists but also makes Koreans enthusiastic about the teachings and philosophy of Buddhism. Whatever position anyone can take on the importance of Buddhism in Korean society today, it’s legacy in Korea is undeniable. 

 Buddhism came to Korean peninsula at around 4 C.E via China and Central Asia during Three kingdom period, Goguryeo, Shilla and Baekjae were competing against each other. Soon it became the official state religion in these kingdoms. Particularly, in Shilla, Buddhism was used as a philosophical force for the unification of the peninsula. After Shilla, Goryeo also adopted Buddhism. But, Buddhism entered into the era of political repression during the Joseon period (1392-1910) as neo-Confucianism became the ruling national ideology. Although Buddhism was practiced by royalty and Confucianism ruled administration and society. However, during the beginning of 20th century, Korean Buddhism declined rapidly as it fell in the hands of Japanese Buddhism due to the colonization. South Korea has no official religion. The traditional religions like shamanism, Buddhism and newly arrived Christianity peacefully co-exists along with religious non-believers in one of the most religiously pluralistic countries in the world. Buddhism has made a significant comeback in 1910 after the fall of Chosen Dynasty, and since then it has occupied a dynamic position in the society.However, the decline of Buddhism recorded by the 2015 census has been criticized by many observers as the data in 2015 census was collected by internet which was limited to only 20% of the population. While earlier in 2005 it was conducted through traditional data sheets over the entire population. Most of the people in villages who are Buddhists don’t have access to internet and thus wouldn’t be included in the 2015 census.visible presence of Buddhism in Korean society has grown and developed in many ways. Mainly from the late 1980s, Buddhism has expanded through education and media. There are 39 Buddhist orders, more than 11,000 temples all over the Korea, over 26,000 monks and large numbers of media outlets including cable TV, newspaper networks, and radio stations. The Buddhist Broadcasting System (BBS) was founded in 1990 and the Buddhist Cable TV Network was founded in 1995. Now, Buddhist orders operate 3 universities, 26 schools and 16 seminaries in the country. In 1990s, however Buddhism faced conflicts with the government and protestant churches, it regained its position after the massive protest from the public against the attacks on Buddhist temples and monk, and call for religious cooperation by the then president Park geun- hye’s administration. 

Talking about educational attainment and economic status, Buddhist are Beside this, one of the most surprising aspect of Korean Buddhism is the influence of western Buddhism. The influence of this new wave can be seen not only in how Koreans now perceive Buddhist philosophy but also their own as well as nation’s identity. This is evident from the increased presence of western Buddhist monastics, skyrocketing sell of translated books on Buddhism and emergence of a new sub- academic field – Buddhist psychotherapy. The popularity of Hyon’gak, a Yale and Harvard graduate who left his home country to practice Korean Buddhism, was so much that he was constantly called on TV programs after his first appearance in program on Buddhism broadcasted by KBS. Other famous Buddhist figures like, Thich nhat Hanh (from Vietnam) and Dalai lama (Tibet) were also invited to Korea several times. However, Dalai lama was denied permission to enter Korea fearing economic sanctions from China.Korean Buddhist institutions have been smart enough to keep up with the global religious trends, creating new ways to engage tourists and young Korean who are in search of means to cope up with the agitation of modern society through the contemplative tradition of Buddhism.

The introduction of ‘temple stay’ program in 2002, is one of such initiatives to rebrand Buddhism and make it relevant in modern Korean society. This program allows visitors to live in rural Buddhist monasteries and experience the daily life of monastics through various programs such as meditation, cooking traditional Buddhist Korean foods etc. The temple stays programs offered revolution in Korean temple tourism. Temples no longer remained the major tourist destinations but became active organizers and managers of tourism. Not only the Traditional Buddhist rituals such as chanting, bowing, and meditating were included in the temple stay program, but also traditional ways of cooking, clothes dying, and paper crafting are taught. In this way one can say that, temples are transforming from simply being sacred into inclusive hybrid displays of Korea’s national heritage. The other programs such as Buddhist design competition, based on various themes ranging from temple food, temple stay, traditional culture, and lotus lantern festival attracts lots of public attention every year. It is attended by nearly 50,000 tourists. Social engagements Like other religious organizations, Buddhism has also branched out virtually in almost all social spheres, thus exerting powerful influence on Korean politics and social life. However, recent activism has come as a response to the increasing activities of the Christian churches in South Korea. Although Korean Buddhist monasteries holds history of involving in similar social activities in the past. Buddhists are using traditional Buddhist perspectives in contemporary manner to apply theses teachings to social issues such as peace, environmental awareness, human and animal rights, providing help to the needy, and, combating stress, depression and suicidal tendency etc. The shining example of one such socially active south Korean Buddhist is, Ven Pomnyun, who received Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2002 for peace and international understanding, who used the Buddhist teachings to full range of modern ills, from human greed and poverty to environmental degradation. 

Another example is, the Jogye order, oldest Korean Buddhist sect has been active in various social activities such as, extending support to neglected people in all walks of life, establish diverse committees for environmental protection, assist weak and minority groups to overcome interreligious conflicts. To achieve harmonious and communicative society they hold conferences with seven religious organizations including the Korean Conference of Religions for Peace, the Korean council for religious peace. They have also constructed a golf course in Haeinsa temple, building a dam in Jirisan National Park along with the establishment of an environmental committee (2011) to strengthen their voice. Also, their social welfare foundation is actively proving assistance to the poor in villages, training volunteers’ qualitative improvements in social welfare etc. They also invested in the building of various schools and universities providing various courses. The primary goal of theses social services is enhancing mutual understanding and cooperation between people of different cultures and beliefs. Also, Korean Buddhism has helped in the preservation of cultural heritage and boosting tourism. More than half of Korea’s national treasures are Buddhist cultural properties such as UNESCO cultural heritage site of Bulguksa temple, Seoguram grotto etc. Also, the development of various designs and cultural items unique to Buddhist art and culture have helped in boosting tourism. One of such Buddhist cultural brand is VONDINA. Lotus lantern festival held every year on Buddha’s birthday in downtown Seoul witnesses around 50,000 foreign visitors every year. Other activities such as Buddhist design competition etc also help foreigners as well Koreans to learn about the excellence and beauty of Korean culture. In this one can say that growth of organized social services by the Buddhists in south Korea would certainly continue to maintain bond of Korean population. Considering the fact that the suicide rate in South Korea is rapidly increasing and the highly competitive Korean society is pushing people to prolonged distress and depression, Buddhist psychotherapy could be seen as best rescuer. According to Social learning theory (Agnew 1998, Stack and Kosowa 2008), religion plays very significant role in shaping individual’s thoughts. Buddhism like other religions have strong teachings and sanctions against suicide. 

Buddhism strongly rejects the practice of euthanasia and suicide (Boyd and Chung 2012) and promotes self-realization through meditation. Thus, Buddhism helps in decreasing suicidal acceptability among the people. According to Korean General Social survey) 2009) and Korean Longitudinal Study of Aging (KLoSA-2015), Korean Buddhists have shown lower level of depression and stress symptoms compared to other religion’s believers as well as religious Non-believers. Although adult Korean Buddhists are among the lowest average household income (36.75 million Won) and lowest educational attainments (less than 6 years), they show less depression symptoms as Buddhism is heavily related to meditation and prayers, and tend to possess compassion for others. Korean Buddhists often perform private prayers and meditation thus, restraining themselves from stress and depression. These therapeutic benefits of meditation made the Korean doctors and psychologists to scientifically re-examine the Buddhist meditation without mixing it with religion. This led to the opening of new academic field between 2007-2009, with the founding of three academic associations solely related to Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy. These associations are: – Korean association Buddhism and psychotherapy (2007), the Korean meditational healing association (2009) and the Korea meditation- therapy association (2007). All these three organizations help people in exploring the medical application of Buddhist meditation and find ways to overcome depression symptoms.     

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