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Can Tourism Save Korean Buddhism?
[Opinion] Tania Campbell on the state of religion in this predominantly Christian nation
Buddhism has been an integral part of Korean culture for nearly 2,000 years. With the meteoric rise of Christianity, however, it is losing its relevance and is seen as something to be suspicious of. Hope for reviving and preserving this religious tradition may come in the form of tourists, travelers, pilgrims and seekers who, unlike most Koreans, find value and meaning in this ancient tradition.
After arriving from China in AD 372, Buddhism flourished and became the spiritual backbone of the country until it suffered a blow during the Joseon period (1392-1910) when the kings instead adopted Neo-Confucianism. Throughout this period, monasteries and temples were only tolerated in remote mountain areas. Arguably, the primary culprit of a decline of this religion in contemporary times has been the swift rise of Christianity, to which now 41 percent of the population adheres to. The number of people belonging to the various sects of Buddhism has fallen, and Buddhists now comprise only 15 percent of the population.
Since World War II, Korea charged ahead to become a developed nation and the guiding mantra became "materialism and consumerism." Christianity, the religion of their American liberators from the Korean War, fitted nicely with Korea’s patriarchal and conservative society. It was fervently embraced, and as a result, it has strong ties to the U.S. evangelical movement. The largest Christian church in the world was constructed in Seoul. With 800,000 members, and an annual budget of $100 million, the Youido Full Gospel Church is an influential force, attracting prominent Christian leaders from abroad.
As more and more Koreans flock to the welcoming arms of Jesus, Buddha statues are becoming homeless. Since the 1970s, there have been temple burnings and other symbols of the religion have been vandalized. Mountain areas where temples exist are being opened up to the public for hiking and other leisure activities. Culture and heritage tours of Seoul for youth include churches on the itinerary but not temples. The government has been favorable to Christianity, regarding the religion as an ideological bastion against communism.
In the 1990s, President Kim Young-Sam, a devout Christian, further regaled Buddhism to the margins, removing a statue of the Buddha from the presidential palace. Venerable Hyon Gak Sunim, an American who became a Buddhist monk after graduating from Harvard Divinity School, and who now resides at Hwagyesa Temple in Seoul told America’s National Public Radio that "The temples are being made irrelevant. The monks are very bitter about it, but they know it is not the way."
However, tourism may hold the key to a revival of Buddhism in this country and ensure its 1,700 year legacy continues. Temples are becoming increasingly open to the public and the Korean Tourism Board, as a way to bolster tourism during the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament developed the successful Temple Stay program. Members of the public and tourists can experience monastic life for as short as a day and as long as three months. The money (usually asked as a "donation") from this venture flows back into restoring the temples. It began modestly, with just 14 temples involved, and has since tripled, now including 50 temples; in 2005, there were more than 50,000 participants.
While Christianity is here to stay, there have recently been several scandals which may cause believers to re-evaluate their faith or at least consider its appropriation in South Korea in a more critical light. In 2006, Kim Hong-Do, chief pastor of Kumran Church at Mangwoo-dong, Seoul, was indicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement of 3.2 billion won. He also announced in 2004 that the victims of Tsunami died as a punishment from God for not believing in Christianity. In 2003, Rev. Jang Hyo-Hee the leader of the Christian Council of Korea, Korea’s largest Christian organization, threw himself to his death as he jumped off an office tower after the husband of the woman he was having an extramarital affair with came home unexpectedly.
According to Bodhi Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist, many Buddhists see their role as offering an antidote to the current consumer, materialist culture which has embedded itself in the Korean psyche. He wrote that "We must show that true freedom is to be found not in uncontrolled license, but in the control and mastery of desire, that true happiness lies not in the proliferation of goods, but in peace and contentment."
As Koreans come to realize that lasting happiness cannot be charged to a credit card, and that Christianity, as it is practiced here, is not free from corruption, then maybe Buddhism has a chance. The most important thing is that Koreans can have the freedom to choose their faith. After all, as the example of evangelical America has shown, pseudo-Christian puppets are the enemy of a truly democratic society. Wou-Yu Sunim of Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center near Seoul believes that Christianity and Buddhism can co-exist together.
"There is room for both of these religions in Korea. We can find a way for them to live together peacefully," he said.
The government may also be rethinking their position on marginalizing Buddhism and see that the temples, if religiously irrelevant, at least have some cultural value. A proposal to build a tunnel underneath Hwagyesa Temple in North Seoul, in order to cut commuting time by 25 minutes, has been shelved. For the foreseeable future, then, tourists and seekers from all over the world will continue to swarm to the temples of South Korea, attracted by the exoticism and mystery of the Eastern traditions and looking for, and hopefully finding, something they could not get at home.
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