Korea has two major religions-Buddhism and Christianity. You might have guessed that they would be Buddhist, but you probably didn’t know that South Korea is the most Christian country in Asia after the Philippines.
In South Korea, Christianity is broken down into two main sections-Catholics and Protestants. Even though they are two sects in the same religion, in Korea they are completely different groups. In fact, Korea has a pretty interesting religious breakdown.
The first, and oldest, group is the Buddhists. Sometimes it’s almost as if Buddhism is no longer truly a religion but an integral part of cultural life. Temples are everywhere, representing a few different Buddhist sects. Seollal, the Lunar New Year, is a major holiday. Children and grandchildren bow to their elders on certain special occasions or after not seeing them for a long time. On the anniversary of an ancestor’s death the family prepares a special shrine in remembrance.
The second group, and the newest, is Protestants. There are Presbyterians and other more evangelical groups. Sometimes you might be walking down the street and run into a bevy of little old ladies handing out flyers. They’ll stop you and invite you to their church, and try to convince you to come, even if you don’t speak Korean and they don’t speak English. Most Protestants have made a clean break with Korea’s Buddhist roots. Their religious culture is a lot like that in the US. It seems that a large percentage of the Koreans who have moved to America are part of this religious group.
The third group is the Catholics. Although they are Christians they sometimes have tensions with the Protestants. Why? Catholics sort of bridge the gap between the other two religious groups. Although they believe in God and Jesus, they also maintain Buddhist traditions. They celebrate Lunar New Year, bow to their elders, and prepare shrines for their ancestors. Something about the Pope decreeing that their traditions were not contrary to Catholicism.
So, Catholics and Buddhists actually form a more cohesive group. They have different views on spirituality, but maintain the same basic set of traditions. These two groups sometimes get annoyed at the Protestants for forsaking tradition and trying so hard to convert them. Meanwhile, many Protestants worry about their Buddhist and Catholic friends and family because they maintain forms of idolatry.
Of course, during a normal day everyone gets along and none of these divisions arise. Still, though, it’s an interesting mix.
Korean word of the post: 종교 (jong-gyo) religion
In Hindu religion celestial maidens called apsaras, a type of cloud nymph, worked as the servants to the gods. They were beautiful and artistic, being expert dancers. In many Khmer dances, beautiful women represent these apsara. Khmer kings kept these apsara dancers in their harems. Images of these beautiful dancers, whether human or godly, adorn the walls of many temples and palaces. Apsaras continued to be part of the local belief system when religions changed, and are now part of both Hindu and Buddhist myth.
In modern times, many beautiful women continue to dress in elaborate costumes to represent the apsaras. One night I went to a buffet dinner and watched some traditional dancing. Women and men danced traditional folk dances and reenacted ancient legends. The apsara dancers, with their tall golden headdresses and bright outfits, were a sight to see. Next time, I’ll have to get there a little earlier so I can get a better view…
Korean word of the post: 압사라 (ap-sa-ra) Apsara
Chinese word of the post: 阿普萨拉 (a1 pu3 sa4 la1) Apsara
Khmer word of the post: អប្សរា (apsara) Apsara
Cambodia has a dual religious history. At first the Khmer kings followed Hinduism, modeled after neighboring India. These kings built many of the huge cities, temples, and buildings that are today so popular with tourists.
In many of these temples are carvings of Hindu gods. Krishna and Shiva may appear. In some buildings, like East Mebon, elephants represent Ganesh. The ancient system of resevoirs, complete with manmade islands, was supposed to copy the Hindu picture of the universe. But then things changed.
A second religion came from India. Buddhism grew throughout Asia, spreading further than Hinduism ever did. The kings of Cambodia changed their religion. While the temples still had Hindu carvings across the walls, Buddhist monks moved in. Statues of Buddha took up places next to Hindu nagas. This dual religious heritage persisted for years.
In recent history the rich religious iconography of the temples and ruins was largely destroyed. During the wars of the 20th centurty, many of the Buddhas were chopped down. Their heads were removed, their arms were hacked off. Some was due to looting. Colonial powers tried to take back as much of the exquisite object of history as possible. Later, the Khmer Rouge tried to break the people’s ties to their religion. However, the looting and destruction did not break the will of the people.
In nearly every temple small shrines still continue to honor Buddha. Niches hold tables of offerings and incense. People still care for the remaining Buddha stumps. You can easily find hunks of rock, often the torso or legs of an old statue, dressed in saffron robes and silks that are changed regularly.
Cambodia has a rich religious history. The people have remained devoted despite the pressure to abandon their faith, and they will continue to follow their beliefs into the future.
Korean word of the post: 종교 (jong-gyo) religion
Chinese word of the post: 宗教 (zong1 jiao4) religion
Khmer word of the post: សាសនា (saasnaa) religion
Once upon a time, the Angkor region of Cambodia’s irrigation system included a number of resevoirs. Inside the barays, as they were called, were built several islands. I’ve heard that they represented the world according to Hindu mythology-the world surrounded by a vast, cosmic sea. One of these islands was the East Mebon in the East Baray.
Fast forward to modern day, and the water is gone. Boats have been replaced by tuk tuks and bikes. Stairs lead the way up to the stone walkway that once served as a pier.
East Mebon is a lot like a temple mountain. From the bottom level, there are several steep sets of stairs that lead up to the higer levels before finally reaching the upper tier and its five small towers.
The platforms are covered with grass and trees. If you look below the foliage, you see that it is growing from between the stones. Here and there the remains of buildings remain. Some are no more than pieces of carved stone stacked together. Others are complete walls and door ways, interrupted by holes where the blocks have collapsed.
There are carvings everywhere. Some is just architectural, like the elegantly crafted pillars that stand beside the doors or in the windows. In other place, they are more artistic (and religious), representing the gods and their stories. Lions flank the stairs while elephants stand guard at the corners of the platforms.
Inside the central tower on the top tier is a small shrine to Buddha. A shaft of light shines down through a hole in the roof on a Buddha statue, wrapped in a saffron robe, and surrounded by incense and offerings.
From the top, you can look out and see the land in all directions. Trees and roads as far as the eye can see. No sign of water.
Korean word of the post: 동 메본 (dong me-bon) East Mebon
Chinese word of the post: 东湄本寺 (dong1 mei2 ben3 shi4) East Mebon
Khmer word of the post: ប្រាសាទមេបុណ្យខាងកើត East Mebon
Korea has an interesting religious make-up. A majority of the population are Catholic or protestant. The Catholics are descended from underground groups that sprang up over a hundred years ago, slowly gaining strength, and forming a unique Korean Catholic identity. Protestants are mostly recent converts who have fully adopted Western style religion.
Korea is the second most Christian country in Asia, following the Philippines.
After the different types of Christianity, the next biggest religion is Buddhism. Korea does not follow Tibetan Buddhism or Southeast Asian Buddism. Instead most Koreans follow the more East Asian style of Buddhism, Zen.
From what I have learned, Zen is more abstract than some other types of Buddhism. There is also very little, if any, emphasis put into the Buddhist saints.
Korea has an abundance of temples, which may be found in almost every city, town, and village across the country.
Most temples are actually a series of several buildings, including housing, dining, offices, and shrines.
Temple buildings are usually ornate wooden structures painted in shades often dominated by blue and green.
You can make a reservation and stay in a temple, living as the monks do for a weekend, or longer.
Guinsa is a beautiful temple near the town of Danyang. Situated in a narrow valley, the steep path through the temple leads up the mountain. The main shrine looks down on the temple and valley.
Golgulsa is a martial arts temple in Gyeongju. You can watch, or learn, the martial art of Seonmudo, which was nearly lost before being resurrected by a single monk around 30 years ago. The temple has a large Buddha figure carved into the mountain side as well as some cave shrines.
Yonggungsa is a temple in Busan that is built along the coast. They have statues and shrines from which you can look out over the sea.
Tongdosa is a very large temple complex near Ulsan. Besides the main temple there are also smaller areas located much further back behind the main shrine. These areas are complete with gardens and tranquil ponds.
These are the main temples that I have enjoyed visiting. Of course, other temples exist. Some temples in Seoul are quite small islands of calm in the middle of the bustling city. Other temples are found perched atop a mountain, along a hiking path, with water and snacks for sale for a hunry hiker.
Korean temples are certainly something to see!
Korean words of the post:
절 (jeol) temple
스님 (seu-nim) monk