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
I guess one place that I almost never think to visit is a church. I might go to my church on Sunday with my family and certainly on the holidays, but it usually doesn’t occur to me to visit a strange church for no reason.
In Pittsburgh I passed some beautiful churches. And so, I went inside. The doors were open, the lights were on, so why not?
I discovered an unexpected beauty. Every church, cathedral, temple, shrine, and synogogue is built with love and reverance. After all, these places not only honor one’s creator(s) but they also act as a community center, a place of safety, and therefore they deserve to have a bit of beauty. No matter how simple, a place of worship is made with a certain care and respect.
So, I went inside these churches in Pittsburgh. They had high ceilings with gorgeous lights, alcoves and nooks for silent prayer and contemplation. Candles and wreaths. Statues and icons. Next time I travel, I think I’ll keep my mind open to the possibilities.
Seneca word of the post: Hawëníyu’ God