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Religion in Korea encompasses a number of different traditions. Traditional Buddhism, Confucianism, Korean shamanism, Taoism and Christianity all play a role in Korea's religious tradition. The modern separation of Korea into North and South Korea has also shaped religious practice, especially in the communist North.[1][2][3][4][5]

Contents

Religion in South Korea

Just more than 40 percent of South Koreans profess religious affiliation. That affiliation is spread among a great variety of traditions, including Buddhism (34 percent), Christianity (30 percent), Confucianism (0.2 percent), and shamanism. These numbers should be treated with some caution, however, as (with the exception of Christianity) there are few if any meaningful distinctions between believers and nonbelievers in Buddhism and Confucianism, which comprise more of a set of ethical values than a religion. The cultural impact of these movements is far more widespread than the number of formal adherents suggests. A variety of “new religions” have emerged since the mid-nineteenth century, including Cheondogyo. Very small Muslim and Bahá'í minorities also exist.

Religion in North Korea

Traditionally, Koreans have practiced Buddhism and observed the tenets of Confucianism. Besides a number of practicing Buddhists (about 11.4 million, under the auspices of the official Korean Buddhist Federation), the population also includes some Christians (about 10,000 Protestants and 4,000 Roman Catholics, under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation) and an indeterminate number of native Cheondogyo (Heavenly Way) adherents. However, religious activities are almost nonexistent. North Korea has 300 Buddhist temples, but they are considered cultural relics rather than active places of worship. Several schools for religious education exist, including three-year religious colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy. In 1989 Kim Il Sung University established a religious studies program, but its graduates usually go on to work in the foreign trade sector. Although the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, in practice the government severely discourages organized religious activity except as supervised by the aforementioned officially recognized groups. Constitutional changes made in 1992 allow authorized religious gatherings and the construction of buildings for religious use and deleted a clause about freedom of anti-religious propaganda. The constitution also stipulates that religion "should not be used for purposes of dragging in foreign powers or endangering public security."

Shamanism

Goguryeo mural

Koreans, like other East Asians, have traditionally been eclectic rather than exclusive in their religious commitments. Their religious outlook has not been conditioned by a single, exclusive faith but by a combination of indigenous beliefs and creeds imported into Korea. Belief in a world inhabited by spirits is probably the oldest form of Korean religious life, dating back to prehistoric times. There is a rather unorganized pantheon of literally millions of gods, spirits, and ghosts, ranging from the "god generals" who rule the different quarters of heaven to mountain spirits (sansin). This pantheon also includes gods who inhabit trees, sacred caves, and piles of stones, as well as earth spirits, the tutelary gods of households and villages, mischievous goblins, and the ghosts of persons who in many cases met violent or tragic ends. These spirits are said to have the power to influence or to change the fortunes of living men and women.

Korean shamans are similar in many ways to those found in Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. They also resemble the yuta found on the Ryukyu Islands, in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Jeju Island is also a center of shamanism.

Shamans, most of whom are women, are enlisted by those who want the help of the spirit world. Female shamans (mudang) hold kut, or services, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Such services are also held to guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.

Often a woman will become a shaman very reluctantly--after experiencing a severe physical or mental illness that indicates "possession" by a spirit. Such possession allegedly can be cured only through performance of a kut. Once a shaman is established in her profession, she usually can make a good living.

Many scholars regard Korean shamanism as less a religion than a "medicine" in which the spirits are manipulated in order to achieve human ends. There is no notion of salvation or moral and spiritual perfection, at least for the ordinary believers in spirits. The shaman is a professional who is consulted by clients whenever the need is felt. Traditionally, shamans had low social status and were members of the ch'ommin class. This discrimination has continued into modern times.

Animistic beliefs are strongly associated with the culture of fishing villages and are primarily a phenomenon found in rural communities. Shamans also treat the ills of city people, however, especially recent migrants from the countryside who find adjustment to an impersonal urban life stressful. The government has discouraged belief in shamanism as superstition and for many years minimized its persistence in Korean life. Yet in a climate of growing nationalism and cultural self-confidence, the dances, songs, and incantations that compose the kut have come to be recognized as an important aspect of Korean culture. Beginning in the 1970s, rituals that formerly had been kept out of foreign view began to resurface, and occasionally a Western hotel manager or other executive could even be seen attending a shamanistic exorcism ritual in the course of opening a new branch in Seoul. Some of these aspects of kut have been designated valuable cultural properties that should be preserved and passed on to future generations.

The future of shamanism itself was uncertain in the late 1980s. Observers believed that many of its functions in the future probably will be performed by the psychiatric profession as the government expands mental health treatment facilities. Given the uncertainty of social, economic, and political conditions, however, it appears certain that shamans will find large numbers of clients for some time to come.

Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism

Daoism, which focuses on the individual in nature rather than the individual in society, and Buddhism entered Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period (fourth to seventh centuries A.D.). Daoist motifs are seen in the paintings on the walls of Koguryo tombs. Buddhism was the dominant religious and cultural influence during the Silla (A.D. 668-935) and Koryo (918-1392) dynasties. Confucianism also was brought to Korea from China in early centuries, but it occupied a subordinate position until the establishment of the Choson Dynasty and the persecution of Buddhism carried out by the early Choson Dynasty kings.

Christianity

Roman Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Korea until 1794, a decade after the return of the first baptized Korean from a visit to Beijing. However, the writings of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who was resident at the imperial court in Beijing, had been brought to Korea from China in the seventeenth century. It appears that scholars of the Sirhak, or practical learning, school were interested in these writings. Largely because converts refused to perform Confucian ancestor rites, the government prohibited the proselytization of Christianity. Some Catholics were executed during the early nineteenth century, but the anti-Christian law was not strictly enforced. By the 1860s, there were some 17,500 Roman Catholics in the country. There followed a more rigorous persecution, in which thousands of Christians died, that continued until 1884.

Protestant missionaries entered Korea during the 1880s and, along with Catholic priests, converted a remarkable number of Koreans. Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. They established schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages and played a significant role in the modernization of the country. During the Japanese colonial occupation, Christians were in the front ranks of the struggle for independence. Factors contributing to the growth of Protestantism included the disorganized state of Korean Buddhism, the efforts made by educated Christians to reconcile Christian and Confucian values (the latter being viewed as purely a social ethic rather than a religion), the encouragement of self-support and selfgovernment among members of the Korean church, and the identification of Christianity with Korean nationalism.

A large number of Christians lived in the northern part of the peninsula where Confucian influence was not as strong as in the south. Before 1948 P'yongyang was an important Christian center: one-sixth of its population of about 300,000 people were converts. Following the establishment of a communist regime in the north, however, most Christians had to flee to South Korea or face persecution.

New religions

Ch'ondogyo, generally regarded as the first of Korea's "new religions," is another important religious tradition. It is a synthesis of Confucian, Buddhist, shamanistic, Daoist, and Catholic influences. Ch'ondogyo grew out of the Donghak Movement (also called Eastern Learning Movement) established by Choe Je-u, a man of yangban background who claimed to have experienced a mystic encounter with God, who told him to preach to all the world. Ch'oe was executed by the government as a heretic in 1863, but not before he had acquired a number of followers and had committed his ideas to writing. Tonghak spread among the poor people of Korea's villages, especially in the Cholla region, and was the cause of a revolt against the royal government in 1894. While some members of the Tonghak Movement-- renamed Ch'ondogyo (Teachings of the Heavenly Way)--supported the Japanese annexation in 1910, others opposed it. This group played a major role, along with Christians and some Confucians, in the Korean nationalist movement. In the 1920s, Ch'ondogyo sponsored Kaebyok (Creation), one of Korea's major intellectual journals during the colonial period.

Ch'ondogyo's basic beliefs include the essential equality of all human beings. Each person must be treated with respect because all persons "contain divinity;" there is "God in man." Moreover, men and women must sincerely cultivate themselves in order to bring forth and express this divinity in their lives. Self-perfection, not ritual and ceremony, is the way to salvation. Although Ch'oe and his followers did not attempt to overthrow the social order and establish a radical egalitarianism, the revolutionary potential of Ch'ondogyo is evident in these basic ideas, which appealed especially to poor people who were told that they, along with scholars and high officials, could achieve salvation through effort. There is reason to believe that Ch'ondogyo had an important role in the development of democratic and anti-authoritarian thought in Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ch'ondogyo's antecedent, the Tonghak Movement, received renewed interest among many Korean intellectuals.

Apart from Ch'ondogyo, major new religions included Taejonggyo, which has as its central creed the worship of Tangun, legendary founder of the Korean nation. Chungsanggyo, founded in the early twentieth century, emphasizes magical practices and the creation of a paradise on earth. It is divided into a great number of competing branches. Wonbulgyo, or Won Buddhism, attempts to combine traditional Buddhist doctrine with a modern concern for social reform and revitalization. There are also a number of small sects which have sprung up around Mount Kyeryong in South Ch'ungch'ong Province, the supposed future site of the founding of a new dynasty originally prophesied in the eighteenth century.

Several new religions derive their inspiration from Christianity. The Chondogwan, or Evangelical Church, was founded by Pak T'ae-son. Pak originally was a Presbyterian, but was expelled from the church for heresy in the 1950s after claiming for himself unique spiritual power. By 1972 his followers numbered as many as 700,000 people, and he built several "Christian towns," established a large church network, and managed several industrial enterprises.

Because of its overseas evangelism, the Hold Spirit Association for the Unification of the World Christianity, or Unification Church (T'ongilgyo), founded in 1954 by Reverend Sun Myong Moon (Mun Son-myong), also a former Christian, is the most famous Korean new religion. During its period of vigorous expansion during the 1970s, the Unification Church had several hundred thousand members in South Korea and Japan and a substantial (although generally overestimated) number of members in North America and Western Europe. Moon claimed that he was the "messiah" designated by God to unify all the peoples of the world into one "family," governed theocratically by himself. Like Pak's Evangelical Church, the Unification Church has been highly authoritarian, demanding absolute obedience from church members. Moon, for example, has arranged marriages for his younger followers; United States television audiences were treated some years ago to a mass ceremony at which several hundred young "Moonies" were married. Also like Pak, Moon has coupled the church's fortunes to economic expansion. Factories in South Korea and abroad manufacture arms and process ginseng and seafood, artistic bric-a-brac, and other items. Moon's labor force has worked long hours and been paid minimal wages in order to channel profits into church coffers. Virulently anticommunist, Moon has sought to influence public opinion at home and abroad by establishing generally unprofitable newspapers such as the Segye Ilbo in Seoul, the Sekai Nippo in Tokyo, and the Washington Times in the United States capital, and by inviting academics to lavish international conferences, often held in South Korea. At home, the Unification Church was viewed with suspicion by the authorities because of its scandals and Moon's evident desire to create a "state within a state." His influence, however, had declined by the late 1980s.

Other religions

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Islam

A mosque in Seoul.

The number of Muslims in South Korea is estimated at about 40,000 mainly consisting of people who converted during the Korean WarTurkish people]] by [[Turks| and their descendents and not including migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia. The largest mosque is the Seoul Central Mosque in the Itaewon district of Seoul; smaller mosques can be found in most of the country's major cities.

In addition to native Korean Muslims, there are some 100,000 foreign workers from Muslim countries,[6] particularly Bangladesh and Pakistan.[7]

Judaism

Main article: History of the Jews in South Korea

The Jewish presence in South Korea effectively began with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. At this time a large number of Jewish soldiers, including the chaplain Chaim Potok, came to the Korean peninsula. Today the Jewish community is very small and limited to the Seoul metropolitan area. There have been very few Korean converts to Judaism.

See also

References

External links


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