Religion Part 2 – Buddhism

Bulguksa, one of the most beautiful temples of Korea

Before I start, I want to make sure to stress that I have never been a Buddhist nor do I have any deep scholarly knowledge of Buddhism. I share with you what little I know that I have been exposed to and my perceptions of Buddhism that got from exploring many temples, both within and outside Korea.

Hallways of Bulguksa

So Buddhism in Korea…As I said in the religion part 1  post, Buddhism is one of the primary religions in Korea. If one has spent any amount of time in Korea, it is hard not to be exposed to Buddhism. As someone who has always loved temples (and I’m equally partial to cathedrals and mosques), I have been inside my share of many Buddhist temples around the world (all over southeast Asia, Butan, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc.) and I have to say that Korean temples are quite different from many others I visited, at least in one aspect — there are no god statues  inside the temples. 

Temple protectors

It sounds strange that you would find gods inside Buddhist temples as Buddhism isn’t really a religion, is it? It is a way of life, not belief in some supernatural. Well, the vast majority (I should say almost all) of the temples I have entered outside Korea have local gods inside the temple alongside Buddha. The only god-ish thing you will find in Korean temples are four protection figures (of north, south, east, west) as you enter the temple. I heard that Korean Buddhism is not like others in that those who adopted felt there was some kind of inconsistency and sought to correct it. I have no idea what they are nor how Korean Buddhism is specifically different, but it is. 

Temples are usually on top of the mountains

Historically speaking, Buddhism came to Korea through the northern kingdom of Goguryeo (~4th century) during the three kingdoms era (I keep thinking four in my head since there were four actually). This makes sense since most influences seem to propagate from the mainland through the peninsula then to the islands. Yet, there is another strange little story of Buddhism appearing in Korea even before then. 

Gaya iron horse armour

There is that fourth kingdom of Gaya (Geumguan Gaya so called), that was a formidable kingdom, but mysteriously unknown that had existed southwest of Korean peninsula. Gaya had more advanced iron weapons, and were known to be great seafarers. It is said that one of their great kings married a princess from India and she had brought Buddhism to Korea even before it came through from the north. Many point to some of the very faintly remaining historical texts and some interesting motifs in temples of the south to support this hypothesis; yet, there is no solid proof of this assertion.

Gaya mini crown

Personally, I would like to believe this story. A beautiful princess who crossed the sea to marry a king of strange land…could it have ended in a love story that also started Buddhism in Korea?

Religion Part 1 – Christianity in Korea

People are somehow very surprised that 2 of the 3 main religions in Korea is christianity, that is catholics and other christians. In Korea, people somehow separate catholics and christians. Don’t ask why as christinity (in all forms) came all at once to Korea over 100 years ago. I am not sure why christianity was so attractive to Koreans. Despite the initial persecution, the religion took root rapidly and spread wide.

I am technically a christian since my family, at least as far back as my grandparents’ generation on both sides, followed that faith. Well, but I say technically since I consider myself more spiritual nowadays. Since all of my grandparents have already passed away, they would not be upset at me for saying that. But if they were alive, they might have a slight problem with my “technical” christianity.

For some strange reason, you will find that the majority of Korean christians are extremely devout, almost fanatically so. This is one of the reasons why I seem to have very few Korean friends (as you can imagine, this is a bit out of norm). My lack of Korean friends is due to — as soon as I become even remotely close to any Korean people, they try to get me to go to their church. As I am not really a believer in an organized religion, this is a bit of a problem for me. Of course, the friendship fizzles after that since they honestly think I might go to hell or something because I refuse to go to their church. And it’s not just enough that I tell them I’m technically christian. It has to be their church or no church at all.

Thankfully, my parents were only slightly pushy about their religion. I suppose it helps that my mom studied theology (yes, she could have become a pastor if she so had desired). This is the reason why I grew up a little differently compared to others. My parents encouraged me to go to church on the weekends (occasionally forced), but also took me to catholic masses and Buddhist temples. This is not very typical. Most christians in Korea tend to be really anti-non-Christian religions.

So, now that I’ve introduced one of the main religions of Korea, I suppose my next post will have to be the other main religion in Korea…Buddhism, which, by the way, is quite different from ones you find in many other countries in Korea. Yes, not all Buddhism are alike!