Korea’s transformation into an industrial powerhouse has been accompanied by an equally dramatic spiritual shift. With Christians now dominant in political and economic life, Buddhists wonder whether they have a role to play in the country’s future.
It shouldn’t have been that disconcerting to hear an evangelical Protestant minister extol God’s goodness for guiding the Pilgrims safely to America, where they could establish a Christian ethic that would one day shape the moral values of a nation. Granted, the church was stadium-sized, the 100-person choir was accompanied by a 32-piece orchestra and the service was being televised to millions, but we Americans are used to television ministries that have somehow managed to hybridize Puritan-inspired religion and Hollywood spectaculars. Except this wasn’t America: it was Korea, known in theology circles as home to the purest Buddhism in Asia.
The pre-Thanksgiving Sunday service that I and 25,000 other attendees were witnessing took place in the Yoido Full Gospel Church of Seoul, South Korea, which, at 800,000 members (many of whom were watching via simultaneous transmission in satellite churches around the country) calls itself the biggest church in the world. Evangelical Christianity took hold here following the Korean War, when many Koreans studied in the United States, sometimes on church scholarships, and returned influenced by Western ideas. In recent decades, as South Korea’s social philosophy segued from the ancestor worship of Confucianism to free market capitalism, the country has undergone a spiritual conversion, and is now nearly fifty percent Christian. Christians and Buddhists alike told me, with pride and concern respectively, that to get elected these days, South Korean politicians have to be Christian. Although Korean Protestant churches maintain strong ties with their American evangelical counterparts, in this now-prosperous country they aren’t dependent on them. In fact Yoido Full Gospel actually sends missionaries to the United States, and maintains its own Bible college in Orange County, California.
Korea’s religious transformation hasn’t been painless. In the 1990s, temples were burned and Buddha statues were beheaded as a Christian president openly equated Buddhist and Satanic images. The conflict is no longer so open. But Korean Buddhists today worry about being overwhelmed in a society where commercialism and religion grow increasingly indistinguishable. Downtown Seoul’s Jogye-sa Temple, center of the largest sect of Korean Buddhism, has recently been surrounded by 25-story buildings that in the past would never have been permitted. The glass from one of the highest skyscrapers reflects light so intensely into an adjacent temple that monks can’t meditate, even with their eyes closed. The building’s Swedish architect was horrified to learn this – in his country, reflective angles are carefully controlled to avoid violating a church’s holy sanctum. But here, a Buddhist monk told me, no one even bothered to consult them. “It’s like we no longer exist.”
– Alan Weisman