Yesterday, we studied the major religions of Korea. The most prevalent religion in Korea today is Christianity with 35 percent claiming it as their religion. Usually in developed, industrialized countries participation in religion declines. Not so in Korea. The number claiming to have no religion has dropped by approximately 10 percent with a 9 percent lift in those claiming Christianity as their religion and a lift of 3 percent claiming Buddhism as their religion over the last 30 years. The other religions which currently have less than 1 percent of the population claiming to practice are Shamanism and Confucian.
As I learned about these religions previously practiced in Korea, particularly Shamanism and Confucianism I wondered if beliefs held in these religions laid the groundwork for Christianity being accepted and practiced here. The first Christian denomination to grow in Korea was Catholicism. This denomination of Christianity contains more ritual than most other Christian denominations. Koreans were familiar with ritual due to the practice of Confucianism, which is largely a system of ethical relationships and responsibilities.
Although not practiced, or at least openly practiced, you will also still see vestiges of shamanism in Korea. Shamans communicate with spirits to resolve problems among the living. Also, according to one lecturer, shamans still exist in Korea, though the practice of shamanism was illegal for a period of time. It is now legalized but still not widely accepted. Currently, shamans sometimes operate in temples up in the mountains with a Buddhist temple front. According to one film we watched, there are also public spaces Shamans can rent to perform rituals for their clients. Shamans are over taken or possessed by “ancestral” spirits when they perform their rituals and sometimes this involves animal sacrifices.
Buddhism is, according to the statistics presented to us, is the second largest religion in Korea (20 percent) but very few of the adherents of this religion would consider it very important to them. One of the key words or concepts in Buddhism is suffering. Those practicing Buddhism are encouraged to explore suffering, attractions, aversions of self and ultimately try to demolish self in the path of seeking enlightenment. Ethical conduct, mindfulness and self restraint aid one along this path. Followers of Buddha try to develop compassion, self restraint and gentleness. Buddhist never really stop studying the “suffering of oneself and that of other people” (http://www.homeoint.org/morrell/buddhism/suffering.htm).
Koreans were also familiar with concepts of suffering and sacrifice through Buddhism and Shamanism. Both of these themes are central to Christianity as well. A central theme of Buddhism is suffering, and within the Catholic tradition, the suffering of Christ is especially focused on in the weeks leading up to Easter. Easter is the celebration of Jesus, the Christ, rising from the dead and ascending back into heaven. Three days prior to this, Jesus had been sacrificed. Koreans were familiar with sacrifice with the ritualistic sacrifice of animals by the shaman, while possessed by the “ancestral” spirits. There is no need for animal sacrifices in Christianity, however, as Jesus, the one who suffered on the cross, was the ultimate sacrifice himself. Christians, however will offer up their lives to God and become a “living sacrifice”, which likely accounts for why most Christians, at least when polled in Korea, would have said that their faith/religion was somewhat to very important to them. A very small percentage of Buddhist said the same thing when polled. Christians might experience suffering as a key aspect of their religion/faith especially in countries where Christianity is illegal, so Christianity and Buddhism both share the concept of suffering in some ways.
There was a familiarity with spirits and the spirit world in Korea due to the centrality of spirits being beckoned to help in the problems of the living through the work of the Shaman on her client’s behalf.
There is also belief in the spirit world in Christianity. There are many spirits including the Holy Spirit, which Jesus called “the comforter”. Jesus said he would send the comforter to his disciples once he ascended back to God in the heavenly realm. In shamanism, the shaman is possessed by the spirits. In Christianity, people who want to become “Christian” will invite the Holy Spirit/Jesus/God into their heart and be “possessed” by God as it were. The Holy Spirit living and abiding in the Christian is what is promised to provide joy and a “peace that passes understanding” amidst circumstances that normally produce suffering. A Christian receives peace and a place in heaven with God in the afterlife through the act of inviting the spirit of God to dwell in them (asking Jesus into their heart). There is a possession by the holy spirit in Christian believers while in Shamanism just the Shaman becomes possessed by spirits. A Buddhist does not talk about spirits or the spirit world, but rather seeks enlightenment through practices such as mindfulness, self-restraint and gentleness. There is an afterlife in Buddhism, but that comes through reincarnation.
Christianity was brought to Korea by a Korean who visited China and came to know Christ through a Catholic priest he met there. This Korean man brought Christianity back to his own country and began sharing the gospel with his country men. Christianity, therefore, was not brought to Korea by missionaries. Today almost 1/3 of all South Koreans claim Christianity as their own religion and the vast majority of them consider their religion to be either very important or somewhat important to them. Practicing of the faith to which you adhere seems to be an important aspect of people’s lifestyle in Korea today.