Young South Koreans are increasingly drawn to Buddhism via social media-savvy influencers

BY JUWON PARK, AP, May 15, 2024

SEOUL, South Korea -- A South Korean deejay dressed as a Buddhist monk bounced up and down on stage while playing electronic music and shouting: “This too shall pass!” The performance brought cheers from a crowd of thousands at an annual lantern-lighting festival over the weekend to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday.

Religious belief in South Korea has been on the decline for years. In 2021, just 22% of South Koreans in their 20s identified as religious, compared to 45% in 2004, according to a Gallup poll. But that might be changing as social media fuels an uptick in interest in Buddhism among young people.

The festival DJ, Youn Sung Ho, is a significant contributor to this trend. Youn, who is also a comedian, said he has received much support from the younger generations, especially Millennials and Gen Z, for his Buddhist monk alter ego, whom he calls NewJeansNim.

Youn said he created the persona last year when he was deejaying at the lantern-lighting ceremony. “I wasn’t NewJeansNim at the time. I was the comedian Youn Sung Ho. It was just my authentic self.”

But he wore a hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing that resembles a monk’s robe, and said the performance video drew millions of views on social media. “That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, I need to make a character quickly,’” he said.

From South Korea to India, devotees mark the birthday of Buddha with lanterns and prayers He carefully built his alter ego while seeking support from Buddhist leaders in South Korea, trying to balance popular culture with authentic Buddhist teachings.

NewJeansNim is a hybrid moniker of Sunim, a Korean title for Buddhist monks, and NewJean, a Dharma name that a senior monk gave him, Youn said.

Youn’s DJ-monk persona has attracted many young South Korean adults to Buddhism, including Kwon Dohyun, a university student who attended the lantern-lighting festival with two friends and was excited to see NewJeansNim perform.

“Isn’t the hairstyle really hip?″ Kwon told The Associated Press, adding that his interest in Buddhism also stemmed from the perceived inclusivity and openness of the faith.

Youn’s popularity especially among young adults was apparent at the weekend’s performance as they cheered while he sang lyrics from his latest song: “Suffering because your paycheck didn’t go up… My stocks are down; Monday can’t come soon enough.”

Youn believes his attempts to break the traditional mold have struck a chord with young South Koreans. “It was so new and exciting to people for someone to make electronic music and make people jump, jump, in this serious, solemn religion of Buddhism,” he said.

Youn said most people associate Buddhism with quiet temples in the mountains, wind chimes, chanting, quiet meditation and sitting still.

“People think these are Buddhism, but what I am doing now is the opposite,” he said.

Another Buddhist who has been garnering young followers on social media is Venerable Beomjeong, who is also known as Kkotsnim, which means “flower monk” in Korean. He is active on Instagram where he communicates with Buddhists and non-believers alike.

Beomjeong frequently uploads photos of himself with captions featuring Buddhist teachings and his thoughts.

“People think monks are supposed to be noble, they are supposed to be in the mountains, they are supposed to be purer than anyone else,” he said, adding he hopes to dispel such notions about monks and Buddhism in Korean society through social media.

He said he receives many messages asking him basic questions about Buddhism such as: Are monks not supposed to eat meat? Are monks allowed to marry? He’s also been asked: “Will you marry me?”

He said aims for his answers to be straightforward but carefully worded.

“I tell it like it is. I don’t want to be too mystical or conservative, but I think I speak on behalf of the precepts and many monks in the Jogye Order, not just myself,” he said.

Beomjeong and NewJeansNim both say their efforts to draw younger generations to Buddhism have left them open to criticism.

“Korean Buddhist monks had a perception of: ’How dare he flaunt his looks and does Instagram as someone who became monastic,’” Beomjeong said.

“There’s feedback like: “Oh, you’re a fallen monk, and you’re tarnishing Buddhism,’” Youn said.

But Youn said such criticisms come from people who resist change and that “young MZs (Millennials and Gen Z) who want and like new things are so welcoming and love it.”

Beomjeong said he is happy to be considered an influencer if it means sharing messages about Buddhism with the public.

“I don’t know what it means to be an influencer, but if I can get many people to see and hear what I say, I want to be an influencer,” Beomjeong said. “It would be very good for me to spread the Dharma and help many people remove some prejudices about Buddhism through me. Then I think I’ve done my job.”

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