Since starting this Gathering Faith project, I have been amazed at all the opportunities to learn more about other religions. I have always loved the Olympics and my favorite part (not that the actual athletic events aren’t incredible) has to be the opening ceremonies. Presented in a stunning display of pageantry, the host country has a moment to share a little piece of its soul with the world. Today as I sat enthralled by the opening ceremonies, I was curious about the religious landscape of South Korea. I spent some time this afternoon researching the faith traditions of Korea and here are some thoughts…
From my initial online search, Korea seemed largely non-religious with almost half of the population of South Korea claiming no religious affiliation. (This number is even larger in North Korea) However, many in this group are influenced by the folklore and customs of traditional Korean Shamanism, known as Muism or Sinism. You may have noticed this if you watched the opening ceremonies which featured Ungyo, the bear turned human from the Korean creation story. Here is one account:
“The story goes that a Heavenly Prince, Hwangun looked down at earth and desired to possess it and rule over mankind. His father, the Ruler of Heaven, Hwanin knew that his son would bring happiness to human beings and, looking at the earth, chose Mount Taebak as a suitable place for his son to go to earth. Hwangun arrives beneath a sandalwood tree where he creates a holy city. He brings with him three heavenly seals, somewhat mysterious in nature, and 3000 loyal subjects from heaven, which are possibly spirits.
The story moves now to a bear and a tiger, both desiring to become human beings. Set the task of shunning sunlight and eating only the food given to them by Hwangun (some mugwort and twenty cloves of garlic), the bear succeeds in earning Hwangun’s approval while the tiger fails to fast, fleeing into the forest. The bear becomes a beautiful woman, Ungyo (bear woman) and becomes the wife of Hwangun. Their son is Tangun, the King of Sandalwood. Tangun becomes the first king of Korea, calling his country choson and ruling for 1500 years.”
These traditional beliefs, full of its colorful spiritual connections, continue to influence the people of Korea and can still be be seen interwoven with later religious movements.
Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism integrated to some extent with these native belief systems to form another layer of faith in the Korean nation. My favorite part of the opening ceremonies was the drum section when the women in the drum circle transformed into the Ying and Yang of the Korean flag. I had never noticed this symbol as a part of their flag before, but it demonstrates that the Daoist and Confucian concepts of duality and oneness are deeply felt by the people this flag represents. I found it very inspiring and am interested to learn more about the concept of ying and yang.
I was surprised to learn what a high proportion Koreans identify as Christian. Some statistics name Christianity as the 2nd largest organized region (after Buddhism) with 1 in 4 citizens belonging to one of the many Christian denominations. Elements of Christian teaching found within the opening ceremony include the call to bring peace and light into the world.
This message of peace was a strong theme throughout the ceremony. I found myself moved to tears by the entrance of the North Korean and South Korean athletes entering the stadium together. I am no political expert and I am sure the skeptics were rolling their eyes, but for one moment fear had been replaced with faith. Enemies shook hands and the world was given a fragile yet incredible gift; hope.
Have I said yet how much I LOVE the Olympics? I am excited for more opportunities to gain more information and inspiration throughout these precious weeks of international cooperation as we witness these athletes on this world stage become faster, higher, stronger!
P.S. If you want to learn more about religion in Korea, here is an article from the asiansociety.org that I found helpful.