Korea is a model for inter-faith harmony
By Chun Ock-bae
The 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history. It is a shame that many have killed or been killed due to religious strife. Samuel P. Huntington, a famous political scientist, insisted that the 'Clash of Civilization' might bring more disasters in the 21st century, especially from religious conflicts.
Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future would be along cultural and religious lines.
Religion is an absolute belief-system and also an ultimate value-system. Accordingly, contemporary multi-religious society constitutes a situation where many absolute beliefs and ultimate values co-exist. Thus, there are potential dangers of conflicts in a multi-religious situation.
A religious conflict could lead to a religious war, which is the most ugly and dangerous kind of war.
Therefore, the potential danger posed in multi-religious situations should be overcome one way or another.
Here we need inter-religious dialogue and understanding more urgently than in any other time. Professor Max Mueller, the greatest scholar in religion, defines that "To know one religion is to know none."
Mutual understanding through inter-faith dialogue is the only solution to settle religious conflicts arising from the misunderstanding of other religions. All religions enrich their own faith by understanding their neighbors.
The inter-religious friendship and understanding between Catholic Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan and Buddhist Master Beop Jeong is a well-known story, which reflects the inter-religious harmony and dialogue in Korea.
Cardinal Kim sometimes visited Buddhist temples and gave sermons while venerable Beop Jeong visited cathedrals often for his Dharma talks.
On top of that, Christian churches and Buddhist temples have exchanged greetings on each other’s holy days in recent years. On Christmas day, the Buddhist Jogye Order officially congratulated the coming of Christ on Christmas, while the Catholic Church sent a congratulatory message to the Buddhist order for the birth of the Buddha. It shows that the spirit of inter-religious dialogue and peaceful co-existence has spread among religious society in Korea.
Since 1998, Korean religious society has decided to use the more friendly term of ‘neighbor religion’ instead of ‘other religion’ when they refer to different faiths.
The Korean Conference on Religion and Peace (KCRP) has organized lecture programs to help educate youths as well as religious leaders for a better understanding of neighbor religions.
Another example of inter-religious friendship and dialogue is an organization called ‘Samsohoe’ (the Association of Three Nuns), which was established in 1988. Catholic, Buddhist and Won-Buddhist nuns have developed regular inter-faith dialogue and meetings for diverse social activities in local communities.
For the scholars who are interested in religious pluralism and inter-faith dialogue, the Korean peninsula is a fascinating country to study and explore.
The spectrum of religious beliefs and practices in Korea is far wider than almost any other place on earth. Some scholars say that Korea is “the museum of all religions".
Also Korea has been considered as a good example of inter-religious dialogue in this age of religious conflicts occurring everywhere around the world.
In Korea, there has been no single religion to lead Korean society yet. Although various religions coexist, no religion has taken a representative position.
There are numerous religions from the East to the West, from the ancient to contemporary. Korea enjoys one of the most complex and diverse religious cultures.
Just by walking the streets of Korea's cities and towns (and looking at the signs on the buildings around you), you can find ample evidence of this religious diversity.
The first thing you will notice is the dominance of many churches and cathedrals along the streets and alleys. South Korea is the third largest Christian country in Asia, behind the Philippines and East Timor.
An attentive observer would also notice the resurgence of urban Buddhism. Korean temples, traditionally, are situated in the mountains. However, on the busy streets of Gangnam area in Seoul, you can find one of the biggest temples, Bongeun temple for a templestay.
Neungin Seonwon, the biggest temple in Korea, is also situated at the heart of the city. Close attention to the signs on homes, offices, and apartment buildings will reveal that shamanism is also alive and well. Though the offices of shamans lack the architectural distinctiveness of Christian churches and Buddhist temples, they can be identified by reverse swastikas (Buddhist emblem for auspiciousness, which originated in ancient India) on building walls.
Korean religion is a kind of reservoir in which many classical religions are preserved in almost original form. This can be understood easily from the Mahayana Buddhist practice system in monasteries, the continuous practice of Confucian rituals, the long-lasting influence of Shamanism and the fundamental belief of Protestantism.
Korean religious history shows dual attitudes toward other religions. One is the exclusive tendency of individual religions to maintain their identities. The other is the inclusive attitude, to recognize the co-existence and co-operation with other religions.
Although there are some examples of exclusivism in Korean history, it was the general inclination to opt for inclusivism and syncretism. With the exception of a few short periods, Korean religions have demonstrated openness to other religions, irrespective of doctrinal differences.
It seems that one of the ideals of Korean culture may be the attainment of harmony and unity beyond religious differences. The goal of Korean culture has been the driving force to integrate the traditional customs with foreign cultures.
History of Inter-religious Movement
Religions have been regarded by Koreans as a means for the unification of the nation and its people. Despite the co-existence of so many religions, Korean history has never witnessed a national split caused by religious differences. Rather, religions have united to safeguard the nation when faced with a crisis.
During the Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), the religious leaders of Korea cooperated to play a key role in the independence movement irrespective of whatever religions they belong to, especially the March First Independence movement in 1919.
It is significant that the indigenous religion, Cheondo-gyo (literary meaning the Religion of Heavenly Way), played a pivotal role in this movement.
Later, under the military authoritarian government in the 1960s, the religious communities initiated the various democratization struggles. Among them, harmonious efforts through dialogue by the Christian Academy deserve particular attention.
They opened the pro-democracy movement by helping to bring workers, students and intellectuals together in dialogue. We may say that the Christian Academy sowed the seeds of modern inter-religious dialogue in Korea
The Christian Academy played a central role for the birth of the Association of Religion in Korea (ARK). The ARK was the largest inter-religious organization, the members of which represent Confucianism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Won-Buddhism, Cheondo-gyo, Unification Church and Islam.
Its purpose is to overcome conflicts among different religions, to solve social problems such as the unification of South and North Korea, and to take part in reaching world peace. For such a purpose, it practices an inter-religious dialogue movement, national unification movements and international cooperation among religions.
The third Asian Conference on Religion and Peace (ACRP) general meeting in Seoul in 1986 created momentum for revitalizing the spirit of inter-faith harmony. Leaders of six religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Won-Buddhism, and Cheondo-gyo) prepared the general meeting together.
They organized the Korean Conference on Religion and Peace (KCRP) as a channel for inter-faith dialogue and cooperation.
Its aim is to promote exchanges and cooperation among people of different religions and to accomplish a better society by carrying out common tasks not only in, but also outside of Korea. Later the Association of Native Religions in Korea joined the KCRP, consisting of seven religions as its members.
In short, the purpose of this united organization is to promote dialogue and mutual understanding and to cope with diverse social problems such as environmental pollution, drugs, and prostitution. In 1993 the KCRP held a great congregation meeting on the subject of “Religions and Ecological Ethics,” and issued a manifesto on ecological ethics.
Society of harmony
In terms of cultural and social points of view, religion can be described as an absolute belief system. Therefore, the co-existence of many religions means that many absolute belief systems are also co-existing.
An absolute belief system inevitably causes conflict due to the claim of its absoluteness. Such conflicts can be overcome only when a sound relationship is established among the different belief systems. That’s the reason we need inter-faith dialogue and understanding between different belief systems.
The religious climate of Korea today is the result of the religious disposition of the Korean people.
Koreans have actively accepted foreign religions and creatively transformed them, meshing with their own indigenous ones.
Furthermore, Koreans have never lost their positive, passionate and practical sensibility in terms of religious acceptability. As a result, they came to possess multi-leveled belief and practices, throwing off religious dogmas, and developed harmonious and generous attitudes toward different religions.
In the coming years the inter-religious dialogue in Korea is expected to continue to develop, with the active participation of all seven major faiths.
This will surely lead the nation along the road toward the unification of the two Koreas through common efforts for peace and reconciliation beyond the ideological barrier between the South and the North.