Korea's Religious Places - Introduction
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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Visitors to Korea are often struck by the displays of religion all around them. Buddhist temples are the most colorful, and often find their way onto calendars and tourist brochures. But Confucian shrines, including gravesites, are also visible throughout the countryside. And in city and country, Christian churches are found within every three or four blocks, which at night are revealed by lighted crosses. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity are apparent to the casual visitor, but if one knows how to find it, a shaman house or office is also easy to find. This book will visit the famous and the typical sacred sites of the four major traditions—Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Shamanism—as well as other religions.
This book examines Korean religion from its visual manifestations. We will examine the major religious sites and explore the significance of each. In the process, we will highlight the important aspects of the religion, particularly as it is revealed architecturally and symbolically in the important religious sites that we will visit on the pages of this book.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Korean religion, perhaps of all Korean culture, is Bulguksa Temple (-sa means temple), particularly the front steps and the arches over symbolic rivers that support the staircases. If not the front steps of Bulguksa Temple, it might be the man-made stone grotto that enshrines a Buddha image, called Seokguram Grotto, which is administratively a part of Bulguksa Temple, but is located high on the hill overlooking the famous temple grounds. These images of this famous Buddhist temple—the name of which means “Temple of the Buddha Land”—and many other Buddhist images would give the impression that Buddhism is the dominant religion of Korea.
In terms of iconography, indeed, Buddhism is dominant, but in terms of numbers of adherents, Buddhism is rivaled by Christianity. Yet, in another sense, both are outnumbered by adherents of Confucianism and Shamanism. All four major traditions have religious places, but some are more obvious while others are more subtle and harder to find. The types of locations and their structures are different for each of these four major traditions. This book will help you to see the obvious structures (Buddhist and Christian buildings are in this category) and the less obvious (including Confucian sites, and the truly hard-to-find Shamanistic sites).
There is always a debate about whether one should consider Confucianism a religion. Polls taken by government agencies and private companies indicate that as little as 1 percent of the people claim Confucianism as their religion, and that says that Confucianism is indeed a religion to that sector of society. But in a larger sense, Confucianism is believed, or more accurately stated, Confucian social mores and ancestor ceremonies are practiced by a large percentage of the people. Levels of language showing respect for seniors, and ethics classes taught in school bear elements of Confucianism that affect all of society. Those who argue that Confucianism is not a religion say that it is a philosophy or a set of ethics. They also point out that there is no god figure in Confucianism. Indeed, Confucius and his disciples were more political consultants than they were preachers. Confucius and Mencius left records of their discussions with kings and other political leaders, where they spoke of morality and social responsibilities.