Saturday, January 05, 2008


In Korea, there exists a connection to the past. It's a harmonious bond that holds on to the past while allowing the pace of modernity to remain constant.

Amidst the backdrop of fashion, people, buildings and globalization, stands an older Korean Buddhist monk. He's clad in the traditional Korean Buddhist red and grey robe. Calmly he walks past old movie posters that are on display in the subway station. He has not seen nor heard of any of the movies. It's a world that he has chosen not to be a part of.

He reaches into his robe and reveals a card which he then proceeds to swipe as he slowly walks through the subway turnstile. He has a clean shaven head, thick glasses and a grin that speaks without words.

He is one of the millions of observing Buddhists in Korea and here he is, riding the backed subway amongst the millions of businessmen, teachers, students, artists, and doctors. The subway doors open and he waits his turn to board. A seat opens, but he just stands there watching the vacant seat. He does not sit. He does not move.

The train comes to a stop and he calmly exits. No one noticed him. No one thought twice about what his presence meant, but he was there and he is part of this society.

A mother and her daughter get out of their new BMW. Mom, in her fashionable pant-suit, is hurrying her nine year old daughter who is typically more reluctant to practicpate in the weekly visits to the temple. It's a dreary day and the sounds and sights of the city are in the background washing away any natural sounds that might be coming from the small patch of nearby trees. She takes her daughters hand and together they walk towards one of the many Buddha statues. The closer they get, the more serious they both get. The whining has stopped and both of them have a more serene expression on their face. They stop in front of a very large white stone Buddha. I watch.

They remove their shoes and bow. It's silent. They're silent. They stand up and walk towards a small monastery where a resident monk is chanting. Inside they bow, light incense and worship. Some time later, they open the decorated wooden doors, walk to their car and join the Seoul traffic that never seems to end and head back to their busy lives.

Korea has an interesting way of blending the new with the old. Many people like to taunt or say that Korea is only 50 plus years old and if they were discussing the political South Korea, then they would be right. South Korea was formed in 1948. However, the Korean people have been here for thousands of years. Koreans are believed to be descendants of Altaic speaking tribes, linking them with Mongolians, Tungusics, Turkics, and other Central Asians. Like most, they started as small hunter and gatherer kin groups. They developed indepently from other peoples and, from that, have an earned deep and rich sense of pride.

Prior to the introduction of Buddhism by the Chinese in the third century, Koreans were mostly Shamanistic. While Korean Buddhism initially enjoyed wide acceptance, even being supported as the state ideology during the Goryeo period, Buddhism in Korea suffered extreme repression during the Joseon dynasty, which lasted for several hundred years. During this period, Neo-Confucian ideology overcame the prior dominance of Buddhism.

The Koreans out-Confuciast the Chinese and as a result Confucianism left it's mark on Korea and is deeply rooted in all facets of Korean culture and stratum.

The pictures I have posted on here show the contrast between the fast-growing Korea and its past.

The hotel in the background in the one that mom will be staying at in May.

It's interesting to me to see a mother and daughter bowing and worshiping like this. Buddhism to me has always been very mysterious, solemn and for some reason, only practiced by those in the rural mountains of Asia. Seeing young people and families practicing their Buddhist faith is so contrary to what I always imagined. The monk walking through the busy subway station is the last location one would expect to see a monk, but there he was.

I think that Korea has an amazing and facinating history. There are so many elements to it and so much has happened on this small peninsula. The Korea that the world knows now really amazes me. Korea melds their history with their future and does it so well. They use the wisdom of the past to guide them through these often treacherous times.


Mom said...

That was a very nice blog entry and a real insight into Korean culture. Also nice to sneak a peek at the hotel we will be staying in...sort of!

Oncle Jean said...

A beautiful anecdote, George, and so well told.

It is truly amazing how the worship experience can take on so many forms depending on the culture of the person.