Buddhism Becomes Hip

The declining religion is enjoying a rebound.

Buddhism Becomes Hip

Credit: Seoul International Buddhism Expo.

The 11th annual Seoul International Buddhism Expo 서울국제불교박람회, held on April 4, was different from the usual somber affair. The highlight of the event was a dance party featuring music from DJ Newjeansnim 뉴진스님 - a character portrayed by comedian Yun Seong-ho 윤성호 whose humorous fusion of K-pop and Buddhism became so popular that the Jogyejong Order 조계종, South Korea’s largest Buddhist denomination, began inviting him to its events. The expo sold thousands of t-shirts and artworks, with 30-minute lines at the booths for people considering Buddhist monkhood. 

Introduced in the 4th century, Buddhism is South Korea’s oldest organized religion and South Korea’s second most prevalent religion (16%), behind Protestantism (17%). But religions have declined in South Korea in recent years, and Buddhism was no exception. In the 1990s, there were more than 200 college Buddhist associations; in 2023, there were fewer than 50. In 2022, only 61 people began the process toward monkhood, the lowest recorded number.

But Buddhism retains the potential to appeal to youth in South Korea. People in their 20s and 30s are the most frequent users of the Temple Stay program, under which travelers can vacation at a Buddhist temple and participate in devotional activities. Buddhist leaders in South Korea also have been more open to diverse gender identities and more inclusive of immigrants than their Protestant and Catholic counterparts, which also appeals to the young generation.

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