Posts filed under 'religion'

Roman Catholicism in Korea and Saint Anselm’s Humanities Program

Myeongdong CathedralKorean Roman Catholics take great pride that Korea is one of the few places in the world where Catholicism arrived before missionaries.  Catholicism came to Korea first via a Korean royal who converted while in China.  In the 1700s missionaries arrived from China and Japan and in the early 1800s from France.  The first recognized Catholic faith community in Korea met in 1784 at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.   It may give you a sense of how big Seoul is and how many Catholics there are to realize that Myeongdong Cathedral holds Sunday mass at 7, 9, 10, and 11 am as well as 12, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 pm in addition to masses for elementary and handicapped students, middle and high school students and an English language mass.  About 11% of Koreans are Catholic (4.5 million people).

Jeoldusan Stations of the CrossBut Catholics faced violent persecution at numerous points in Korean history and thousands were executed all across the county.  In 1839 all the French priests were killed.  In the 1866 killings, 8000 of Korea’s 23,000 Catholics were killed.  When Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the official establishment of the Catholic Church in Korea, he canonized 103 martyrs.  The site where he prayed is called Joldusan or Beheading Mountain.

Jeoldusan Martyr Memorial

At Saint Anselm, I teach in our required 2 year Humanities program, which contains a unit on the early Christian martyrs.  We read about Saints Perpetua and Felicitas who were brought before the Roman authorities for failing to make the sacrifices that recognized the Emperor as a deity.  Even when her father pleaded with her on behalf of her family and baby child, Perpetua would not renounce her faith.  In an era when Church and State were deeply linked, this disrespect of religious ritual was also treason.  When State and family were deeply linked, this disrespect of family lineage and authority showed one to be a danger to society.  So Perpetua was executed.

My Humanities students may be shocked to discover that this 3rd century A.D. story is deeply relevant for Korean history (and that of other martyrs around the world).  Catholics here in Korea were executed for exactly these two reasons. 

Jeonju Catholic ChurchAt a time when the state religion was based on Confucianism, Catholics’ unwillingness to perform the traditional worship of the King was seen as treason. Their stress on human equality in the sight of God also challenged the divine hierarchies in society, another form of treason. Their lack of patriotism seemed an attack by insiders to a nation constantly struggling with attacks from outsiders.   In addition, Catholics’ unwillingness to perform ancestral rites for their own families was seen as threatening to the stability of society.  They were not good citizens or family members.  Koreans feared their gods and their ancestors would abandon them if they did not kill the Catholics.

Humanities students may also be surprised to see a statue of Michaelangelo’s Pieta outside one of the major shrine sites in Jeonju, South Korea.  Michaelangelo’s expression of the pain of a mother, and the depth of her son’s sacrifice, resonates even for South Korean Catholics.Jeonju Pieta

 I always love it when what I teach in class turns out to be useful in what students think of as “real life” (forgetting that my ‘real life’ mostly happens in the classroom!).  Being able to connect and compare across time and space is an amazing life skill.  It is also remarkably useful when trying to find one’s footing in a new and different culture.

Add comment February 25, 2008

Staying the Night at a Buddhist Temple

Golgulsa's 7th Century BuddhaWe are awoken at 4 am by the rhythmic striking of a wooden block (moktak), while a novice monk chants and then rattles our doors.  It is dark and cold as we hurriedly dress and head up the hill to morning prayer.  The stars are still visible, with Venus shining blue where Mars had shone reddish the evening before.  A seventh century carving of Buddha is lit high up on a cliff, facing out toward the still-far off dawn.

Sitting cross legged on the floor, we listen as the maroon and yellow-robed monks chant Buddhist sutras.  About 30 high school children surround us in the prayer room.  They are poking each other to stay upright and awake.  At 5 am we turn to sitting meditation, focusing on our breathing.  We try to ignore the novice monk walking the room with a bamboo stick, tapping those who slouch or who have been distracted by the cold.  Then it is walking meditation, which begins in agony as muscles that have cramped and feet that have fallen asleep try to carry us uphill.  At 6 am we file down to Buddhist breakfast (paru gongyang), a Sunday celebration of food and those who produce and prepare it.  We are taught to focus solely on our food, to eat quickly and thoughtfully, and to clean our bowls carefully, wasting neither a grain of rice nor a sesame seed.  That focus is a bit broken as we race to finish before the head monk does, since his timing determines when they come to check our bowls.

Amanda and my room at GolgulsaThese are a few scenes from our one night stay with the Buddhist monks of Golgul Temple in Gyeongju South Korea, near the western coast.   Many Buddhist communities welcome overnight visitors as a source of income and an opportunity to expose more people to the tenets of Buddhist practice.  This particular temple focuses on the preservation and transmission of sunmudo, a martial art originally developed among Buddhists in Korea.  It was used by “fighting monks” who were central in the defense of the nation from Japanese invasion in the 16th century. 

Our stay began with an explanation of what would occur.  Then we moved into our housing, dorm room like accommodations with Korean-style bedding in the middle of the temple grounds.  Tod has his own room on the men’s floor and a former Saint Anselm College student and I shared one on the women’s floor.  Then we wandered, checking out Golgulsa’s famous ”caves,” which are deep ledges on a weathered cliff side, where monks could sit and meditate for hours at a time. Buddhist shrines have been set up all over the cliffside.  Even with stairs, a handrail, and a rope, it was tough going - one could easily imagine the difficult time monks had in the 7th century, climbing up in the dark.  After breakfast on Sunday we climbed it in the dark and watched the sun rise over the distant mountains under the benevolent eyes of that 7th century Buddha.

Golsulsa's caves and BuddhaOur schedule said we were to spend part of the evening chanting and then participating in sunmudo training.  We had no idea how strenuous this would be. Buddhists bow before Buddha 3 times upon entering or leaving a room, multiple times during chanting, 108 times once a day in prayer and 3000 times in times of need.  Properly practicing Buddhists must have leg muscles of steel!  A bow in the Seoul style consists of the following:  Stand with feet together and hands palm to palm in front of your chest.  Squat and bring your knees to the floor.  Bring your hands to the floor, so you are kneeling and then bring your head to the floor.  Balancing on your elbows, bring your hands up and rotate them as if you were throwing something over your shoulders.  Return your hands to the floor, move your weight back onto your feet, put your hands palm to palm again, and stand.  After 30 bows we were moving slowly enough to skip every other one.  At 60 bows I lost count.  When we were finished, I was grateful.  Then we began stretching for sunmudo training!

Luckily training for us consisted of breathing exercises used to center the mind, and some basic sunmudo moves emphasizing balance and strength.  By the end, even bed on a thin mattress in a dorm room sounded absolutely heavenly.

Gameunsa PagodaWe ate three meals at the temple.  All were vegetarian, emphasizing the Buddhist belief in the sacredness of life.  They were also remarkably plain, as Korean Buddhists do not use garlic, onions or most spices.  Dinner and lunch were served cafeteria style and focused on really tasty bean sprouts, various greens, and soybean-paste soup.  We were warned not to take any more food than we could eat; our trays would not be accepted with any leftovers on them.   This was a marked contrast to traditional Korean eating patterns.  We wondered if it helped to mark how different Buddhist life was from the more modern, abundant world outside the temple.

We finished our visit with some side excursions to other Buddhist sites in the area.  Gameunsa’s stone pagodas were built in 682 AD by King Sinmun.  His father, King Munmu, had unified the Korean peninsula for the first time.  Munmu was buried in “the world’s only sea tomb” amid these off shore rocks, where he hoped to turn into a sea dragon to protect his people forever. We also saw Girimsa, a much larger, somehow more peacefully laid out temple.  Perhaps the focus on prayer rather than martial arts affected the feel of the temple, or perhaps it was simply we enjoyed its flatness, rather than hiking up a 20% grade before every meal.

King Munmu's Sea TombOne day and night barely introduced us to a religion that has been in Korea since the fourth century A.D.  But it was a fascinating start. 

For images from other Buddhist temples and gravesites I have visited during my stay here, please click on one of the pictures in this blog.  From there, click on the words “Buddhism set” on the right hand side of the flickr photo page.  The Buddhism set has 45 images from at least 10 temples.

Add comment January 20, 2008

Moving Mysteries

Moving MysteryThis morning I woke up to find this sight out of my seventh story window - a large metal “ladder” but without anywhere to put feet.  After staring at it a few moments, a flat platform went up past my view.  A few moments later the platform came back down, bearing a kitchen table!  OK, now I’m willing to brave the cold on the porch to see what is going on.  I open the sliding glass doors and screen, lean over the bust high metal railing, and look down. 

There below, is a blue truck to which the long metal structure is attached.  Next to it is a moving van.  The men stop the platform at exactly the height of the moving van, move the kitchen table from the platform into the van, and send the platform back up.  Over the course of two hours, it moves an 8 foot tall clothing cabinet, old wooden Chinese chests, boxes and boxes and boxes, and an amazingly large television.  I assume six or seven floors above me men are cleaning out an apartment, loading the platform via the same large sliding glass doors I just opened in my apartment. 

Moving Mystery SolvedSo after spending a couple of months wondering how dozens of people manage to move in and out of my apartment building without ever carrying a single piece of furniture down the stairs or elevator, or always doing it while I’m somewhere else, now I know - they move it out the windows while I am someplace else!  What an amazing labor saving device!

While staring out the window I solve another mystery - why we had such a spectacular lightning storm last night without any thunder or rain.  Turns out workers are arc welding on the roof of the church next door and the light bounces spectacularly off all the glass on my building.

Pierson Hall lit for ChristmasThe mysteries of the Christmas season are not so easily explained and perhaps that is one reason why they appeal to millions of people.  Christmas is a “new” holiday in Korea, with Catholicism about 200 years old here and Protestantism about 125.  (For comparison, Buddhism, the other major religion, is at least 2500 years old in Korea).  Christians make up about 40% of the Korean population and that number is growing rapidly.  However, Christmas remains a church-based holiday; only about ½ the subway stations in Seoul had Christmas trees last week and stores began their Christmas sales a full week after Thanksgiving.  Even in the second week of December the Pyeongtaek market had very few signs of Christmas.  Pyeongtaek University is a Christian college, however, so it has been lit up with wreaths since before Thanksgiving.

Seoraksan BuddhaAfter the holidays I will post a few blog entries on religion in Korea.  In early January I plan to stay overnight at a Buddhist Temple in the southeastern mountains and visit a Catholic monastery with connections to Saint Anselm College.  I have also found an active Quaker meeting in central Seoul and I want to attend First Day meeting.  In the meantime, I will enjoy a long-awaited visit from my husband!  Showing him “my Korea” will likely mean I won’t post any blog entries for a couple of weeks. 

Whatever your religion, I wish you joy in the lengthening of the days marked by the winter solstice, the promise of peace and forgiveness brought by Christmas, and the celebration of a fresh new year.   I will spend six months of that new year here in Korea and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Add comment December 17, 2007


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