04/29/2013, 00.00
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Korean Buddhists on a mission with text messaging and Internet

by Joseph Yun Li-sun
Viewed for years as a "distraction" from religious practice and teaching, advanced information technology is now starting to enter the Jogye Order, the largest religious order in South Korea. However, some remain skeptical about this development.

Seoul (AsiaNews) - "This is not an age of happiness but an age of exhaustion and difficulty. But a single text message can give you strength" and reach anyone, anytime, said the Venerable Song-mook, director of the Office of Missionary Affairs in the Jogye Order of Buddhism, the largest in South Korea, who talked about the new frontier of religious communication among the country's Buddhists.

Seen for decades as an essentially spiritual group, distant from modernity and untouched by technological developments, the Order has in recent years looked at the usefulness of technical change to spread its beliefs.

Ven Song-mook is an advocate of change. "The fact is that children, young people and even adults are reading books less and less often these days," he explained.  "On the subway, on the bus and on the street, people are using smartphones to access information about subjects they are interested in. So we thought that perhaps we could use these devices as a way of reaching out to them."

This shift began with the Hello Dharma School application in English and Korean. Launched at the end of 2010, it is a storybook-style app that presents the life and teachings of the Buddha in English.

This year another app named Mind Mirror 108 was presented with versions for children and young adults to teach actual Buddhist practice. "The idea is to teach compassion and remind everyone that we are part of the Buddha."

Less than 100 kilometers from Seoul, inside the ancient Donghak temple, Buddhist nuns do not like such novelties that much.

Myung-oh, the nun in charge of training second-year novices, has a smartphone but does not use it a lot.

"I used to call and send text messages, but do not use it that much. The smartphone is useful for nuns in positions of responsibility, but it is forbidden to novices. "

The contradiction has a very simple explanation. "When a phone rings you have to answer, and if you speak you must pay attention to what you hear and what you say. Here, we study how to practice religion. We are a monastic school where teachers and pupils are nuns. We left behind home and family. We must turn our back on secular life."

South Korea has a population of about 48 million. Some 20 million are Buddhists (almost all belong to the Jogye Order), but the number is falling year by year partly because there are no official records for membership in this sect. Christians make up 26 per cent of the population, of which more than 10 per cent are Catholic.

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