Korea's religion plays a huge part in the country's society. However the nation does not have one dominant religion and people tend to follow one of a few religions. The more common of the many religions followed in Korea are Buddhism, Confucianism (even though it is technically classified as an ethical system rather than a religion) and Christianity. Korean people have open-minded and active attitudes when religion is concerned. With the exception of Catholicism in the late Chosun Dynasty, foreign religions have been accepted with ease and spread rapidly throughout the country.
Although Buddhism originated over 2,600 years ago, it came to Korea during the 4th century AD. Buddhism was introduced by travellers to Korea when it was divided into three kingdoms. These kingdoms were known as Paekche, Silla and Koguryo. Koguryo was the first of these kingdoms to accept Buddhism. Later on Buddhism greatly influenced Korean society and culture. So much infact, that in 527 AD those who opposed Buddhism were suppressed. A couple of years later it was against the law to kill a living creature in Silla.
Today there are over 10,000 Buddhist temples in Korea and 20,000 monks. One third of the population are Buddhist, which works out to be about 15 million.
Korean Buddhist temples are famous for their location. Almost all mountains in Korea have Buddhist temples on the way to the top, which can also serve as a rest place with wonderful scenic views. The reason for the temples being placed in such out of reach places goes back to the times of the Chosun dynasty. During this time, Confucianism was the national religion and Buddhism was prohibited in public. A lot of Buddhists were forced to change their religion and temples were pulled down. The temples that did survive were moved deep in to mountains.
On Buddha's birthday (otherwise known as Official Memorial Day), Korean Buddhists make lanterns out of paper and place a candle inside to celebrate. The lanterns are colourful and often bear the names and prayers of various believers. Prayers are chanted throughout the day until dusk, when the candles are finally lit. This is an important religious festival in Korea.
Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. This means that many Korean Buddhists will work hard during their time in the world with hope they will be born again as a person. A funeral ceremony involves calling the soul back into the world. Buddhists don’t just enjoy the pleasure and comfort of life, they also try to find meaning for all the sufferings on our planet.
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who is assumed to have lived during the sixth century B.C., set up an ideal moral system intended to govern relationships within the family and the state in harmonious unity. We call this system Confucianism, and although it is commonly referred to as a religion, technically it is not so.
The country's emphasis on education and respect for ancestors also comes from the teachings of Confucius.
Christianity was first imported to Korea in the late eighteenth century by scholars from a pragmatic school of Confucian thinkers who sought to learn Western ideas in order to improve national productivity and welfare. Envoys from China brought teaching materials written by the missionary Matteo Ricci, and Catholicism slowly spread among the intellectuals, gaining ten thousand adherents by 1801.
The Catholic branch spread rapidly and when it was introduced to Korea the current King found it as a threat and persecuted the early missionaries. Protestant missionaries started coming in the late 19th century and established numerous hospitals and colleges. Christianity has made a great comback, and many of the world's largest churches are in Korea (One of these is Yoido Full Gospel Church, known to be the world's largest with a congregation of 700,000 members). The majority of smaller churches can be easily recognized by their neon red crosses atop the buildings. English language newspapers in Korea list schedules for English worship services.