Do you know what is better than charity and fasting and prayer?

It is keeping peace and good relations between people,

as quarrels and bad feelings destroy mankind.

- Prophet Mohammed


Day 26

One of the fascinating things about Buddhism in Korea is that there are very few lay-Buddhists who are willing to engage in conversation about their faith or beliefs. And it's not just a language issue, either. As I said a few weeks ago, most Buddhists in Korea are older women and, honestly, they are only Buddhists because their parents were. I've gotten the impression that most of them have no idea what Buddha said or how they should live as even a lay-Buddhist. In fact, I see a lot of the same behavior among casual Buddhists that I see among casual Christians. They both want favors in return for promises.

These women are praying for their children to do well on the Korean college entrance exam, yet Buddha never said that prayer was requirement. (He would suggest studying above all.) If you did pray, it was only supposed to be for success in the practice of helping others or during meditation. Still, these women are clearly praying for intervention in exchange for promised devotion --a very Western (and Christian) approach to prayer. Buddhism traditionally doesn't require supplication to deities, so prayer in exchange for good grades seems to pointless. It's not wrong, though. It's not my place to tell people that. All I know is that outside of Tibetan Buddhism that prays to gurus, prayer is not a requirement as a Buddhist.

Regardless of faith, I think people like the idea of being looked out for by something more powerful than themselves. I don't think this disqualifies them as being genuine. That wouldn't be fair. What does disqualify them, however, is only practicing their "faith" when it best suits them. And judging from the lack of participation and enthusiasm I've witnessed this month, I feel like we have a lot of convenient Buddhists over here. That's just a feeling, though. I "feel" a lot of things that are probably incorrect and in this case, I "feel" that Korean Buddhists are convenient followers. I might be wrong and that would be fine.

Let me explain why I think they are mostly "convenients". I tend to equate over-proselytizing to a lack of respect and in that same vein, I equate convenience to apathy. The former seems too much like a "you're all going to hell, unless..." attitude, while the latter seems so indifferent to their own faith that it makes them look irreligious. Maybe it's because there seems to be little wiggle room when openly sharing faith. You get the "I can save you" approach with one or the uncaring approach with the other and both of them rub me the wrong way. But if I had to chose, I prefer the latter.

Lay-Buddhists don't wear their religion on their sleeve, nor do they count those converted by their words. So, if lay-Buddhists aren't spreading the word, then does that means monks are? Aren't they just temple-based minds, only concerning themselves with their own Enlightenment? Well, kind of. I occasionally get knocks on my door from time to time and when I peer through the peephole, I find a friendly looking bald-headed man staring right back at me. Typically, he startles a bit when he sees that the voice behind the door was from a white dude, but he calms down and begins his spiel after a moment or two. 

It's usually very calm and totally non-confrontational. There's no Mormon-esque determination to stay in the house, pry for family details or squeeze an extra glass of iced-tea out of their good-natured hosts. They sense when it's time to go and that's that. So, if that doesn't work, how do they do it?

Curiosity does it for Buddhism. Everyone who is exposed to Buddhism thinks that it's either a great religion or  a heavy dose of common sense that they so desperately needed. When Christians in North Carolina are meditating during their yoga sessions, THAT is well-disguised endorsement for Buddhism. When people preach pacifism and patience, THAT is a well-disguised endorsement for Buddhism. I'm not saying Buddhism has a lock on mediation, pacifism or patience, but its followers certainly have a better reputation than some of the other religions and THAT is the best endorsement for Buddhism.

What's the best way to represent your country while traveling abroad? Is it good to jaw about how great your nation is? No, sir. Is it good to claim that your country is the best? No, sir. Is it good to point out the details of why your country is better than a particular country? No, sir.

Of course, the best way to be an ambassador for your country is to act well, respect the local culture and be a good person. Same goes for representing any religion.


  1. Hey...

    do you have stats on that Buddhists are primarily old women? I'm writing some things on Korean modern lit and its influences. What you say rings right in the lit, it the story is about the post 60s or so.. but I'd love it if you had some actual demos (and you didn't link yourself? What's wrong with you, man!)


  2. That is an amazing photo. Quite striking. Your Tweet says it all: "Feeling great and worried about leaving Buddhism." Not sure it will ever leave you though. It seems to have left its mark - a positive one - on you.

  3. Now, you do represent your country admirably well. Now....being the buzz word, right? Enjoy your last week as a Buddhist.

  4. Charles,

    You can read Korean, right?

  5. Still, these women are clearly praying for intervention in exchange for promised devotion -- a very Western (and Christian) approach to prayer.

    George, I very much admire what you have been doing, and I have been following this particular blog with great interest.

    Having said that, I think the characterization above is not a correct one. Whenever December (and Protestantism) rolls around, I would recommend Timothy Keller's sermon series. The way I understand my religion (Presbyterian), articulated by my pastor, is in fact not too far off from Buddhism (with which I am familiar through my father's family.)