Being a Buddhist in a Christian World

I borrowed this book from the NUS library. It was a study by a researcher (who was Korean) who interviewed over fifty men, women and youths active at a temple called “Sa Chal” in LA, USA, gathering their views on retaining or reverting back to their Buddhist faith as immigrants in a predominantly Christian country. The title caught my attention instantly. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 7:
“The Christians think that Buddhists are devils and that you only have to believe in God to be saved! In Korea, Buddhism was the original teaching but now they think of it as the devil. I used to follow my younger sisters to church when I first got here because I wanted to learn something about Christian beliefs. But now, even though I don’t go to church anymore, my sisters still thnk I believe in Christianity. They don’t know that I go to temple because I don’t tell them. If they knew they would keep asking me why I didn’t believe in God and they would keep on bothering me. But my belief is my own choice, so I don’t want to hear any protests. I don’t say a word: I just fo along to temple diligently and think of the Buddha inside my heart.” [Mrs Oh, a fifty-one year old Buddhist woman living on her own in Los Angeles]
That a woman should find it necessary to hide her Buddhist identity from her own sisters (themselves previously Buddhist) illustrates what many Korean Buddhists encounter on a daily basis: the ubiquity of church affiliation among Koreans living in America. Since it is widely assumed that Koreans are Christian, many Buddhists like Mrs Oh choose not to divulge their Buddhist identity…
… The rapid multiplication of Korean American Christian churches comes as no surprise to Buddhists at Sa Chal. Many Buddhists in fact complain that they are often urged to convert to Christianity while they chop at the Korean markets, do business with fellow Koreans, and meet with friends. Even their children are pressured to convert at their high schools and colleges, where Korean Christian church groups are becoming an increasingly powerful presence, One Sunday afternoon at Sa Chal, Michael, a fourteen year old member of the temple’s youth group, complained to his friends about how “an old woman kept folloing me in a car and tried to give me flyers to get me to go to her church but I told her I was Buddhist. She then got really upset and told me that it was wrong for young people to believe in Buddhism!” Both students then rolled their eyes in exasperation and sighed, “Christians just don’t understand about free choice!” Lisa, a high school senior, concurred: “Yeah, my friends are always trying to get me to come to church. They tell me that I am going to go to hell becuase I don’t believe in God.”…
Mrs Jin, a fifty year old mother of two sons in their early twenties, vehemently believes that her children should choose their own religion. Even though she herself lived as a Buddhist nun for ten years in Korea before marrying at the age of twenty-eight, she still believes that it is more important for her sons to choose for themselves what religion they want to practice. This choice, according to Mrs. Jin, is the measure of what being a Buddhist is all about; in fact, she even encouraged her two sons to go to church so that when they chose a religion, they would make an informed decision:
“I even sent my kids to church. Why did I send them to church? I told them that they should try going to church and try to compare the merits of each faith. Since I have taken them to temple with me since they were young, they were not influenced by Christianity. Rather than telling them no to go to church, I told them that they should try to understand the Christian faith in God so that later on, if they chose to believe in Buddhism, their beliefs would be deep and strong because they have chosen for themselves. For us, since we have had such a strong and deep faith in Buddhism, we can’t just convert to Christianity so easily, but my kids didn’t have that experience. So I told them to go to church.”
When asked if she thought it was strange that her children would go to church even though she and her husband are Buddhists, she replied quickly:
“Oh no! I want to teach them the Buddhadharma, but as the kids grow up they will eventually outgrow their mother’s influences and will have so many things they want to do on their own. Also, more so than their mother, they actually think their friends are better to listen to. Because of that, I told them that if they went to temple or to church, no matter where they placed their faith, it wa their choice.”…
… For Dr. lim, a forty-six year old woman who recently converted to Buddhism following her second marriage, Buddhism seems to produce less stress in her life, for it has far fewer rules and regulations.
Through the influence of her grandmother, Dr. Lim was raised a Buddhist as a young girl growing up in Korea. Yet like many Korean women, she converted to Christianity for her first marriage because her first husband’s family “was a Christian family and they told me we had to go to church together”…
… When she marired a second time a little over six months ago (her first husband died years ago), she renounced her membership at a local Korean Presbyterian church and began to attend Sa Chal’s Buddhist services…
… “It seems like the dharma is a little more liberal, it’s not exclusive, and Buddhists don’t believe that ‘only my way is the right way.’ There really are some easier things about the temple. At church, first of all, you always have to attend services; there are so many meetings and they always tell you to go to them. If you don’t, then a phone call comes… and also they say that you have to proselytize. If you don’t do it very well, then they sort of publicly recognise it. But if you go to the temple and say that you couldn’t proselytize other people, it’s just not a big deal; but in a church it’s sort of a sin”…
… Dr. Lim thus maintains that Christians are too afraid to rely on themselves to “make it” in America like the Buddhists. At the same time, she also believes that a spiritual connection through Christianity creates a bond of mutual trust and generosity that can be useful for economic success in America. Despite this allure, she feels that Buddhist worship on Sundays suits her just fine, for “Christians seem to want to fight a lot among each other and the Buddhists seem a lot more relaxed.” Like many Koreans, she believes that Christianity has spread among Koreans because it provides an opportunity to worship in Korean as well as a place for good business contacts, especially for someone like her who runs an ethnic-specific business.
To Dr. Lim, the main difference between Buddhism and Christianity is a question of agency. She says that Christianity teaches that one has only to believe in God and all will be taken care of, if one is faithful. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches about self-reliance, an aspect that all my participants cited as very important. This characteristic self-reliance leads to agency and, by extension, the instantiation of the American values of independence, which a Christian dependence on God and the church is believed to prohibit…
… Aware of the discrimination that many Buddhists feel in the Korean American community, Chin Mi Young, a divorced fifty-two year old mother of one, responds by drawing a strong distinction between the self-knowledge and reliance derived from Buddhist practice and the dependence on an outside agent in Christianity. Mrs Chin arrived in the United States in the spring of 1992 and has since been divorced from her husband, a Christian… As a child, Mrs. Chin attended church a number of times and also had a friend who was a minister in the United States. Yet after attending this friend’s church several times, she found:
“In Christianity, you ask for your well-being. In Buddhism, though, you are the subject and therefore you have to come to a realisation of yourself and discover your well-being through the teachings. I find this to be more practical in daily living. In Christianity, you are not the subject, you leave everything up to the spirit of God to decide. This does not make sense to me because if you need to go somewhere , you have to know the directions for getting to that destination. When I go to the health spa and there are some Christians there who as my why I attend the temple, I turn and ask them the same question about why they go to church. Their only response is because ‘God is the creator of all things.’ I tell them, however that coincidences have gathered and formed everything. And besides, how could a man and a woman form a family it there was a creator God? If there was a creator God, then thecreator should be forming all humans and then there would be no need for humans to involve themselves in reproduction. Really, before the development of technology, the Christian religion might have made snese to people but as technology developed, the people have awakened.”…
… While many women respond to the rise of Christianity with both admiration and disdain, others have had direct experiences of proselytixing from friends and family, often leading them to subvert or hide their Buddhist identity among Christians. SUch is the case with In Soon Song, a woman born to Korean parents. During college she moved to Japan and married a Japanese Buddhist… Although she grew up in a Buddhist household in Korea, she is the only one of her siblings who has remained Buddhist. Her older brothers converted to Christianity and her children in the United States do not attend temple…
… Her friends, however, have not adopted the same “live and let live”American attitude that this woman seeks to maintain, Instead, since coming to the United States her religious choices have been much scrutinized within her circle of Korean female friends, all of whom are heavily involved in the church. She expresses her frustration with her Christians friends, who insist on converting her and not respecting her decision to remain a Buddhist…
… Jae Woo Shin, a twenty-eight year old Eastern medicine student, maintains that Buddhist meditation and worship focus on self-awakening as opposed to relying on an outside force to attain religious salvation, It is this difference of agency that appeals to him, for Buddhism teaches him to depend on and awaken himself…
… Thus when asked about the future of Korean Buddhism in America, he maintains that people should not be forced to practice religion but that an interest will gradually grow. He also believes that since Americans are becoming more interested in Buddhism, the percentage of Buddhists in the United States will increase as more Americans begin to convert…
Mr Koh, a volunteer accountant for Sa Chal, has attended Sa Chal since retiring from his job as a liquor store owner in 1993. According to him, the rise of Christianity in the Korean American community can be attributed to the inability of many Koreans to comprehend the subtle complexities of Buddhist doctrines…
According to Mr. Hong, although many people convert to Christianity from Buddhism upon arriving in America, they “don’t convert because they really want to believe but because they are isolated in the U.S. and so if they go to church, they meet other immigrants and people they know.” Unlike Buddhists who “rely on themselves to get through their difficulties in America,” Mr. Hong maintains that Christians are less capable of taking care of themselves and therefore more dependent on God. Furthermore, since he believes that Buddhism is a better and more truthful religion, he exhibits little anxiety over its future:
“If you look at it, Christians are coming back to the temple. A lot of old people are doing the same because there’s a lot of lies in their beliefs and so they come back to Buddhism because they are of a true nature. Ministers say to live and believe in them and believe in God, but the monks say that you have to awaken your own mind. Ignorant people think that if I believe in God then I will live well and be well off. So ignorant people tend to follow that way. But a smaller number of people, if they have knowledge  and know how, then they decide to come back over this way to Buddhism.”…
… Dr. Kin also maintains that women traditionally have gone to temples to pray for the well-being of their families but that “men are probably still too embarassed to publicly worship at temples since Buddhism had been so denigrated as low class during the Yi dynasty.” Furthermore, he adds:
“Men think that if they go to temple, they will seem like they are somewhat backward because people tend to think that those who believe in Christianity are more modern. If you believe in Buddhism you will be considered old-fashioned and so that’s why it seems that there are less men in the temple… In Korea there were a lot of Buddhists who did not admit that they were Buddhists. Because they were worried about looking somewhat ignorant, they didn’t tell people that they were Buddhists.”
As a result of being considered old-fashioned and ignorant, men did not and still do not mention their Buddhist affiliations publicly nor do they worship in the presence of women. Dr. Jin’s comments illustrate why some Buddhists choose to hide their religious identiy or seek out the social comforts and benefits offered through the churches. But these Buddhists are “not real Buddhists, for real Buddhists who have a knowledge of the philosophical tenets of Buddhism, an understanding of the sutras, and a desire to attain enlightenment could never convert!”
… James remains confident about the long-term success of Buddhism, for he believes that eventually more and more people will become disillusioned with Christianity:
“I think at a certain point… the Christian community is going to get smaller. As science and technology develops even higher and higher, then Christians are going to lose interest. There are a lot of unbelievable things states in the Bible by Christians. There are always those things that cannot be backed up by science. As science grows even further and further and the sense of philosophy embedded in individuals grows deeper and deeper, they are going to start looking for other religions that do not revolve around following direct orders. They will look for a religion that revolves around finding yourself, finding your innermost feelings, and finding what you should do instead of listening to what you should do.”
Thus, for this Korean American student, “being a true Buddhist, you create your own life,” which James considers a much better option than relying on others to tell you how to live your life.


  1. IndianFriend said,

    28 October 2010 at 08:54

    People who are not proud of their origins will never prosper
    christianity is not your religion. Do not blindly follow it.

  2. kwekings said,

    28 October 2010 at 14:50

    Erm I suppose your advice was for the people mentioned in the book that I quoted throughout the post. I certainly agree with you, of course, on not blindly following, no matter what the religion is.

  3. SSDD said,

    7 September 2014 at 22:35

    Buddhism is one of the best and tolerant religion. I am Hindu, but I admit Buddhism is more peaceful than Hinduism.

    Gautama Buddha is best teacher.

    I think average Korean Christian does not read Bible completely. Only some selective verses of Bible which advocates peace they know. They need to find out what Christianity actually is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: