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What one religion in South Korea is doing to attract new followers

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

As some churches, temples and monasteries struggle to attract younger worshippers, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul on a musical lure for new followers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Musicians wearing colorful costumes and ecstatic expressions perform outside a Buddhist temple in Seoul. The annual Lotus Lantern Parade celebrates the Buddha's birthday. It draws Koreans and foreigners, people of all faiths and no faith. It's a vibrant example of Buddhism's deep roots in Korean culture. For the last performance of the evening, a DJ takes the stage in Buddhist robes and with headphones on his shaven head. He whips the young crowd into a frenzy.

(CHEERING)

KUHN: Yoon Seong-ho is a 47-year-old Buddhist comedian, DJ and rising celebrity. His Korean stage name, NewJeansNim, suggests novelty and progressiveness. It also sounds like NewJeans, a popular K-pop girl group. He works passages from Buddhist sutras and puns on Buddhist terms into his sets. Speaking in a backstage tent, he explains his goals.

YOON SEONG-HO: (Through interpreter) Buddhism is a free religion. It doesn't force people to join or to leave. I want people to understand Buddhism. I'm not telling them to become followers.

KUHN: NewJeansNim adds that many young South Koreans find Buddhism inaccessible and stuffy.

YOON SEONG-HO: (Through interpreter) My role is to draw people in. The rest is up to the great learned monks, whose role it is to relay the teachings of Buddha.

KUHN: The Buddhist establishment has embraced NewJeansNim. The Venerable Namjeon (ph) is a monk in charge of spreading Buddhism at the headquarters of the Jogye Order, Korean Buddhism's largest sect.

NAMJEON: (Through interpreter) NewJeansNim is helping a lot to break through these prejudices about Buddhism and improving its image. The boldness and fun that break down the idea that religion has to be stern and serious - that's not something we monks can easily bring.

KUHN: Namjeon argues that NewJeansNim is just one of the latest in a long line of reformers and innovators, stretching back 26 centuries to the Buddha himself.

NAMJEON: (Through interpreter) In the broad flow of history, there's something Buddhism calls expedient means, which means adopting measures that are more convenient to the general public in spreading the teachings of Buddha.

KUHN: Namjeon and other Buddhists believe that something needs to be done to stem their faith's decline. Census figures show that more than half of South Koreans follow no organized religion, and those who do tend to be older. Many countries are becoming more secular, but none of them face a demographic decline as steep as South Korea's. Around a decade ago, Protestantism overtook Buddhism to become South Korea's largest religion. Yoon Seung-yong, director of the Korea Institute for Religion and Culture in Seoul, says Protestantism appeals more to younger Koreans because it emphasizes individual religious belief. Aspects of Buddhism that focus on individuals, he adds, are popular.

YOON SEUNG-YONG: (Through interpreter) Buddhism as an organized religion is in decline, but Buddhism in individuals' everyday life is expanding, in the form of meditation or yoga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOON SEONG-HO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: In his DJ set, NewJeansNim urges listeners not to get arrogant because of success or discouraged because of failure because everything is impermanent and subject to change. Some of NewJeansNim's performances, scheduled for this month in Singapore and last month in Malaysia, were canceled after local Buddhist organizations objected. But NewJeansNim seems unbothered and focused on his upcoming shows.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.