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In South Korea, a “monk” DJs the vanguard of cool Buddhism

  • May 16, 2024
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Shaved head and long white monk’s robe, a South Korean DJ mixes Buddhist texts and advice for daily life with dance music, to the great pleasure of the audience which goes wild.

With his sets, comedian-turned-musician Youn Sung-ho helped revitalize Buddhism in South Korea, even if his performances made waves elsewhere, notably in Malaysia.

The 47-year-old was welcomed with open arms by South Korea’s Buddhist clergy, who see him as a way to connect with young people.

A religious official gave him the monk name “NewJeansNim,” adopted as a stage name by the DJ who was not ordained.

This name mixes “Seunim” – a respectful Korean title given to Buddhist monks – and other religious terms (unrelated to the K-pop group Newjeans).

“Pain! Because I didn’t get a raise. Pain! Because Monday is coming too quickly,” chants NewJeansNim on stage, in front of hundreds of young Koreans dancing to the rhythm.

“This too will pass, we will overcome,” he said, citing Buddhist principles as the pulses slowed, during an electronic music concert organized for the lantern festival organized on Buddha’s birthday, celebrated Wednesday in South Korea.

In South Korea, a

Youn Sung-Ho (here May 12, 2024) was given the monk name “NewJeansNim” by a religious official, adopted as a stage name by the DJ who was not ordained. / Jung Yeon-je / AFP

Images of his eccentric and energetic performances quickly went viral: Youn in a monk’s robe with long flowing sleeves and a shaved head, dancing, singing and mixing.

“I didn’t expect such a reaction. It’s overwhelming,” he told AFP before performing in Seoul last weekend.

His inspiration as a Buddhist DJ came naturally to him, he assures. “My mother was Buddhist and I attended temples from a very young age, so Buddhism came naturally to me.”

And his motivational words are “just what I told myself last year when I was out of work and struggling to get by: good days are ahead.”

Ban in Malaysia

Words that speak to many South Koreans. “His messages comfort young people in their 20s and 30s who are exhausted and feel hopeless,” said Kang Min-ji, a 26-year-old who was previously not interested in Buddhism.

“I always thought Buddhism was conservative until I saw his DJ performances,” she adds. But in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country with a significant Buddhist minority, where NewJeansNim performed at the beginning of May, a second concert

t was canceled after protests.

“Complaints have been lodged with the police against DJ NewJeansNim’s performance in Malaysia by Buddhist groups and individuals,” Eow Shiang Yen, secretary general of the Malaysian Buddhist Youth Association, told AFP.

His behavior and dress are not in accordance with Buddhist beliefs, according to him.

“Trendy” Buddhism

In South Korea, the president of the Jogye Order, which represents traditional Buddhism in the country, encourages NewJeansNim, considering that the DJ can attract new followers.

“Young people think Buddhism is difficult and old-fashioned,” notes Venerable Jinwoo Seunim. “To break this image, it is preferable not to be too attached to tradition” in a context where religious practice is decreasing.

In South Korea, a

Youn Sung-ho on stage on May 12, 2024. The 47-year-old artist was welcomed with open arms by the Buddhist clergy of South Korea, who see in him a way to get closer to the youth. / Jung Yeon-je / AFP

In another innovative approach, this year at the International Buddhism Fair in Seoul, visitors were able to pray with an AI Buddha, buy clothing inspired by scriptures and eat chocolates in the shape of a Buddha.

NewJeansNim played a song at the closing of the show whose number of visitors tripled compared to last year, with 80% young people, according to the organizers.

“There are more Buddhist events for young people, and they are more ‘connected’ now,” Choi Kyung-yoon, a 28-year-old South Korean living in Seoul, told AFP.

For its part, NewJeansNim downplays its contribution to the rejuvenation of the image of Buddhism in South Korea. “I didn’t really do anything.” “The monks are very open-minded and I am happy to accompany them.”