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Make Buddhism cool again: South Korea’s controversial DJ ‘monk’

By AFP - May 15,2024 - Last updated at May 16,2024

This photo taken on Sunday shows South Korean comedian Youn Sung-ho known as ‘NewJeansNim’ wearing monk’s robes performing during an electronic dance music party event for the annual lotus lantern festival to celebrate the upcoming Buddha’s birthday in Seoul (AFP photo)

SEOUL — With a shaved head and flowing monk robes, a South Korean DJ chants traditional Buddhist scripture mixed with Gen-Z life advice over a thumping EDM beat, as the crowd goes wild.

Meet Youn Sung-ho, a comedian-turned-musician whose viral Buddhism-infused sets are credited with reviving the religion’s popularity among young South Koreans, even as his performances have ruffled feathers regionally, including triggering police reports in Malaysia.

In South Korea’s Zen Buddhist tradition, which holds that the religion’s truth transcends the physical, Youn has been welcomed with open arms by senior clergy, who see him as a means to engage with young people.

A senior monk even bestowed upon Youn the monk name NewJeansNim, under which the 47-year-old, who is not ordained, now performs.

The moniker is a mash-up of “Seunim”, a respectful Korean title for Buddhist monks and other devotional words — with no connection to K-pop girl group NewJeans.

“Pain! Because I don’t get a raise. Pain! Because Monday comes too quickly,” NewJeansNim chants on stage as hundreds of mostly young Korean revellers dance, waving their hands in sync.

“This too shall pass! We will overcome!” he adds, citing classic Buddhist tenants, as the beat drops at an electronic dance music event marking a lantern festival for Buddha’s birthday, which falls on Wednesday.

Footage of his quirky, high-energy performances has gone viral, with striking visuals of a be-robed, shaven-headed Youn dancing, singing and spinning turntables.

“Never did I expect this reaction. It’s overwhelming,” Youn told AFP ahead of his performance in Seoul at the weekend.

He says he comes by his Buddhist DJ identity honestly.

“My mother was a Buddhist and I also went to temples from a young age so Buddhism comes naturally to me.”

And his motivational lyrics are “just what I said to myself last year when I had no work and was really struggling — good days do come”.

Malaysia ban?

For many South Koreans, his words have resonated.

“His messages provide comfort to those in their twenties and thirties who are burnt out and feel hopeless,” says Kang Min-ji, a 26-year-old, who said they did not have any interest in Buddhism before watching NewJeansNim.

“I always thought Buddhism was conservative until I saw his DJ performances,” she added.

But in neighbouring Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country with a significant Buddhist minority, where NewJeansNim performed in early May, a second gig planned for later this month was cancelled after his performance offended local Buddhists.

“There have been police reports lodged against DJ NewJeansNim’s performance in Malaysia by Buddhist societies and individuals,” EowShiang Yen, secretary-general of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia, told AFP.

“The way he chooses to perform and his dress is not appropriate to Buddhist beliefs and practices,” he said, adding: “We do not want others to misinterpret Buddhist practices.”

One Malaysian lawmaker has said NewJeansNim should not be allowed to perform in Kuala Lumpur using the trappings of Buddhism.


Buddhism for all


But in South Korea, the president of the country’s largest Buddhist sect, the Jogye Order, has urged NewJeansNim to continue, seeing the DJ as a means of attracting new, younger followers.

“Young people think that Buddhism is difficult and old,” the Venerable Jinwoo Seunim has said.

“In order to break this, it is better not to be too bound by tradition,” he added.

As in many advanced economies, religious interest has dwindled along with South Korea’s population, official statistics show, and “Buddhism is the religion that is suffering the most,” said Ja-hongSeunim, a 33-year-old monk.

“We are not in a position to stop anyone from spreading Buddhism to young people,” he told AFP.

The non-traditional approach could also be seen at the International Buddhism Expo this year in Seoul, when attendees could pray with an AI Buddha, buy scripture clothing and eat Buddha-shaped chocolates. NewJeansNim played a set for the grand finale.

Attendance was up threefold from last year, with 80 per cent of attendees in their twenties or thirties, event organisers said.

“There are definitely more Buddhist events for young people to enjoy, and basically they are ‘hip’ now,” Choi Kyung-yoon, a 28-year-old who lives in Seoul, told AFP.

NewJeansNim himself downplays his contribution to making Buddhism cool again in South Korea.

“I didn’t do anything really,” he told AFP.

“The monks are very open-minded, and I am just flowing with them.”


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