For many Koreans, the emphasize spiritual aspects of life and religion are a source of strength and support. Statistics indicate that most Koreans have a religion- Christian, 49 percent; Buddhist, 47 percent, Confucianist, three percent; Shamanist, Ch´ondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) and others, 1 percent (CIA, 2000). Historically, kings in the United Silla and Koryo dynasties encouraged Buddhism, while those in the Choson dynasty switched to Confucianism, blaming corrupted Buddhism for the previous kingdoms’ demise. Currently, Koreans enjoy freedom of choice in religion and lead a rather harmonious life despite their diverse religions, even among family members. The various belief systems are mutually reinforcing and do not conflict with values that underlie the daily lives of Koreans. Koreans tend to be open to the teachings of other religions and respect others’ choices, so they are puzzled when violent wars break out over religious conflicts in other parts of the world.
It is not a surprise then, that the beliefs and values reflected in common Korean culture are a sophisticated mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism and other religions. Influences from Buddhism are reflected in attitudes of benevolence toward all living creatures and beliefs about this world and a thereafter in the concept of karma. Confucian influences are seen in ancestor worship and the moral codes for proper human relationships. Shamanism is reflected in animistic orientation and thinking. The Umyang theory (Yin-Yang in Chinese) is seen in folk religious beliefs of the human as an integral part of nature, which requires people to learn the ways of nature and harmonize with them. Confucianism is more a philosophy than a religion, but the teachings of Confucianists pervade the way Korean people have thought and behaved over the past five to six centuries. Many believe that Korea was influenced more by Confucianism than was China, Confucius’ native country. In addition to Confucianism, the lives of Korean immigrants are also heavily influenced by Buddhism and Christianity in ways that are briefly summarized below. Nearly half of Koreans consider Buddhism their religion and think of “Buddha’s birthday” as a national holiday parallel to “Jesus’ birthday,” Christmas. Buddhism is reflected in the beliefs of reincarnation and retribution. For example, all creatures alive in the world must go through an endless cycle of birth, getting old, illness, and death. In the Buddhist belief, disability is part of a natural life process. Buddhists emphasize benevolence and believe in reincarnation, in other words, what you are now depends upon how you lived in your previous life. How you live your life now will decide your life after death. Christianity was introduced to Korea in the 18th century through the Jesuit missionaries. It spread so quickly that the king considered a threat to national unity and actively persecuted the early missionaries. In the late 19th century, Protestant missionaries arrived and established many hospitals and schools. Koreans have embraced Christianity in its many forms. Currently, nearly half of the Korean population is Christian and many of the largest Christian churches in the world are located in Korea. Membership in Korean-American Christian churches also has grown rapidly.