A mobile missionary at your fingertipsWhen smartphones hit Korea, they changed the way people live, work and network. The smartphone wave also rode into an area that seems far-off from technology: religion.
In the world’s most wired country, scores of mobile applications developed by Catholic and Protestant groups are helping the local faithful conveniently relish religious scriptures and hymns anytime, anywhere. About 100 Christian apps are available, including best sellers that have been downloaded tens of thousands of times.
In contrast, Buddhist efforts for mobile missionaries are still in their infancy. A quick search of a local app store fetches about 30 Buddhist apps; more than half of them have never been downloaded. Korean Buddhists, however, are paving the way to expand their reach on the mobile sphere in a bid to further spread their religion.
“Now people are too busy. They don’t have time to visit temples since most temples are in the mountains,” said Ven. Jung Ho, director of missionary research at the Jogye Order, the nation’s biggest Buddhist sect. “Smartphones can serve as mobile temples.”
Buddhist apps range from a mobile version of Buddhist prayer beads to a location search program that tracks the location of the nearest temple via a global positioning system.
Smartphone users can also download various versions of key scriptures such as the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra and Thousand Hands Sutra. A touch on the display brings out a solemn but soothing chanting of holy verses with rotating images of serene temples and Buddhist monks going through Zen meditation.
For those who are new to the religion, there are fun, light-hearted apps. A tap on an mobile moktak, a percussion instrument that local monks use while chanting, rings out the signature rhythm of wooden notes that echo in Korean temples.
One app named “Hello Dharma School” displays pop-up animations of Buddha’s life, with features that explain the basic philosophies of Buddhism in easy-to-comprehend words.
“The old ways of spreading Buddhist culture, through brick-and-mortar content, can no longer weather the changing trends. The conventional means of communication can now convey only 1 percent of what is there,” said Kim Sung-chul, a professor of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang. “Without new channels such as mobile apps, Buddhist missionary efforts cannot continue.”
There are also growing hopes that the apps will energize the graying Buddhist population by nurturing young believers. Of the 10 million Korean Buddhists, nearly 20 percent are in their 40s. The percentage of Buddhists older than 65 stands at 13 percent, higher than the 9 percent level of Catholics and Protestants.
“Young people these days are distressed,” said Ven. Jung Ho. “If they learn about Buddhism through mobile apps, they will surely find out that there is more beyond the stereotypical images of Buddhism.”
He added that the Jogye Order is studying whether to launch a mobile app that will help prevent suicide through meditation.
Young smartphone users are also voicing support for attempts to make Buddhism more approachable.
“I downloaded an app that features sutras. They were more interesting than I had expected,” said 25-year-old Cho Yoon-na, who has participated in a temple stay program and reads scriptures, but is not a devoted Buddhist.
Experts say that Buddhist apps made by local developers could lead to opportunities abroad because global interest in Buddhist culture and meditation is on the rise. The Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism (CCKB), which runs temple stay programs, is betting on an English-language app that is slated to launch this month.
According to Jeon Kyu-hyeon, who made three Buddhist apps last year, nearly half the downloads for his works were generated outside of Korea.