Where Buddha meets shaman

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Where Buddha meets shaman

Here’s this week’s tip on Korean language and customs:

Q:
I was told that the upright version of the swastika symbol on the streets of Korea appeared only on Buddhist temples. But as I learned to read signs in hangul, I found that not all the buildings bearing the Buddhist symbol were actually temples.

One that I recently spotted in northern Seoul read “Janggun,” which means “a general” in Korean. What does that mean?

A:
As Buddhism was introduced to Korea from what is now China in the early 6th century, it fused with indigenous religions, as it did in many countries. While the original Buddhist doctrine remains intact, Korean Buddhism is unique in both practice and form in that it embraces shamanism. To reflect such cultural diversity, most Buddhist temples here have a small shrine on the temple grounds where local deities are worshiped by shamans and their followers. Likewise, shamans in Korea have incorporated Buddhist rituals into their practice and have used the Buddhist swastika to signify their presence.

To this day, shamans continue to worship their gods, such as ancient generals and deceased ancestors. The places that are obviously not temples but bear this ancient symbol usually are shaman’s shrines, where the shaman tells fortunes.

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