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South Korea’s social media-savvy influencers tap electronic music to fuel youth interest in Buddhism

A South Korean deejay dressed as a Buddhist monk bounced up and down on stage while playing electronic music and shouting: “This too shall pass!” The performance brought cheers from a crowd of thousands at an annual lantern-lighting festival over the weekend to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday.

Religious belief in South Korea has been on the decline for years. In 2021, just 22 per cent of South Koreans in their 20s identified as religious, compared to 45 per cent in 2004, according to a Gallup poll. But that might be changing as social media fuels an uptick in interest in Buddhism among young people.

The festival DJ, Youn Sung Ho, is a significant contributor to this trend. Youn, who is also a comedian, said he has received much support from the younger generations, especially millennials and Gen Z, for his Buddhist monk alter ego, whom he calls NewJeansNim.

Youn created the persona last year when he was DJing at the lantern-lighting ceremony. “I wasn’t NewJeansNim at the time. I was the comedian Youn Sung Ho. It was just my authentic self.”

But he wore a hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing that resembles a monk’s robe, and said the performance video drew millions of views on social media. “That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, I need to make a character quickly,’” he said.

He carefully built his alter ego while seeking support from Buddhist leaders in South Korea, trying to balance popular culture with authentic Buddhist teachings.

NewJeansNim is a hybrid moniker of Sunim, a Korean title for Buddhist monks, and NewJean, a Dharma name that a senior monk gave him, Youn said.

Youn’s DJ-monk persona has attracted many young South Korean adults to Buddhism, including Kwon Dohyun, a university student who attended the lantern-lighting