DJ NewJeansNim, worshiped in Korea, condemned in Malaysia

Op-Ed, The Buddhist Channel, 13 May 2024

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Amidst the vibrant rhythms of electronic dance music (EDM), a divisive figure emerges, blending the beats of modernity with the timeless wisdom of the Buddha. DJ NewJeansNim, a South Korean comedian-turned-DJ, has captured the hearts of young Koreans with his unconventional approach to spreading the teachings of Buddhism.

Known for his monk attire and shaved head, DJ NewJeansNim's performances resonate deeply with his audience, echoing the message of impermanence and the transcendence of suffering. His fusion of EDM with Buddhist teachings has sparked enthusiasm among South Korea's Buddhist community, who see him as a beacon of "young Buddhism."

However, across the waters in Malaysia, controversy brews. Scheduled to perform on the eve of Wesak Day, a significant Buddhist festival, DJ NewJeansNim faced opposition from Malaysia's Buddhist community. Critics argue that his act deviates from the solemnity of Buddhist rituals and risks misinterpretation of sacred practices.

The decision to cancel his performance reflects a delicate balance between respecting religious values and promoting social harmony. In a multicultural society like Malaysia, such considerations are paramount to maintaining unity among diverse communities.

In contrast, DJ NewJeansNim is hailed as a "hero" in South Korea, celebrated for revitalizing interest in Buddhism among the youth. His performances at the lotus lantern festival garnered praise from Buddhist leaders, who recognize his role in making Buddhism accessible to a new generation.

Venerable Jinwoo, president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, commended DJ NewJeansNim's efforts to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity. By embracing innovation while staying true to the essence of Buddhist teachings, DJ NewJeansNim embodies the spirit of adaptability and inclusivity.

As the lanterns illuminate the night sky in celebration of Buddha's birthday, DJ NewJeansNim's presence serves as a reminder of Buddhism's enduring relevance in contemporary Korean society. His vision to transform Yeondeunghoe into a global festival reflects a commitment to spreading Buddhist culture beyond borders.

Many overlook the fact that South Korea now has more Christians than Buddhists. Traditionalist Buddhists have been engaged in a strenuous battle against well-organized and well-funded aggressive Christian evangelists.

It is within this context - within Korea itself - that DJ NewJeansNim offers a ray of hope, reminding Korean Buddhists that the path to enlightenment is not confined to ancient scriptures but can be found amidst the pulsating rhythms of everyday life.

As Buddhists elsewhere, let us not be too quick to judge if DJ NewJeansNim is insulting Buddhism. In Malaysia itself, there have been many innovative, unorthodox efforts to promote the Dharma, such as musicals produced by Imee Ooi and, recently, the groundbreaking Buddhist AI phenomenon, NORBU.

Inevitably, unconventional methods often face resistance. Rather than resorting to outright bans and condemnation of DJ NewJeansNim's practices, fostering open dialogue and exchanging perspectives could offer a more constructive approach for Malaysian Buddhists. Understanding the context of his popularity in Korea and the relevance of his approach might provide valuable insights.

Perhaps amidst our own challenges of declining temple attendance and disengaged youth, there's room for inspiration from DJ NewJeansNim. Embracing diversity and welcoming innovative ideas could rejuvenate our approach to spreading the Dharma. After all, the teachings of the Dharma transcend conventional boundaries, inviting us to explore new avenues for connection and understanding.
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