Rapping nuns, singing monks fire up prayer competition in S Korea

Nuns hold placards reading 'you rock' as they shout support for performers at a Buddhist prayer competition at the Jogyesa temple in Seoul on July 17, 2014.

SEOUL - South Korea's top Buddhist organisation held an experimental "prayer competition" on Thursday, featuring rapping nuns and singing monks in a bid to attract new, younger followers.

More than 300 monks and nuns packed a large temple in downtown Seoul to take part in the competition hosted by the Jogye Order.

Participants - mostly young monks - chanted prayers, or invocations, from classic Buddhist scriptures, as well as "freestyle" prayers they composed.

While many delivered traditional, monotone recitations, some opted for something bolder. A group of three young nuns delivered a blistering performance of a rap song derived from The Heart Sutra - one of the most popular Buddhist scriptures - and using their own lyrics promoting love and harmony.

"Great wisdom, perfect wisdom. Buddha's teachings that show you the way!" Hye Kang bellowed out to cheers from hundreds of excited followers and monks.

The 25-year-old nun, clad in grey robes, waved at the audience urging them to clap their hands as she jumped around the stage.

She was accompanied by two equally animated nuns - on traditional gong and drum - as she rapped over the sutra refrain "Aje Aje Bara Aje (Come, come, come upward)!" Buddhist tenets of humility and overcoming material cravings were briefly pushed aside as monks from Hye Kang's temple chanted "We're here to win!" The contestants were competing for a cash prize of 3 million won (S$3,630).

Another nun, Go Woo, also went down the hip-hop route, rapping a mix of classic scriptures and original lyrics praising Buddha's teachings.

"You're not alone. Let's take down the wall among us and share the teachings of wisdom!" she sang.

Hye Kang said she and her fellow performers had taken the contest very seriously, practising day and night for a month for the performance.

"I wanted more young people to take an interest in Buddhism and the message of its prayers," she said.

The Jogye Order claims 10 million followers, but Buddhism - once the dominant religion of South Korea - has been overtaken by Christianity in terms of popularity.

The Christianity practised in South Korea is strongly evangelical, with a lot of proselytising work that some Buddhists believe is bringing young people to the churches rather than the temples.

Venerable Yin Mook, a senior member of the Jogye Order and one of the judges of Thursday's event, said efforts were needed to make Buddhist scripture more accessible.

"Many Buddhist prayers are written in ancient words many people are not familiar with, so we asked participants to write prayers in plain, easy-to-understand language," he said.

"We wanted to let people, especially young people and children, know Yumbul (Buddhist prayers) can be more interesting and easier to practice than they think," he added.