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NewJeansNim Makes Buddhist Dance Music. Why Some Love It and Others Think It’s Wrong




A DJ is lighting up both night clubs—and monasteries. 

Dressed as a monk, sporting a shaved head and gray robe, DJ NewJeansNim has become all the rage in recent weeks as he produces EDM featuring Buddhist messages.

“Put your hands up,” he said in a clip of his DJ set last month in Taiwan, as he pressed his palms together in prayer position and jumped along to the beat. “If you overcome suffering, you will live in paradise,” he shouted over his music in Seoul. 

Yoon Seong-ho, who is South Korean and got his start in the Entertainment scene as a comedian, adopted his dance-music monk alter ego—named after an amalgam of the wildly popular K-pop girl group, NewJeans, and “sunim,” the Korean title for Buddhist monks or nuns—about a year ago, according to his social media profiles.

But while some have hailed the 47-year-old’s bass-heavy DJ sets as an innovative way to connect the religion to youth, others argue that he’s making a mockery of Buddhism.

Buddhism has a long History in South Korea, but has in recent years been experiencing a decline: 22% of South Koreans identified as Buddhists in 2015 according to a Gallup poll, but that figure fell to 17% in 2021. Buddhist organizations, whose members are also known to skew older, have been trying to connect with younger people by updating the image of monastics, usually known for their no-nonsense asceticism. Buddhist leaders have embraced opportunities to show off a more engaging side. Last year, a young monk known as the “flower monk” became a social media sensation, garnering Instagram followers and selling out temple tours thanks to his good looks.

Read More: Why Some People in Thailand Become Monks After Committing Crimes

As for NewJeansNim, who is not actually ordained, “I am thankful for the work you have done in spreading a much younger Buddhism to the young generation,” the president of the Jogye Order, the country’s largest Buddhist sect, told him when they met last month, as he gave the DJ prayer beads and a headset. 

Yoon also seems happy to be a part of Buddhism’s transformation in South Korea. On Sunday, amid festivities for Buddha’s birthday, he performed at a lantern ceremony in front of the Jogye Temple in Seoul.

But not all Buddhist communities are welcoming of Yoon’s innovation, with some seeing his performances as an insult to the religion. The DJ found himself the target of widespread backlash in Malaysia after he performed at a nightclub in Kuala Lumpur on May 3.

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The Young Buddhist Association Malaysia slammed his appearance as “inappropriate.” The dance club, which serves alcoholic beverages and hosts raves, contained elements that could violate Buddhist teachings, the group said in a statement. “Such an arrangement will not only affect the solemnity of Buddhism but may also confuse the public about the true meaning of Buddhist rituals, such as chanting sutras and holding palms together.”

NewJeansNim has even drawn responses from Malaysian lawmakers. Wee Ka Siong, the president of the political party Malaysian Chinese Association, said in a statement last week that Yoon’s “disguise” as a monk “gives a wrong perception of Buddhist values ​​and teachings.” Wee also called on authorities to ban Yoon from entering Malaysia again “in order to respect the sanctity of Buddhism and preserve religious harmony in Malaysia.”

The outcry over Yoon’s performances reflects the sensitivities in the multicultural Southeast Asian nation, where discussions about religion are treated with extreme caution—and where Islamic conservatism has dominated the country’s Entertainment scene. (However, a concert held by a guitar-strumming Japanese monk who infuses Buddhists chants in rock music, was held without opposition in Kuala Lumpur last October.)

Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail told reporters on Sunday that authorities have ordered Yoon’s activities in Malaysia be stopped. While Yoon was slated to take the stage again in Kuala Lumpur on May 21, Gemu Club, which was supposed to host him, announced last week that it was canceling Yoon’s show “in the interest of social harmony.” 

Still, NewJeansNim continues to entertain fans across Asia, with performances scheduled for Hong Kong later this week and in Taiwan in July. “I am just starting to feel that young people are changing their views on Buddhism,” he told Reuters. “Whoever calls me, or wherever, I will go and perform to make it easier for people to accept Buddhism through my EDM performance.”