Kyung Hee University professor
By David Mason
Today marks the 2,556th birthday of Sakyamuni Buddha. Just before the festivities began, a scandal erupted among the managerial monks of the mainstream order of Korean Buddhism, the Jogye Order.
Outraged charges and countercharges flew in the media and were wildly exaggerated online; non-Buddhist commentators fanned themselves as if they would faint.
It all started after some senior monks were videoed playing poker, drinking and smoking, while another bought a car; worst of all, one might even have visited a room-salon over a decade ago!
We breathlessly wonder whether this venerable national spiritual tradition can survive the shame of it.
Or wait; no, we don’t.
A constant expectation attached to religions all over the world is that people longingly desire and even vehemently demand professional practitioners of faith to adhere to higher standards of personal behavior than other members of society.
Given that religious professionals are funded by the donations of believers, this is generally justified. Such standards differ, however.
Buddhist standards for monastic behavior have always been reasonably flexible, and more like recommendations for advancement towards enlightenment and maintaining a harmonious temple community than strict, absolute laws.
If some actions or behavior disrupts a monk’s personal practice or threatens the smooth functioning of the Sangha (community of monks and lay believers), then it is considered wrong and dealt with through discussion and possible sanctions.
Singular or occasional violations of the rules that take place outside of the temple, such as eating meat, drinking a few shots of soju or playing cards, are no big deal.
However, if such behavior becomes habitual, disruptive or criminal, then it is taken seriously and corrective punishments are applied, up to and including expulsion from the order.
Misbehaviors or human charms?
One might remember that Korea’s most beloved Buddhist hero Master Wonhyo famously fathered a child with a princess in a one-night stand, and was also known to sing poetry after having a few drinks.
One can easily imagine this most enlightened of scholastic saints enjoying a little gambling with some village farmers after preaching salvation in the Pure Land to them during his missionary wanderings. Nobody seems to think any worse of him for these activities; they are rather considered part of his “he was still human” charm.
Misbehaving monks were a mainstay of the folk mask-dances of the Joseon Kingdom, stemming from Confucian prejudices and the public’s love of ridiculing their supposed superiors; this image may have been accurate in some cases but did not represent the long-term reality of Korean Buddhism.
There are two pathways for monks to follow during their careers: either spend their days in meditation, scriptural study, doctrinal teaching, devotional practice and charitable works (generally found in the remote mountain monasteries or in neighborhood temples), or devote themselves to administration of the monastic order and its properties (found in temple offices and in the headquarters building of Seoul). A similar division of roles is found in every religion.
The former group constitutes how the vast majority of Korean monks live, and is generally how the public thinks monks should live and act. And they do live up to those expectations, from my three decades of experience with them.
The latter group, however, are absolutely necessary for the Sangha to function, as it would collapse in a day without such efforts. But these monks neither receive nor deserve as much respect as those they support engaged in spiritual activities, but they should be well regarded for the vital functions they perform.
And it is no surprise that the standards of personal behavior for monks who spend their days in administrative offices downtown are somewhat lower than those for monks who meditate and study in the mountains. If anyone thinks that things were ever different in previous times, they are surely kidding themselves.
Rival of administrative monks
The current “scandal” seems to be little more than two rival factions of high-level administrative monks struggling over power and budgets; it is nothing new, nor surprising.
Personally, it has elicited only wry smiles from me, not any sort of outrage or lowering of my opinion of Buddhism in general. If it was one of the great masters at one of the grand temples deep in the mountains that was caught in such behavior, I would certainly be surprised; but it wasn’t.
It’s important to keep these things in a wider perspective. Serious crises and scandals are plaguing major religions all over the world, as a survey of recent news will tell.
With international Buddhism, I don’t know of anything comparable. In a realistic global perspective, this case of some managerial monks engaging in types of entertainment typical of middle-aged Korean men, and misusing pedestrian amounts of funds, seems to truly be “a tempest in a pot of green tea.”
I certainly do agree that this is an internal matter for the religious order involved to deal with according to their own rules and customs, and that under the successful doctrine of religious freedom maintained by Korea since its founding, the government has no justification for any involvement in it and is wise to be refraining.
Of course, if any laws were broken in any of this then authorities should respond to it just as they do for any other citizen, it should be needless to say.
Within the past half-century or so the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has been amazingly successful in reviving the true flavor of its ancient spiritual traditions centered on Seon, and in globalizing itself in all kinds of outreach.
As a result, Korean Buddhism now enjoys a very high reputation around the world, and I do not expect that the manufactured outrage over this kind of minor incident will cause it any significant or lasting damage.
David Mason, professor of cultural tourism at Kyung Hee University, is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.