By Yun Suh-young
The leadership of Jogye, the nation’s largest Buddhist order, is being thrown into question following the disclosure Thursday of a video clip showing monks gambling, drinking and smoking in a hotel room.
The monks were seen playing poker with hundreds of millions of won, which is believed to be from donations from believers.
Many within and outside the Buddhist circle sees the case as only the tip of the iceberg, saying the government must take action to address corrupt practices in religious groups. Some activists urged the government to introduce a “tax on religion” in a bid to make their spending of donations and expenditure transparent.
Behind the revelation is an internal conflict between the head of the Jogye Order, Ven. Jaseung, and his critics.
Ven. Seongho, who had been expelled from the order for defaming the Buddhist leader, brought the gambling case to the surface by filing a complaint with the prosecution to call for an investigation. He has been in conflict with the Jogye Order’s executive committee ever since he raised questions about Ven. Jaseung’s qualifications during the 2010 election for the executive chief position. Ven. Seongho was also a candidate for the post.
He has filed six complaints to the court since his expulsion but all of them have been dismissed.
The gambling case was disclosed recently by Ven. Seongho after he submitted a video clip to the prosecution as evidence. The footage was taken with a hidden camera.
Ven. Seongho claimed that he found a USB drive containing the footage on the floor of his temple.
Ven. Jaseung issued a written apology Friday saying that he expressed regret to all Buddhist believers nationwide for the inappropriate incident.
“We deeply apologize for the behavior of several monks in our order. The monks who have caused public concern are currently being investigated and will be punished according to Buddhist regulations as soon as the truth is verified by the prosecution,” said Ven. Jaseung in a statement.
He added that his order will conduct a 108-bows ritual for 100 days starting next Tuesday to repent the misbehavior of the monks.
The secretary general of the Buddhist Solidarity for Reform Chung Yoon-sun said in a local radio program Friday that such political conflicts between monks have been prevalent in Korean society so that it’s not even surprising anymore.
“It’s just like politics. In society, if there’s a conflict in interest between two groups, they make a deal or they fight. There have been cases in the past in which monks physically assaulted each other. Especially during the election two years ago, the problem was most severe. This incident also might have something to do with the upcoming election in the autumn,” she said.
The case also triggered debates on whether to introduce the religious tax.
“In Europe, religions pay taxes to the government on donations from believers and that money is redistributed to religious groups. In Korea, there’s no such system so temples or churches are not properly monitored. It’s not like the monks make money out of farming or any other work. So basically all the money comes from donations,” said Chung.
“The Jogye Order and its monks must make their financial affairs transparent and rethink the role of Buddhism in society.”