Distorted notions of morality
I was surprised to hear of the furor in the Korean media over the recent news that monks of Korea’s revered Buddhist Jogye Order were caught drinking, gambling and smoking and their actions termed as immoral.
Were they really so? The point here is that in today’s materialistic world it is difficult to define morality. People define morality according to their own convenience and frequently change their own definitions of it.
The media highlighted the episode in such a manner as if drinking, gambling and smoking by monks is immoral. If it is so then why is soju, the nations’ most popular alcoholic drink, freely available in every nook and cranny and almost all Koreans enjoy soju?
Why are cigarettes easily available in Korea? Should we brand all Koreans who drink or smoke as immoral? It is difficult to comprehend why Korean society has unreasonably high expectations for the monks to observe so-called moral behavior.
The truth is that every human is fallible and monks are no exception. They cannot be isolated from the materialistic pleasure available in this world. If we force them to be isolated from basic needs such as marriage, family and normal life then they are bound to fall one day in the eyes of followers. Korean followers should look at their neighbor Japan, where I understand, that monks are allowed to marry, have children and also drink alcohol and eat meat. What’s wrong in that? It makes them less vulnerable to fall as they already have access to their fundamental needs.
As long as they are not causing harm to others and trying to follow the spiritual path it is acceptable. Spirituality doesn’t mean that one has to give up all pleasures. It is the narrow minded people who distort the definitions of culture, spirituality or morality to suit their own convenience.
The monks who were caught caused no harm to anyone as they were just enjoying themselves in the midst of their monotonous life where they are supposed to abstain from everything while followers have the freedom to enjoy everything. One can follow the path of dharma and karma even while enjoying materialistic pleasures in moderation.
As per the scriptures of Hinduism or Buddhism, dharma (religion) is the law of nature and code of conduct so as to be contented and happy and save oneself from degradation or suffering. Dharma is the law of being without which things cannot exist. Karma is the action required to follow the path of dharma.
However, we must not forget these definitions were applicable thousands of year ago when there were no machines, no gadgets and not many opportunities available to enjoy life. During that period, monks and hermits used to go to isolated places such as a forest or mountains so as not to be distracted by so called materialistic pleasures. The definitions of dharma and karma have to keep pace with modern time. We must understand that these monks are very much a part of our society and hence equally vulnerable to materialistic pleasures as we are.
We should also not forget that there may have been a plot hatched by jealous or aggrieved individuals who wanted to show the monks and the Jogye Order in a bad light. The people who hatched this conspiracy may also be responsible for inducing the monks into gambling and drinking. Had they not lured the monks, such an incident could have been avoided. Hence, we should not blow the things out of proportion and redefine morality.
The writer is working as a general manager at Shipping Corporation of India, Mumbai, and currently on deputation to Ulsan. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.