Gamblers in grey robes
Taste of money, power leads monks astray
The scandal about gambling monks rocking the nation’s Buddhist community seems to know no bounds. A former special advisor to the executive chief of the largest Jogye Order recently disclosed that playing high-stakes poker was customary among ranking monks, some of whom even went abroad to gamble.
Even more stunning than these deviant acts was the excuse made by a senior Jogye monk. ``Playing cards is a recreational culture that is good at preventing dementia,” said Ven. Jeongnyeom. It is hard to just laugh away this remark despite, or because of, his post defending the religion.
It has long been an open secret that many monks, especially those in high administrative posts, drink wine (``grain tea”) and smoke cigarettes (``burn incense”), saying they have achieved too high a spiritual enlightenment to be bound by these petty taboos. The whistleblower who first leaked the video clip of the gambling monks also exposed monks highest in the Jogye Order frequented expensive hostess bars and even paid for sex.
We know the ongoing exposure, true nor not, is part of an internal power struggle, as the Buddhist leaders say. Yet the point as most people, especially believers, see it, is not the reason or circumstance but the fact most of it has happened.
And we are afraid, from experience, the scandals and ugly revelations may not end easily but recur, although the Buddhist leadership is pledging to repent by abstaining from flesh and fish. Most Koreans still remember the ``bloody battle at Jogye Temple” in 1994, as bands of rival monks and their hired thugs physically fought for control of the order, which owns vast amounts of property. The subsequent reform drive went up in smoke amid another violent clash four years later.
At stake is how to separate sacred religious pursuit from secular money problems. There have been numerous vows for transparent financial management in the wake of major scuffles, but little changed. We agree with some believers’ organizations, which call for monks to leave financial matters to lay followers and focus on spiritual and religious training, even if it means a sharp drop in the number of Buddhist disciples at least temporarily. A drastic improvement in the ways of fostering monks by making stricter requirements is also needed.
Anything less will enable Buddhism, which has long, proud history among the nation’s religions, to regain people’s trust. Korean Buddhism must think why their counterparts in Southeast Asia, who subsist by begging, enjoy absolute trust and respect from people.
Of course, religious practices by Koreans, Buddhists and Christians alike, have problems seeking mainly good luck for themselves and their family members instead of communicating with absolute beings or serving their neighbors with religious mercy. When there are people wanting to buy good fortune, there should be those who try to sell it. Yet that does not justify monks’ undue secularization, much less outright corruption. Religions may not be able to purify this murky world entirely, but they should at least not make it muddier still.
The late Ven. Seongcheol, Korea’s best-known monk in recent memory, left only two worn-out robes upon entering Nirvana. He must not be the last to do so.