The recent scandal involving gambling Buddhist monks could not have erupted at a worse time for the proponents of spreading Korean Buddhism globally.
Modern Korea is not a predominantly Buddhist country, but the nation has practiced and nurtured its own brand for more than 1,700 years after adopting it from China. Compared to Buddhism in other Asian countries such as Tibet, Japan or China, Korean Buddhism has largely remained inside the country.
Some insiders are worried that the latest scandal may taint the image of Korean Buddhism and hurt its already meager international presence.
"This story about the monks engaged in high-stakes gambling has been widely reported in the Western media," Robert Buswell, a renowned scholar on Korean Buddhism told The Korea Times.
A video clip disclosed on April 20 showed monks of the Joygye Order gambling, drinking and smoking in a domestic hotel room. Since then, major international news outlets, including wire services, and the BBC, ABC and Wall Street Journal, among others, have reported the incident with embarrassing headlines such as "Carousing monks caught on camera."
The globalization of Korean Buddhism is a relatively new endeavor. The practice had largely remained isolated until pioneering missionaries such as the Great Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004) started to spread it in the 1980s through the 1990s particularly in the United States by establishing Korean Zen centers. A U.S. chapter of the Jogye Order was established in New York in September in 2011, to oversee the administration of 30 Korean temples in the New York and New Jersey areas.
"It is leaving a terrible impression abroad about Korean Buddhism and can only undermine the serious attempts the Jogye Order has made in recent years to globalize Korean Buddhism," the professor said. Buswell holds the title of distinguished professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and also serves as the director of Center for Buddhist Studies at the university.
In the last decade or so, a rise in the popularity of Buddhism has brought formerly isolated Korean Buddhism much closer to everyday life, even for non-Buddhists and non-Koreans. Meditation retreats, recreational yoga or templestay programs are now a familiar routine in the lives of many people within and outside Korea.
However, the general Korean public is still reluctant to hold Buddhist monks in high esteem, as they are regularly seen engaging in behavior unbefitting their calling, such as drinking in public and driving expensive cars purchased with donations from believers.
"The public should not allow the cupidity of a very few monks to tarnish the reputations of the thousands of Jogye Order monks and nuns who are fully committed to their vocations and serious about their practice and conduct. I have known scores of Jogye monks and nuns over 40 years and I have never come across a single one who is anything like the monks shown in the video," Buswell said.
Since monks from other countries have not recently caught international media attention through misbehavior, could the recent incident suggest that Korean Buddhist monks are more prone to corruption than others?
"There is nothing in Korean Buddhism per se that makes it more prone than any other religious order to corruption," Buswell said. "But monastic orders are of course social organizations and, like any organization that accommodates all types of people, it inevitably includes good apples and bad. The question is how to respond when such unsalutary types of conduct are uncovered," Buswell said.
Government data show that around 12 million Koreans are Buddhists. Among the 25 Buddhist orders in the country, Jogye is the largest, running major temples nationwide.
Some experts said that it is important to understand the reasons behind the repeated occurrences of corruption scandals involving Buddhist monks.
"On a fundamental level, this scandal is reflection of the power struggle among different factions among monks at the administrative level of the Jogye Order," Chun Ock-bae, director of the Korea Institute of Buddhist English Translation, said in a telephone interview. "These troublemakers represent only a tiny fraction of the monk population."
Some critics have raised questions over the financial clarity of some major temples involved in the scandal like the Jogye Temple in central Seoul. There is no way of monitoring how the donations from believers are spent at temples.
"Buddhist temples are different from Cathedrals in that they exercise direct power over their finances," Chun said.
There is also the question of the proper qualification of some of the monks who joined the order in the 1980s, when Korea was undergoing political turmoil. That generation of monks is now leading the order.
The Jogye leadership has faced harsh criticism since the scandal. Ven. Jaseung, president of the order, issued a written apology. But the public remains unconvinced that the order is serious in rooting out corruption.
"Some of the older monks in the leadership of the order had been ordained despite a lack of proper qualifications and moral standards," Kim Eung-cheol, a professor at the Joong-Ang Sangha University, was quoted as saying in a local daily Thursday.
The government has remained silent on the corrupt practices of the religious sector.
"We cannot comment on such things. The government could try to help bring harmony among different religions, but when it comes to such problems, it is the responsibility of each to deal with it in their own manner," Do Jae-kyung, first religious affairs officer at the culture ministry said.
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