It is generally accepted that Buddhism has suffered from poor marketing in recent years. Monks regularly drink wine and smoke cigarettes, but refer to these activities as 'drinking grain tea' and 'burning incense'. Some monks burn incense up to 40 times a day but prospective recruits wrongly assume they will have to give up worldly pleasures such as burning incense themselves if they join a Buddhist order. In their defense, the monks say that they have achieved too high a level of spiritual enlightenment to be bound by such petty taboos.
Controversy was stirred however when a 13-hour video clip leaked recently showed several Jogye Order monks gambling with hundreds of millions of won while playing poker in a hotel. The Order has an annual budget of 30 billion won ($25 million) from its tax-free no-questions-asked income, but it was generally assumed to have been spent on maintaining religious temples, not individual monks' hands in card games. But one senior monk, the Venerable Jeongyeom explained the practice, saying that "Playing cards is a recreational culture that is good at preventing dementia." It is believed that by adding high-stakes betting to the game, dementia is more likely to be prevented. Medical researchers are said to be intrigued by the monks' findings.
Generally, Buddhist orders have tried not to disclose their financial hands within Korea in the past. With over 30 billion won in revenue and 10 million followers the Jogye Order has been referred to as Korea's hidden chaebol, but monks are said to be worried about being seen as a large business out of fear that the government may order them to close on the second and fourth Sunday of each month in order to allow mom-and-pop religions to gain customers. The gamble has largely paid off, with few questions being asked even after rival groups of monks and their hired thugs physically fought for control of the order and its riches in 1994, in what came to be known as the "Bloody Battle at Jogye Temple". The Ministry of Culture is now campaigning for the site of the battle on the street outside the temple to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage location.
In addition to playing the dementia card, senior monks have also said that gambling - which they refer to as Hwatu not gambling - should be seen as a legitimate pastime for members of Buddhist orders, as it follows the teachings of the late Venerable Beopjeong - a respected Buddhist monk who taught that freedom and fulfillment can be attained through 'possessing nothing', a philosophy he outlined in a 1976 book of the same name. After his death two years ago, many Buddhists bought copies of his book gambling that it would go up in value, but the monks said that conversely they have been trying to possess nothing by gambling away their money on intangible things since gamblers are well-known for nearly always losing everything in the end.
As South Korea has become richer though monks have been finding it increasingly difficult to gamble away money as quickly as followers willingly donate it, or as shops reluctantly hand it over as part of Buddhist protection rackets. Some monks are believed to have moved into trading stocks and Equity-Linked Warrants (ELWs), and there are rumors that one Buddhist order has even mortgaged its temples to buy Facebook stock to try and get rid of everything they own – a plan that may yet prove successful.
To try and deflect some criticism over the gambling incident, the Joyge Order claimed in a press release that the monk who leaked the video had tried to rape a nun in 2004, and the head of the Jogye Order has promised that if their Hwatu activities have been misunderstood they will conduct a 108-bows ritual for 100 days starting next Tuesday, making a criminal prosecution for fraud or a government revocation of their tax-free status unnecessary.
However, other allegations are harder to defend. The monk who leaked the video also claimed that members of the Jogye Order were visiting expensive hostess bars and were even paying for sex there rather than being offered it for free like the police. Meanwhile, animal rights groups have been outraged by recent video footage apparently showing a Buddhist monk beating a 75 year-old man's dog to death with a blunt weapon, a number of embezzlement cases are ongoing, and monks continue to engage in violent power-struggles which even saw a member of one order allegedly try to burn down his temple two years ago.
While Christian priests in Korea have also been regularly accused of engaging in fraud, misappropriation of funds, and sexual assault, this has been a feature of the priesthood for so many hundreds of years most priests are now genuinely shocked to discover such behavior was never originally sanctioned by Jesus, only the Vatican. Christianity's open financial and moral corruption has seen it gain steadily in popularity within Korea over the last hundred years, as its message resonates more readily with modern Korean culture. Buddhist leaders are now gambling that the promotion of their morally-flexible beliefs will once again attract new members and arrest their religion's decline, especially in the area of animal cruelty which Christians have no position on despite its recent popularity in Korea.
Buddhists are also becoming more open about moving into politics to promote their desire to engage in the highest-stakes gamble of all, trusting North Korea's peaceful intentions. The Venerable Pomnyun said those without political affiliations should talk about politics more freely and passionately, before attacking President Lee Myung-bak and appearing to endorse Ahn Cheol-soo, who may run for president this year. Or may not. Or may. He proposed the setting up of a new political party for those who rejected the politics of political affiliations.
But despite all the scandals, political leaders of all religious beliefs have urged Koreans to remember that Buddhist monks can also be productive members of society, pointing to the case of the 58 year-old monk Hong who threatened to stab the Japanese Ambassador to death after being angered that Japan had approved textbooks questioning Korea's claim to Dokdo, rather than using Korean textbooks for the study of Japanese history.
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Police seek arrest warrant for monk over embezzlement
Animal activists call for investigation on dog beaten to death
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Gambling monks and molesting priests: religious officials corrupted
Monk calls for creation of new party
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