South Korea's Buddhists monks tackle modern challenges

Venerable Sung Jin of Jogyesa Venerable Sung Jin has seen a decline in people becoming monks

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He calls himself the Accidental Monk.

Sitting in the study at Seoul's main Jogyesa Temple, the Venerable Sung Jin wraps his wide grey tunic around him, as his round face cracks into a broad smile.

Twenty years ago, he tells me, he was a student activist in South Korea's turbulent new democracy. Running from police one day after a demonstration, he took refuge in a temple, and began chatting to the Zen master there.

The rest, as they say, is history: Ven Sung Jin is now head of administration at the Jogyesa Temple.

But the question of why people become monks is a pertinent one in South Korea at the moment.

Last month, the country's main Jogye Order was hit by scandal after video footage showed several of its monks drinking, smoking and gambling in a hotel bedroom.

It was a PR disaster for South Korea's ancient national religion, already struggling to remain relevant in the face of thriving Christianity and capitalism.

Allegations of un-Buddhist-like behaviour - gambling, corruption, even paying for sex - have circled the Joyge Order, fuelled by internal divisions over the organisation's leadership.

The man who leaked the recent video footage, Ven Seong-Ho, told me the order was like "a patient with cancer - it's about to die, and we don't have the doctors who can fix it".

Many South Koreans dismiss that as hyperbole. But the recent scandal has raised new questions about the role Buddhist monks play in modern-day Korea.

Interest declining

In an age of sex, smartphones and social freedoms, what motivates people to give up many of life's pleasures and spend their lives isolated from the world in quiet contemplation?

"There's usually a moment," the smiling, accidental Ven Sung Jin told me. "A turning point, when someone decides to become a monk.

"It could be house burning down, the death of a loved one. A moment when they realise that nothing lasts forever. It's a very personal response."

But, he says, the number of people making that choice has declined.

Jogye Order

Interior of the Jogye Temple in Seoul
  • First established in 1395 in Seoul
  • The leading order of Zen Buddhism in South Korea
  • Jogye Order has 10m followers in the country
  • Hit by a factional infighting in 1998, dozens of monks charged

"Compared to when I became a monk," he said, "there's been a reduction of maybe 50-70% in people coming in."

"I mean, look at this!" He holds up his bat-like sleeves.

"When life is so convenient, when there's so much to enjoy in modern life, why would you want to shave your head, wear clothes like this, and spend time with a 70-year-old Zen master in the mountains?"

Ven Sung Jin spend ten years meditating in a temple in South Korea's mountains, before moving to Seoul.

"Few want to bear the great responsibility of being a monk," he says, "when even the smallest mistakes have huge consequences."

Korea's Buddhist monks sign up for life - something that can create added pressures, says Ven Moo-Shim, an American who's lived here as a monk for almost 30 years.

"People have a different attitude about Buddhism in Korea," he told me. "For example, in Thailand, you can go to be a monk for 3-6 months, and then return to society. But in Korea it's not that simple. Korean people believe you have to give your life to it. So when they see monks squabbling over petty things, they feel sad."

'Feisty'

As a result of the recent scandal, the leaders of the Jogye Order announced 100 days of repentance, and a series of reforms designed to bar monks from running the financial or day-to-day affairs of temples without help.

Bringing in financial advisors to do the accounts, they said, would not only prevent wrong-doing, but would confine the monks to their key tasks of meditation and spiritual practice.

South Korean Buddhists march with lanterns during the Lotus Lantern Festival in downtown Seoul, 19 May 2012 Buddhist communities have been holding events to try to engage the public

But it's not the first time scandal has hit South Korea's main Buddhist order. Just over a decade ago, TV pictures showed monks rioting in Seoul, over internal conflicts within the order itself.

I asked the American Ven Moo-Shim whether Korean monks' reputation for being a bit hot-blooded was deserved.

"They are a bit feisty," he said. "And part of that reputation is that they're willing to fight for what they believe is truly good, and helps the Korean people. But of course if things like this recent scandal carry on, they'll lose that good image."

During earlier Japanese and Chinese invasions of Korea, the monks came out of their monasteries to fight the invaders. But with no military invasion to head off in 21st century South Korea, how does a closeted, meditative order remain relevant now?

"I think it's facing a challenge," says Moo-Shim, "because Buddhism is trying to satisfy a need for scientific learning. But trying to adjust the needs of Buddhism to the needs of this age is not so easy."

There have been attempts, he says, to combine Buddhist teaching with counselling, and to hold street festivals and cultural events to engage the public.

But he says, at the same time "we as monks have to recognise that not everyone's ready to live like we do. And it's the monastic mind that's very interesting to a lot of people."

Ven Sung Jin agrees. Buddhism was banned and repressed in Korea for centuries, and it still survived, he said.

"The decision to become a monk isn't something that can be blown off course too easily," he says. It's about wanting to fill the empty mind.

And for someone to be affected by the recent events? "I don't think they would have been willing to take that decision in the first place."

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