Current executive director of the Jogye Order, Ven. Jaseung, and several other monks do a 108-bow at the Jogye Order in Jongno, central Seoul, in repentance of the gambling scandal which occurred in April last year. The 108-bow lasted for 100 days. / Yonhap
Korea's largest Buddhist order suffering from new setback to credibility
By Baek Byung-yeul
Senior monks are competing to become the next leader of the Jogye Order, the country's largest Buddhist order, and the intensity between the candidates is beginning to turn the race into an ill-tempered competition.
The vote to pick the new executive administrative director won't be until October, but the election is already knee-deep in copious smear campaigns, wild allegations, corruption and cover-ups worthy of a bad Oliver Stone movie.
It's obvious that the debates will get dirtier and backstabbing more barbaric in the coming months and some Buddhist leaders claim an overhaul of the voting process is needed to restore the order's reputation and dignity.
"The current election system breeds too much corruption. One of the biggest problems is bribing and practical vote-buying,'' said Ven. Jangju, a chief monk of the Oeo Temple in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province.
"I am ready to fully devote myself in the cause. I don't think I could reach nirvana if the order doesn't accept my criticism and try to clean itself up.''
Ven. Jaseung announces a plan to reform the Jogye Order at the Korea Buddhism History and Culture Memorial Hall in Jongnogu, Seoul, on June 7, 2012. / Yonhap
Ven. Seoljo, former head monk of the Bulguk Temple in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, has began a hunger strike at the Beopju Temple at Mt. Sokri in North Chungcheong Province, in protest of an election he feels is rigged.
He claims that murky maneuvering was involved in the selection of the order's senior committee, which has significant influence in handling the election for the executive director.
"Among the committee, at least eight to nine elder monks of the 25 members have violated the order's standards of conduct,'' he said.
All the fighting is partially fueled by the uncertainty over whether current executive director Ven. Jaseung will seek another term or not. Ven. Jaseung seemed to be cruising toward a second term until a gambling scandal erupted.
Last year, Ven. Seongho, after being expelled from the order after a fallout with Ven. Jaseung over a personal matter, publicized a video clip that showed eight monks of the Baekyang Temple playing poker in a hotel room with hundreds of millions of won at stake. The monks were also drinking and smoking heavily, not the image Jogye wanted to endorse of their men of faith.
Ven. Seongho wasn't done. He went on a radio show and claimed that Ven. Jaseung and Ven. Myungjin, another well known monk, were rewarded by an influence peddler to drinks and sex in 2001.
The Ven. Myungjie went to a ''room salon,'' or hostess bar, with the Buddhist leader in 2001, but claimed that ''the lines that shouldn't be crossed weren't crossed.''
Ven. Jaseung, a 59-year-old, has yet to declare a bid for a second term since the scandal broke out last year. However, he did hint at going for it in an interview earlier this year, when he told reporters, '' a chestnut will ripen and fall from the tree in due time after September.''
It's ironic that if Ven. Jaseung does decide to run for a second term, it's none other than Ven. Myungjin, his alleged drinking buddy and former chief monk of the Bongeun Temple in southern Seoul, who is expected to be his most serious challenger.
"It will be absurd if the current director runs for a second term. He is the person who is lacking in his morality," said Ven. Myungjin, in a recent interview.
"If he enters the race, I will definitely throw my hat into the ring to stop him.''
The Jogye Order is the largest Buddhist order in Korea, controlling 2,500 temples and some 13,000 monks in Korea. It has been practicing for over 1,200 years, dating back to the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-935 A.D).
The order's executive administrative director is frequently described as the "president of Korean Buddhism.'' This is because he will have the authority to name the chief monks of every Jogye temple and have undisputable influence in how the order uses its annual budget, amounting to over 30 billion won (about $27 million).
The elections of the executive administrative director have frequently been marred by scandals.
The most renowned incident happened in 1994 when then-chief Seo Eui-hyun decided to run for the second term and ignited resistance from within the order. The trouble escalated into a brawl involving hundreds of monks that resulted in the hospitalization of over 30 of them.
The new election for the executive administrative director will be held on Oct. 10, with 320 senior monks casting votes.