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Korean Buddhism: Untold hallyu teetering

Buddhist monastics walk in a row at Baekdam Temple, Gangwon Province, in this Korea Times file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Buddhist monastics walk in a row at Baekdam Temple, Gangwon Province, in this Korea Times file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

A series of scandals undermine Korean Buddhism's global influence

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Even before the term hallyu was coined in the early 2000s to refer to the successive sensational success of Korean dramas in Japan following KBS's mega hit TV series "Winter Sonata," there was the export of Korean ideas and thoughts.

Korean Buddhism is the untold side of hallyu.

Korea's export of Zen Buddhism had preceded the overseas sensational reactions to Korean dramas and K-pop which seems to have reached its peak with the presence of superstar K-pop band BTS since the mid-2010s.

Starting in the late 1980s, Korean Buddhism captivated some Americans and Europeans who sought to find peace of mind and reach the mental state of complete detachment from worldly desires. In the 1990s, a flurry of Westerners visited Korea to study Buddhism and about 100 people chose to become Buddhist monastics, dedicating their rest of lives to preaching and spreading Buddha's teachings.

Ven. Hyon Gak, a well-known Buddhist monk and author of the 1999 best-seller "From Harvard to Hwagyesa," is one of the Westerners who made Korea's Buddhist demographics diverse.

Born and raised in a conservative Catholic family in New Jersey, the Ivy League school graduate is the student of Ven. Seung Sahn, a towering figure in Korean Buddhism who played a greater role in spreading Korean Zen Buddhism across the globe. Under Seung Sahn's guidance, some 50,000 people in 32 countries, including the U.S. and various countries in both Europe and Latin America, came to practice Buddhism.

Richard McBride, a professor of the Asian and Near Eastern Languages Department of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said the spread of Korean Buddhism in the U.S. is the combined result of a few dedicated Korean Buddhist monastics and American Buddhism expert Robert Buswell's 1992 seminal book "The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea" published by Princeton University Press.

"Korean Buddhist monastics set up many Zen centers around the globe, but particularly near American universities on the East Coast, and frequently gave lectures and teachings to overseas audiences," said McBride in an email interview with The Korea Times. "In addition, Robert Buswell's book was published and used in many introductory courses on Buddhism in North America. This book introduced Western readers to Korea's living Buddhist tradition and was a contributing factor in young people's choosing Korea as a place to study Buddhism."

Among others, McBride said, Seung Sahn and Daehaeng are two Buddhist thinkers who played the greatest role in Korean Buddhism's golden days in the United States.

"Both of them gave lectures but also had books published in English that people could read. By the 1990s, both of them had at least one book available in English and they went on to publish more books through the 2000s," he said.

Ven. Hyon Gak speaks in this undated photo captured from his Facebook account.
Ven. Hyon Gak speaks in this undated photo captured from his Facebook account.

The expansion of Korean Buddhism, however, has stumbled since the death of Seung Sahn in 2004.

An insider said the number of foreign monastics in Korea reached its peak when Ven. Seung Sahn was alive. Their nationalities varied, she said on condition of anonymity as she was not authorized to speak to the media. Currently there are four foreign-born monastics at Hwagyesa, a Seoul-based temple which became the epicenter of "globalization" of Korean Buddhism.

None of them were available for interview.

Corruption scandals involving Buddhist monks ensued. Ven. Seoljeong, who was elected president of the nation's largest Buddhist sect Jogye Order in 2017, stepped down in 2018 after he was accused of suspicious personal wealth and a child he allegedly fathered. Ven. Seoljeong denied the allegations. But his tenure was cut short against his will less than a year after he took the helm.

The 2015 census sounded the alarm for Buddhist leaders. Buddhist numbers declined and the belief was pushed back into second place behind Protestants. The survey found about 7.62 million Koreans identified as Buddhist and 9.67 million identified as Protestant. Roman Catholicism came in third place. It was the first time Buddhism fell from the top position since the national census was introduced in 1925.

The survey also showed 56 percent of Koreans were not affiliated with any kind of religion.

The recent fuss surrounding popular Buddhist teacher Ven. Haemin over his "secular life" has dealt another blow to already stumbling Korean Buddhism.

Unlike other Buddhist monastics who live in isolation from the laypeople to fully focus on meditating and deepening their understanding of Buddhism, Haemin owned a home and lived there, actively interacting with the public. He's a best-selling author, highly paid public speaker and self-claimed mentor for those who are struggling with various problems in their lives. He frequently appears on TV shows. He's also founder of an app for cultivating mindfulness.

Haemin's room with a view that was disclosed on TV earlier in November triggered the public's suspicion about the legitimacy of his adherence to Buddhist moral precepts. Some social media users sarcastically called him a Buddhist entrepreneur, not a monastic.

Ven. Haemin speaks at a forum held at the Hotel Shilla in Seoul in this 2015 file photo. His active public outreach, frequent TV appearances, privately owned residence and launching of mindfulness meditation apps have pitted him against some fellow Buddhist monastics. / Korea Times file
Ven. Haemin speaks at a forum held at the Hotel Shilla in Seoul in this 2015 file photo. His active public outreach, frequent TV appearances, privately owned residence and launching of mindfulness meditation apps have pitted him against some fellow Buddhist monastics. / Korea Times file

Amid news reports about his "materialistic" lifestyle, Hyon Gak Sunim broke his silence and slammed the fellow monk.

Calling Haemin "a parasite heading to hell," Ven. Hyon Gak wrote in Korean on social media that Haemin was not a Buddhist monk but an actor. He went on to say he had to spend much of his energy and time to reeducate Europeans who were misled by Haemin.

Hyon Gak deleted his critical postings a day later and said he and Haemin came to have mutual understanding after having a long phone conversation.

His backpedaling, however, didn't ease the public's suspicions about the materialistic pursuits and gains of some Buddhist teachers.

"I think Hyon Gak did the right thing. Someone should have called out Haemin and it was Hyon Gak who did that. That's what we've seen," said Park Gwang-seo, a retired physics professor at Seogang University and an expert on Buddhism. "Even before the recent fuss surrounding Haemin, some Buddhists were gossiping about him because of his way as a Buddhist teacher. He didn't complete all the training and disciplinary courses, such as years of summer and winter retreats, after he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. Nobody confronted Haemin publicly before Hyon Gak though."

Peter Hershock, director of the Asian Studies Development Program at East West Center in Honolulu, however, presented a different view.

"I have some reservations about mindfulness apps and the commercialization of Buddhist teachings and practices," he said. "A practice like mindfulness meditation is aimed at helping people to open up to the present moment so that they can see habitual thoughts, impulses and emotions forming and be able to not allow them to automatically turn them into actions. That is, the purpose is to enable people to begin taking greater responsibility for their own karma."

Regarding privately owned residences of Buddhist monastics, Hershock said, one needs to look into their motives before making judgment about their lifestyle. "While living in a home rather than a temple is I think consistent with living with or among the people one serves as a teacher, a lot depends on the motives of the monk doing so," he said. "You will likely know many of the stories about Wonhyo and how he lived among and taught many of the underclasses. There are thus precedents for this… what is key is their combination of superlative compassion and clarity."

A Buddhist monk looks out over Buseok Temple located in the countryside of Youngju City, North Gyeongsang Province, in this 2007 file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
A Buddhist monk looks out over Buseok Temple located in the countryside of Youngju City, North Gyeongsang Province, in this 2007 file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Hyon Gak Sunim's sharp-tongued criticism of Haemin reveals the clash of traditionalists and Buddhist teachers.

Unlike Hyemin, according to Park, Hyon Gak has completed all the necessary training and observed annual retreats and rounds of intensive meditation to attain detachment from worldly things which are required of Buddhist monks after they are ordained.

But questions arise. Why was it only Hyon Gak who openly confronted the celebrity Buddhist teacher? Why did other Buddhist monastics or the Jogye Order authorities keep silent about him?

Park said the Jogye Order leaders or other Buddhist monks affiliated with the sect were probably cautious about speaking out about Haemin's lifestyle. "They probably thought that they had nothing to lose if the popular Buddhist teacher keeps going and is popular with the public. They might think that having such a celebrity Buddhist teacher would help Buddhism gain attention from the public," he said.

Hyon Gak left Korea in 2016 with his "bombshell" announcement that he would sever ties with Korean Buddhism.

"Foreign Buddhist monks in Korea are a decoration. They are no more than that. This is what I've learned through my 25 years of experience with Korean Buddhism. It's sad," he wrote in Korean when he was in Greece. He was critical of Korean Buddhism for its rigid hierarchy, discrimination based on gender and commercialization.

Mentioning that 100 foreigners were ordained as Buddhist monks in Korea under Seung Sahn's guidance, he said, Korean Buddhism back then was on the right track.

He had been a critic from within.

Among many criticisms, he said that female monks are not allowed to cast their votes to select the Jogye Order leader which he said was an unfair and outdated practice.

Korean Buddhism is stuck in the past and the interpretation of Buddhist precepts needs to adapt to changing conditions surrounding the religion, said Hyon Gak.

His voice, however, was not heard.


Buddhist monastics walk in a row at Baekdam Temple, Gangwon Province, in this Korea Times file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Buddhist monastics walk in a row at Baekdam Temple, Gangwon Province, in this Korea Times file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

A series of scandals undermine Korean Buddhism's global influence

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Even before the term hallyu was coined in the early 2000s to refer to the successive sensational success of Korean dramas in Japan following KBS's mega hit TV series "Winter Sonata," there was the export of Korean ideas and thoughts.

Korean Buddhism is the untold side of hallyu.

Korea's export of Zen Buddhism had preceded the overseas sensational reactions to Korean dramas and K-pop which seems to have reached its peak with the presence of superstar K-pop band BTS since the mid-2010s.

Starting in the late 1980s, Korean Buddhism captivated some Americans and Europeans who sought to find peace of mind and reach the mental state of complete detachment from worldly desires. In the 1990s, a flurry of Westerners visited Korea to study Buddhism and about 100 people chose to become Buddhist monastics, dedicating their rest of lives to preaching and spreading Buddha's teachings.

Ven. Hyon Gak, a well-known Buddhist monk and author of the 1999 best-seller "From Harvard to Hwagyesa," is one of the Westerners who made Korea's Buddhist demographics diverse.

Born and raised in a conservative Catholic family in New Jersey, the Ivy League school graduate is the student of Ven. Seung Sahn, a towering figure in Korean Buddhism who played a greater role in spreading Korean Zen Buddhism across the globe. Under Seung Sahn's guidance, some 50,000 people in 32 countries, including the U.S. and various countries in both Europe and Latin America, came to practice Buddhism.

Richard McBride, a professor of the Asian and Near Eastern Languages Department of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said the spread of Korean Buddhism in the U.S. is the combined result of a few dedicated Korean Buddhist monastics and American Buddhism expert Robert Buswell's 1992 seminal book "The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea" published by Princeton University Press.

"Korean Buddhist monastics set up many Zen centers around the globe, but particularly near American universities on the East Coast, and frequently gave lectures and teachings to overseas audiences," said McBride in an email interview with The Korea Times. "In addition, Robert Buswell's book was published and used in many introductory courses on Buddhism in North America. This book introduced Western readers to Korea's living Buddhist tradition and was a contributing factor in young people's choosing Korea as a place to study Buddhism."

Among others, McBride said, Seung Sahn and Daehaeng are two Buddhist thinkers who played the greatest role in Korean Buddhism's golden days in the United States.

"Both of them gave lectures but also had books published in English that people could read. By the 1990s, both of them had at least one book available in English and they went on to publish more books through the 2000s," he said.

Ven. Hyon Gak speaks in this undated photo captured from his Facebook account.
Ven. Hyon Gak speaks in this undated photo captured from his Facebook account.

The expansion of Korean Buddhism, however, has stumbled since the death of Seung Sahn in 2004.

An insider said the number of foreign monastics in Korea reached its peak when Ven. Seung Sahn was alive. Their nationalities varied, she said on condition of anonymity as she was not authorized to speak to the media. Currently there are four foreign-born monastics at Hwagyesa, a Seoul-based temple which became the epicenter of "globalization" of Korean Buddhism.

None of them were available for interview.

Corruption scandals involving Buddhist monks ensued. Ven. Seoljeong, who was elected president of the nation's largest Buddhist sect Jogye Order in 2017, stepped down in 2018 after he was accused of suspicious personal wealth and a child he allegedly fathered. Ven. Seoljeong denied the allegations. But his tenure was cut short against his will less than a year after he took the helm.

The 2015 census sounded the alarm for Buddhist leaders. Buddhist numbers declined and the belief was pushed back into second place behind Protestants. The survey found about 7.62 million Koreans identified as Buddhist and 9.67 million identified as Protestant. Roman Catholicism came in third place. It was the first time Buddhism fell from the top position since the national census was introduced in 1925.

The survey also showed 56 percent of Koreans were not affiliated with any kind of religion.

The recent fuss surrounding popular Buddhist teacher Ven. Haemin over his "secular life" has dealt another blow to already stumbling Korean Buddhism.

Unlike other Buddhist monastics who live in isolation from the laypeople to fully focus on meditating and deepening their understanding of Buddhism, Haemin owned a home and lived there, actively interacting with the public. He's a best-selling author, highly paid public speaker and self-claimed mentor for those who are struggling with various problems in their lives. He frequently appears on TV shows. He's also founder of an app for cultivating mindfulness.

Haemin's room with a view that was disclosed on TV earlier in November triggered the public's suspicion about the legitimacy of his adherence to Buddhist moral precepts. Some social media users sarcastically called him a Buddhist entrepreneur, not a monastic.

Ven. Haemin speaks at a forum held at the Hotel Shilla in Seoul in this 2015 file photo. His active public outreach, frequent TV appearances, privately owned residence and launching of mindfulness meditation apps have pitted him against some fellow Buddhist monastics. / Korea Times file
Ven. Haemin speaks at a forum held at the Hotel Shilla in Seoul in this 2015 file photo. His active public outreach, frequent TV appearances, privately owned residence and launching of mindfulness meditation apps have pitted him against some fellow Buddhist monastics. / Korea Times file

Amid news reports about his "materialistic" lifestyle, Hyon Gak Sunim broke his silence and slammed the fellow monk.

Calling Haemin "a parasite heading to hell," Ven. Hyon Gak wrote in Korean on social media that Haemin was not a Buddhist monk but an actor. He went on to say he had to spend much of his energy and time to reeducate Europeans who were misled by Haemin.

Hyon Gak deleted his critical postings a day later and said he and Haemin came to have mutual understanding after having a long phone conversation.

His backpedaling, however, didn't ease the public's suspicions about the materialistic pursuits and gains of some Buddhist teachers.

"I think Hyon Gak did the right thing. Someone should have called out Haemin and it was Hyon Gak who did that. That's what we've seen," said Park Gwang-seo, a retired physics professor at Seogang University and an expert on Buddhism. "Even before the recent fuss surrounding Haemin, some Buddhists were gossiping about him because of his way as a Buddhist teacher. He didn't complete all the training and disciplinary courses, such as years of summer and winter retreats, after he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. Nobody confronted Haemin publicly before Hyon Gak though."

Peter Hershock, director of the Asian Studies Development Program at East West Center in Honolulu, however, presented a different view.

"I have some reservations about mindfulness apps and the commercialization of Buddhist teachings and practices," he said. "A practice like mindfulness meditation is aimed at helping people to open up to the present moment so that they can see habitual thoughts, impulses and emotions forming and be able to not allow them to automatically turn them into actions. That is, the purpose is to enable people to begin taking greater responsibility for their own karma."

Regarding privately owned residences of Buddhist monastics, Hershock said, one needs to look into their motives before making judgment about their lifestyle. "While living in a home rather than a temple is I think consistent with living with or among the people one serves as a teacher, a lot depends on the motives of the monk doing so," he said. "You will likely know many of the stories about Wonhyo and how he lived among and taught many of the underclasses. There are thus precedents for this… what is key is their combination of superlative compassion and clarity."

A Buddhist monk looks out over Buseok Temple located in the countryside of Youngju City, North Gyeongsang Province, in this 2007 file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
A Buddhist monk looks out over Buseok Temple located in the countryside of Youngju City, North Gyeongsang Province, in this 2007 file photo. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Hyon Gak Sunim's sharp-tongued criticism of Haemin reveals the clash of traditionalists and Buddhist teachers.

Unlike Hyemin, according to Park, Hyon Gak has completed all the necessary training and observed annual retreats and rounds of intensive meditation to attain detachment from worldly things which are required of Buddhist monks after they are ordained.

But questions arise. Why was it only Hyon Gak who openly confronted the celebrity Buddhist teacher? Why did other Buddhist monastics or the Jogye Order authorities keep silent about him?

Park said the Jogye Order leaders or other Buddhist monks affiliated with the sect were probably cautious about speaking out about Haemin's lifestyle. "They probably thought that they had nothing to lose if the popular Buddhist teacher keeps going and is popular with the public. They might think that having such a celebrity Buddhist teacher would help Buddhism gain attention from the public," he said.

Hyon Gak left Korea in 2016 with his "bombshell" announcement that he would sever ties with Korean Buddhism.

"Foreign Buddhist monks in Korea are a decoration. They are no more than that. This is what I've learned through my 25 years of experience with Korean Buddhism. It's sad," he wrote in Korean when he was in Greece. He was critical of Korean Buddhism for its rigid hierarchy, discrimination based on gender and commercialization.

Mentioning that 100 foreigners were ordained as Buddhist monks in Korea under Seung Sahn's guidance, he said, Korean Buddhism back then was on the right track.

He had been a critic from within.

Among many criticisms, he said that female monks are not allowed to cast their votes to select the Jogye Order leader which he said was an unfair and outdated practice.

Korean Buddhism is stuck in the past and the interpretation of Buddhist precepts needs to adapt to changing conditions surrounding the religion, said Hyon Gak.

His voice, however, was not heard.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr

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