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Buddhist order goes all-out to criticize government, some monks criticize order

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Monks of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism hold a banner calling for the expulsion of Rep. Jung Chung-rae of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea near the party's headquarters, Seoul, Dec. 16. Courtesy of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism
Monks of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism hold a banner calling for the expulsion of Rep. Jung Chung-rae of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea near the party's headquarters, Seoul, Dec. 16. Courtesy of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism

By Park Ji-won

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea, has thrown all of its efforts into criticizing what they call the Moon Jae-in administration's "religious bias," pledging to hold a nationwide rally of monks from around the country at its headquarters in Seoul on Jan. 21 for the first time in 14 years to eradicate the bias and protect the independence of Korean Buddhism.

Some monks, however, have fired back at the order-led decision, saying that it is "shameful" for the order to take these actions.

"We decided to go over all the religious biases and Buddhist distortions that have occurred since the founding of the country, and to hold the nationwide monks rally," Ven. Wonhaeng, the president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and the head of a special committee for the rally, said regarding the matter during the order's meeting on Jan. 6.

"Buddhism survived the Joseon Kingdom for about 500 years and it is necessary to tell everyone that the religion should not be treated unfairly," he added.

The order expects that about 5,000 monks and clergy of the order will be joining the rally on Jan. 21. It is also planning to hold another nationwide rally for adherents and templegoers at Gwanghwamun, City Hall or near the presidential office in central Seoul on Feb. 26 or 27.

If the rally takes place, it will be the first time in about 14 years since the order last took to the streets to protest the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2008, against the government's illegal surveillance of the Jogye Order's then-president and other highly ranked monks.

This latest decision to hold the nationwide rally of monks was triggered when the order's members took offense at the remarks of Rep. Jung Chung-rae of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. During a National Assembly audit last October, Rep. Jung criticized Buddhist temples for benefiting from the admission fees of temple visitors.

The Jogye Order asked for an apology from Rep. Jung. The lawmaker tried to apologize in person, but ended up only posting an apology online, which the order rejected, claiming that it was too late to accept the apology and demanding Jung's expulsion from the DPK. The ruling party and officials from the presidential office tried to mend ties, but the order also rejected those efforts.

In the meantime, the order also criticized the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's campaign to provide copyright-free Christmas songs to shop owners, saying that such a campaign shows clear evidence of bias, due to the use of taxpayers' money towards supporting a specific religion, and urged the government to stop it.

Korea's largest Buddhist sect also criticized the city government plan of Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, to designate the "Cheonjinam Pilgrimage Route" as a Catholic site, despite its historic significance to both Buddhists and Catholics.

Ven. Wonhaeng, the president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, speaks during a press conference held online on Jan. 19, 2021. Courtesy of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism
Ven. Wonhaeng, the president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, speaks during a press conference held online on Jan. 19, 2021. Courtesy of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism

Meanwhile, some monks openly criticized the order's efforts to criticize the government, saying that it is not something monks should be doing at this time for society. Some believers have even held one-person protests in front of the order's headquarters.

"Holding a rally with more than 299 vaccinated people is against the law. But the order says it will gather about 5,000 people. Is it really okay to hold a monks' rally violating the country's law in this pandemic?" Ven. Heo Jeong wrote on Facebook Tuesday, adding that the order has no right to ask for the expulsion of the lawmaker from his party, as he was elected by citizens.

The main angle of some monks' counter-criticism seems to be that the order is raising its voice in the interests of its top monks instead of for the weak in society. Ven. Heo Jeong added, "There is a military-like tradition that we should unconditionally follow decisions from the top of the order, even if they go against the people's voices, which is ruining the sect."

Ven. Myungjin also criticized the order's plans via a YouTube video on Jan. 7, saying that Rep. Jung's remarks were a slip of the tongue, and that the issue he raised was not new, having existed since the 1960s.

Suggesting that the order's plans are politically motivated, Ven. Myungjin said, "Is this something that the entire Buddhist community should put all of its efforts into? Is this really a rational move? Buddhism will be criticized by the order's decision." He continued by saying that it is shameful to see that the order hasn't raised its voice on behalf of the weak and those suffering from hardships in society, and that it is in fact absurd to make visitors ― especially penniless ones ― pay fees to see statues of the Buddha.


Park Ji-won jwpark@koreatimes.co.kr


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