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Corruption Scandals Rock Nation's Largest Buddhist Order

By Kim Ki-tae, The Korea Times, April 20, 2005

Seoul, South Korea -- The Chogye Order, the nation?s largest Buddhist sector, is embroiled in a relay of internal illegalities and irregularities and is tainting its transcendent image. Experts point out that the order needs an overhaul as the incidents reflect the underlining shady practices in the temples around the nation.

<< Representatives from various Buddhist groups hold a news conference to make an official statement regarding recent problems and allegations of corruption faced by the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism, at Chogye Temple, Seoul, on April 12. Yonhap

According to recent reports, members of Pulguksa Temple in North Kyongsang Province, one of the nation?s oldest temples, were found last week to have run an illegal golf practice range within its compound for three years. Its head monk is suspected to have gambled abroad and violated a law on foreign currency exchange. He also allegedly purchased a yacht. The prosecution is currently inspecting the charges. The monk admitted last week to his involvement in the golf range, but denied all of the other charges.

The head monk of Hwaomsa Temple, one of the nation?s largest temples, is currently wanted by the police for allegedly embezzling 600 million won ($600,000) granted by the central and local governments for repairs to the temple?s cultural assets.

Last week, a former Buddhist monk was arrested after stealing jewelry and golf course membership cards thought to be worth hundreds of millions of won from a Buddhist temple in Seoul. The list of stolen items was met with surprise by the public as clerics are not supposed to own private possessions, according to Buddhist beliefs.

In addition, some administrative monks in Seoul are suspected of colluding with a construction firm to siphon off funds while contracting it to build a Buddhist history museum. Members of the board of directors at a Buddhism-related university are also suspected to be involved in irregular transactions.

Embezzlement and other illegal practices are unfortunately not new to the nation?s oldest religion. In 1999, there was a 20 billion won ($20 million) embezzlement case involving Seoul?s Chogye Temple, the very center of the order. A monk also got away with 2.3 billion won at Pomosa Temple in Pusan four years ago.

However, this time, Buddhist civic groups have joined hands to call for an overhaul. Buddhist Solidarity for Reform and other civic groups early last week held a joint press conference and demanded the order come clean on all of the suspicious cases.

The Order?s Bureau of Office admitted to the deal related to the museum construction in a media meeting held two days later. ``We will cancel the contract,?? the Order?s spokesman Rev. Beop An said.

Regarding other suspected cases, he said the bureau could not reveal the irregularities, as it only has limited power to review each temple?s case. ``When necessary, we will resort to the prosecution,?? he said.

Pundits also point that the bureau is not capable of disciplining all of the clerics. ``The Buddhist order does not have a unified top-down hierarchy like the Vatican does,?? said a member of the order, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``It consists of many powerful `munjung,? a school of monks under the guidance of a master. They have a more powerful say than the central bureau over general monks.

``When a munjung goes wrong, the whole group could go corrupt with little intervention from the top.??

Jung Woong-ki, a policymaker at the Buddhist Solidarity for Reform, said that some munjungs degraded to an interest group, taking firm grips on lucrative major temples and their auxiliary temples as their strongholds. ``Many top monks of the munjungs wield financial and administrative powers. The unchecked power, in many cases, goes corrupt,?? Jung said. He point that the Buddhist temples need constant monitoring from laymen as well as internal members.

Professor Yun Won-cheol of Seoul National University noted that the current problems date to the post-liberation era. ``Many unqualified people flowed into the temples during the convulsive period, many of whom remained as leaders in many temples,?? he said.

Yun added that ample subsidy from the government also line the pocket of many temples. ``The subsidy alone can make them wealthy without even offerings,?? he said.

``Originally, clerics were not supposed to work for earnings and depended on offerings from laymen. It is expected to make them both humble to the laymen and concentrate on the religious works apart from material desire,?? he said. ``Now wealthy and unchecked, some can go corrupt.??

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