South Korea: Monks Caught in Gambling, Smoking and Drinking Scandal

In South Korea, six leaders of the nation's biggest Buddhist order were caught playing high-stakes poker, along with drinking and smoking. The case was disclosed through leaked video footage that shows high-profile monks gambling at a luxury lakeside hotel just days before a national holiday celebrating the birth of Buddha.

The stakes of the monk's gambling reportedly exceeded $US 875,000 (10 million Korean Won) and the gambling continued overnight for 13 hours straight. In South Korea, it is illegal to gamble outside designated casinos and horse racing spots and such an act by religious leaders is more than being frowned upon – it is unimaginable. South Korean online space erupted with various responses from sarcastic comments, harsh criticisms and bitter lament for the corrupted religion.

Twitter user @uxost01 tweeted [ko]:

어머니가 조계종 억대 도박 뉴스를 아시고서 충격과 비탄에 빠지셨다.

My mom was shocked and devastated by the news of Jogye monks’ gambling with stakes of several tens of millions of Korean Won.

Twitter user @Arirang5886 pointed out [ko] that the money the monks staked was religions donations made by people:

조계종간부들의 도박, 음주, 흡연행위는 자정의 한계를 넘은 것입니다. 신도들은 피땀어린 시주하면서 절에 다니고, 승려는 그것으로 스릴있게 도 닦는 형국입니다. 부처는 신도의 마음에 있지 절간에 있는 것이 아니라는 것을 잘 나타내고 있는 사건입니다.

The Jogye order managerial level monks’ gambling, drinking and smoking – these acts show that that they have lost the ability to control themselves. While the followers regularly pay visits to the temple to offer their hard-earned blood money, those monks use that money to enjoy a thrilling truth-seeking. It is an exemplary case that tells that the real Buddha is in each follower's heart, not in the temple.

Another Twitter user @Nabiwahighhill compared those monks [ko] to corrupted nobles:

2007 년 명지스님이 100억원 사찰재정을공개하며“수행자는 수행에전념하고,재정은 재가자에맡기자”했다.조계종 승려들이 시줏돈으로 밤샘 도박사건은 승가사회가 타락했음을보여준다.MB정권에서 종교인과 정치인 언론사주가 앙사앙레짐의 2%타락한 귀족이돼간다.

Back in 2007, Monk Myung-ji made public that the temples have about ten billion Korean Won worth of financial resources (around $US 8.75 million) and argued that they need to separate their truth-seeking and money-handling. Jogye order monks’ overnight gambling shows that the Korean Buddhist community is corrupted. Religious leaders, politicians and media owners have become the corrupted nobles, the top 2 percent of the “ancien regime”.
South Korea's famous temple, Haeinsa-21

Image of monks going down to their rooms after evening worship at Haeinsa temple which is one of the foremost Chogye Buddhist temples in South Korea (not necessarily related to the gambling case mentioned in the article) Image: joonghijung, Creative Commons License (CC BY 2.0)

Jogye order has more than 10 million followers which comprises about a fifth of the entire South Korean population. The head of Jogye order made a public apology right after the gambling case made national headlines, vowing “self-repentance”. Although there were media speculations [ko] that the video leakage was carefully planned out by rival powers within the order, no reason or excuse was strong enough to calm disappointed Korean people.

Park Tae-su (@sjts200) tweeted [ko]:

조계종 자승 중은 도박사태 책임지고 사퇴하라.참회만으로 덮을려고?어림없는 소리[…]

Monk Ja-seong should take full responsibility for this gambling fiasco and resign. Do you really think you can cover up the case just by vowing self-repentance? Hell no.

Yun Hee-sung (@yunheesung) tweeted [ko]:

불교 조계종 도박파문이 조계종 내부간의 갈등 때문에 일어난 거라 억울하신가요? 그건 당신들 끼리의 다툼이고, 국민은 억대판돈을 놓고 도박하고 술. 담배를 먹고 피워도 되냐를 묻는 겁니다. 아직도 문제가 뭔지 모르세요?

Do you feel that all these (accusations) are unfair since the gambling scandal was all caused by internal power conflict? Whether you had internal power struggles or not, what concerns Korean people is whether it is justifiable for the monks to gamble tremendous amounts of money and smoke and drink. Can't you still see what is the real problem here?

South Korea used to be a highly religions country but as so many scandals broke out both in Christian and Buddhist communities [ko], frustrated, more and more Koreans are turning away from religions. Twitter user @tinypencil tweeted [ko]:

이제 불교에서도 개신교와 매를 같이 맞아주기로 한건가. 요즘 이미지 참 좋아지던 와중에 승려들의 불법도박이라니.

So Buddhism has decided to share the harsh criticisms with the Christian community? Public sentiment toward Buddhism used to be quite good. But now the monk's illegal gambling has ruined it.

and added [ko]:

조계종 승려들의 밤샘도박. 종교가 세상을.치유하는건지 세상이 종교의 뒤에 숨은 저런자들을 먹여살리는건지.

Monks from Jogye order pulled an all-nighter gambling. Is it the religion that cures the world OR the world that feeds these people who hide under the name of the religion?

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