According to the CIA World Factbook (2015), people who identify themselves as Buddhist make up 15.5 percent of the population in South Korea. There are three main Buddhist orders in South Korea:Jogye, Ch'ont'ae and T'aego, each named after a temple. The Jogye Order has the largest following and exercises the strongest influence. Its origins and practices are similar to that of Japanese Zen Buddhism. About 10 million Koreans — a fifth of the nation's population — have some affiliation with the order.

Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in the A.D. 372 and spread into Japan from Korea in the sixth century A.D. The religion originated in India. Buddhism was the dominate religion and had a profound influence on culture during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668), the Silla Dynasty (A.D. 676-936), and Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 936-1392). During the Chosun Period (1392-1910), Buddhism was criticized by Neo-Confucianist and its influence declined.

Data from 1991 indicated there were 26 Buddhist sects at that time and 9,231 temples with more than 11 million followers in South Korea. Buddhism was modernized from “mountain Buddhism” and “temple-based Buddhism” to “community Buddhism: and “socially relevant Buddhism.” In many ways it is treated almost more as a superstition than a religion. Mothers spend long session at temples praying for good exam scores for their children. Taxi drivers keep spring-loaded Buddha dolls on their dashboards and hang prayer beads from their rear view mirrors for good luck. [Sources: BBC, Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Korean Buddhism must be considered within the larger context of the East Asian Mahayana tradition. Broadly speaking, the creative period of Chinese Buddhism was over by the end of the twelfth century, after which Chinese Buddhism ceased to have a significant impact on Korean Buddhism. Furthermore, no indigenous developments within Korean Buddhism radically altered its character after the twelfth century; by and large, the basic identity of Korean Buddhism was formed by this time, in clear contrast with Japanese Buddhism, which began to develop its highly idiosyncratic forms after the thirteenth century. This does not mean that Korean Buddhism ceased to develop, but that its fundamental character was established long ago. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“After the thirteenth century, denominational differences within Korean Buddhism became less significant until the entire Korean sa gha eventually became a single order. This process, which took more than six hundred years, culminated in the establishment of the Jogyejong (Jogye school or order) in 1941. The Jogye order, which practically represents the entirety of modern Korean Buddhism, considers itself a scion of the Chan school (Korean, SOn; Japanese, Zen), but it actually embraces many of the diverse forms of East Asian Buddhist thought and practice that had flowed into Korea beginning in the fourth century c.e. This feature of Korean Buddhism has led scholars to characterize it as t'ongbulgyo, a "holistic Buddhism" that is free from sectarian differences and doctrinal conflicts.”

Jogye (Chogye) Order and Son Buddhism (Korean Zen)

According to the BBC: “The Korean word for Ch'an or Zen is Son. The largest Son sect today in Korea is the Jogye (Chogye) Order which includes about 90 percent of Korean Buddhists. The name 'Jogye' is significant in that it was named after the mountain in south China where the great Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, had his temple. Koreans say that their tradition is derived directly from Hui-neng. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Son was introduced there in approximately the 7th century CE by a Korean monk named Pomnang, said to have studied under the fourth Chinese patriarch, but little is known of him or of these early times. During the 9th century CE, Son Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism in Korea as a result of a steady stream of Korean masters going to China to study Ch'an Buddhism and returning to Korea to teach.” Some sources say Son was introduced by Master in A.D. 820.

“The following hints at the Buddha's truth to which they aspired: Heaven and earth cannot cover its body, mountains and rivers cannot hide its light. Nothing of it accumulates on the outside or the inside. Even the 80,000 texts cannot contain or make a record of it. No scholar can describe it, the intellectuals cannot know it, the literati and writers cannot recognise it. Even to talk about it is a mistake, to think about it is an error. |Nevertheless, Son Buddhists see a basic unity between truth as described in Buddhist doctrine and truth as experienced through meditation. In other words, they find the true meaning of the texts through personal experience. “ Son Buddhism focuses on the enlightenment of a sudden awakening, but even if a person achieves the realisation that they are innately Buddha, that doesn't mean they cease to practise. On the contrary, the sentiment is "sudden enlightenment followed by gradual practice" - the practice of enlightenment, or of being Awakened.”

Jogye Organization

In 1994, the Jogye order had 1,725 temples, 10,056 clerics and had 9,125,991 adherents. According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “In modern times, the Jogye order is organized on the basis of three important levels of distinction. These distinctions are by no means rigid, but they reveal the nature and spirit of contemporary Korean Buddhism. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“First, monastic communities of celibate monks and nuns are distinguished from lay Buddhists, a distinction familiar throughout the Buddhist world. In Korea, a further distinction exists between the monks who are engaged in chongjin (meditation practice) or kongbu (doctrinal study) and those who provide woeho (external support) for them. The first group is devoted to some form of spiritual cultivation, while the other is responsible for the maintenance of the monastery, food preparation, financial management, construction and repair of buildings, ritual services for lay Buddhists, and other works. This distinction, which dates back to the Chosun period when Buddhism was persecuted by the state, is more than a division of labor; it constitutes a nearly polar division within the Korean san˙gha, especially in large well-established monasteries.

“Monks devoted to study are further distinguished in that some practice Son in the meditation hall under the guidance of Son masters, while others study scriptures and doctrines in the lecture hall. These two groups do not have equal status because scriptural study, which is expected of every monk, is regarded as a preparatory step toward meditation, and the authority of the Son master is incomparably higher than that of the lecturer. This distinction reflects the primarily Son orientation of Korean Buddhism, with doctrinal or scriptural study occupying a subordinate or subsidiary position.

Buddhist Rituals in Korea

Buddhist groups with efforts by both monks and laypeople organize activities, education, and even missionary work, cementing the commitment of individual Buddhists to each other and their religious communities through daily activities called "practical Buddhism." Rituals can be quite complicated and take four days to complete all the procedures. Beompae — a Korean genre of Buddhist chants and songs — is an important part of Buddhist rituals in Korea. The words have been interpreted in a form of dancing and singing.

Describing praying at a Buddhist temple Valerie Reitman write in the Los Angeles Times: “Clasp hands in prayer, Bow. Down on knees. Head on floor, Back on haunches. Clasp hands in prayer. Begin again.”

After a Korean person dies he or she is usually honored with a Buddhist funeral, then buried. According the Buddhist customs, family members stay in the same room with the body of the deceased on the night before the funeral. Often they don't sleep the whole night, and sometimes there are big wake-like parties with family members and friends.

Praying for Good Test Scores in South Korea

Before the university entrance test in South Korea, to improve the odds of the children doing well, mothers make offerings at temples, pray to Buddha for a good score and buy chocolates with "pass the test" printed on them. According to one survey 40 percent of Korean parents refrain from sex while their children are preparing for the college entrance exam. Grandparents give the students two-foot-long chocolate axes and forks that help them “spear” the right answers.

For good luck male students keep women's underwear and steal chrome plated car letters ("S" for Seoul National University, South Korea's best, "V" for victory and "III" for 300, the best score). Girl students carry a lucky cushion, Buddhist rosary bracelets and charts drawn up by fortunetellers. At Buddhist temples lanterns are hung with the names and birthdays of students who will be taking the test.

Some mothers pray all night Buddhist temples in an effort to help the children get good score. Describing such a woman praying at a Buddhist temple Valerie Reitman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Clasp hands in prayer, Bow. Down on knees. Head on floor, Back on haunches. Clasp hands in prayer. Begin again.. By midnight, Na had already bowed 2000 times, aching but determined to persevere.” Others at the temple had prayed every day for 100 days and the all-night session was the climax.

Buddhist Holidays in Korea

Buddha's Birthday is a fairly big holiday in South Korea. It is held on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month in the spring, which usually falls in early May. It features elaborate parades, rituals, and lantern festivals. Buddhists pray day and night and visit temples at night. Many Koreans celebrate Buddha's birthday by making lotus lanterns, a custom that reportedly dates back to the 7th century. Shaped like a lotus, the Buddhist symbol of self-development, the lanterns carry a candle, which represents wisdom, and the dispelling of ignorance and darkness. Silk lanterns are also made in the shape of watermelons, carp, turtles, bells and supernatural things.

On the night of Buddha's birthday colored lanterns are set up at Buddhist temples all over South Korea and lit up. A lantern parade is held in the evening at Youido Plaza in Seoul. Buddhist followers carrying lanterns of different colors circle a temple three time and then stand around a temple. The view looking down on the festival from the nearby buildings and hills is magical. Statues of Buddha are also bathed on this day.


Yeongsanjae — the re-enactment of Buddha’s delivery of the Lotus Sutra on the Vulture Peak — was placed on UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009. Yeongsanjae acts as a bridge to Buddhist artistic form and zen-style meditation and at one time was a Buddhist ritual for the deceased. It is said to date back to the Late Silla Period (A.D. 668-935).

According to UNESCO: A central element of Korean Buddhist culture, Yeongsanjae is a re-enactment of Buddha’s delivery of the Lotus Sutra on the Vulture Peak in India, through which philosophical and spiritual messages of Buddhism are expressed and people in attendance develop self-discipline. [Source: UNESCO]

Yeongsanjae begins with a ritual reception for all the saints and spirits of heaven and earth and concludes with a farewell ritual representing manners of the otherworldly realm of Buddha, with singing, ceremonial adornment and varied ritual dances such as the cymbal dance, drum dance and ceremonial robe dance. The other components include a ritual cleansing, a tea ceremony, the dedication of a rice meal to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, a sermon inviting the audience to the door of truth and a ritual meal for the dead to congratulate them on their entry into heaven.

Preserved chiefly by the Taego Order of Korean Buddhism based in Seoul, the Yeongsanjae is held in temples throughout the Republic of Korea to help all beings enter the world of truth by worshipping and admiring the Buddha and his laws and monks. The ceremony serves as an important space for transmission of values and art forms and for meditation, training and enlightenment.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Korean Buddhism

Buddhism practiced in Korea is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which is widespread in China and Japan but differs from Theravada Buddhism is Southeast Asia. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Mahayana Buddhism “developed a tradition that allowed for "relative truth," which made it easier to accept different kinds of people who held widely varying beliefs, on the theory that they were simply at different stages on their paths toward enlightenment. People at points along the "path" needed to emphasize and draw comfort from different manifestations of the Buddha. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“People who were sick might want to emphasize the "healing Buddha" while those confronted with death might draw comfort from Amida, the manifestation of the Buddha that comes to carry dying souls to paradise. Others might pay homage to Maitreya, the "Buddha of the Future." Highly educated people might draw satisfaction from the "meditating Buddha" while the uneducated might learn from the "teaching Buddha." The images in various temples were meant to represent these different manifestations of the Buddha, enabling believers to concentrate on different aspects of Buddha-nature.

“A key belief of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition was in the existence of bodhisattvas, a new kind of deity that was already "enlightened" enough to be a Buddha but out of mercy toward lesser humans chose to stay behind and help them reach enlightenment too. Bodhisattvas were the embodiment of unselfishness toward others and were respected and even worshipped by many Buddhist believers.

“The commonest bodhisattva in Korean Buddhism is Kwanum, the Bodhisattva of Mercy (sometimes called the "Goddess of Mercy," though the deity is not necessarily female). This image is often shown to be all-powerful, with extra arms and sometimes even extra heads, to indicate the ability to solve complicated problems and get people out of trouble. Images of bodhisattvas are important in Buddhist art. They are sometimes depicted as rich and jolly and generous, like Kwanum, but at other times they are depicted as emaciated and suffering, having given up everything to benefit other members of the human race.

Buddhist Art

Buddhism played a decisive role in the formation of Korean culture and art. It was a spiritual force in Korean society and prompted the creation of private devotional objects and works for monasteries and temples over the centuries. According to the Asia Society: Large-scale banner paintings, for example, were popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Buddhism was more widespread, in part because of the loosening of government prohibitions against it. The size and iconography of this painting suggest that it came from a worship hall of the highest level of sanctity, that is, one that enshrined an image of Shakyamuni Buddha.” [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org ]

Buddhism was the dominant artistic influence during the later Three Kingdoms period and the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Themes and motifs that had originated in India passed to Korea through Central Asia and China. A number of bronze images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were made during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The images are not mere copies of Indian or north Chinese models, but possess a distinctly "Korean" spirit that one critic has described as "as indifference to sophistication and artificiality and a predisposition toward nature." The striking stone Buddha found in the Sokkuram Grotto, a cave temple located near Gyeongju in North Kyongsang Province, was carved during the Silla Dynasty and is considered to be the finest of Korean stone carvings. During the centuries of Buddhism's ascendancy, a large number of stone pagodas and temples were built, one of the most famous being the Bulguksa Temple near Gyeongju.

According to Buddhanet.net: “The Buddha, his life and teachings, have been an inspiration to artists in many countries all through the ages. Korea is no exception. An appreciation of Korean culture is incomplete without an understanding of Buddhism's role in the development of the Korean arts. Korean Buddhist art is everywhere evident throughout the long history of the peninsula. Over half of the nation's 230 National Treasures are Buddhist: At least 37 statues, stone Buddhas and rock reliefs, 25 pagodas, 14 buildings, 15 stupas and lanterns, bells, several paintings and several copies of Sutras, including the huge set of the Tripitaka wood-blocks at Haein-sa Temple. [Source: Buddhanet.net].

“Nearly half of Korea's 848 officially designated treasures are Buddhist too. And the lists continue on through national, regional and local cultural properties; new discoveries are frequently being made. There would have been much more if it were not for the ravages of invasion and the greed of foreign collectors. Numerous works of Korean Buddhist art can be found in Japanese and in Western Collections.

“Buddhist principles influencing the arts are sometimes obvious and sometimes not so obvious. Some fundamental Buddhist principles found in Korean Art are: 1) Inclusiveness - the ability of Buddhism to absorb different influences. This can be seen in the variety of cultures and philosophies absorbed into Korean Buddhist Art: Theravada, Mahayana, Tantric, Shamanism and Confucianism. 2) Interrelatedness - the combining of several arts to portray its true beauty; the Monk's Dance "Sung-mu" demonstrates a performing art which is a combination of music, dance, embroidery and costume. 3) Interdependence - the relationship of the parts to the whole and of the whole to the parts.

“Most Buddhist arts combine such values as patience, perseverance and perfection, all absorbed during the lengthy training period. The student is encouraged to use natural products and to do everything by hand. For, he is not only learning the art or craft but he is also practicing Buddhism as he studies. Now that these traditional values are declining, however, monks and laity are reviving many ancient Buddhist arts and craft, such as paper-making, bookbinding and the traditional tea ceremonies.

“All Buddhist Art also delivers a philosophical message. The Buddhas, usually depicted in teaching or meditating pose, represent the potential human perfection within all of us. The Bodhisattvas represent, depending on the level of the follower's development, either a spiritual being to turn to in times of crisis or the latent ability in all of us to aid others in times of distress. The temple in general, represents a place of peace, tranquillity and perfection, a source of inspiration on our spiritual path.

Sokkuram Grotto

Sokkuram Grotto (about seven kilometers miles up a mountain road from Bulguksa) is one of Asia's finest Buddhist shrines. Surrounded by Bodhisattvas and guardian deities, the serene 60-ton Buddha here — carved from a single block of white granite — gazes out over the forest hills from a cave inside Mt. T'ohamsan. The statue is positioned in such a way that the first rays of the sun strike a jewel placed on the statue's forehead.

Sokkuram was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Bulguksa in 1995. The granite dome of Sokkuram is built from blocks of stone that were dragged up the side of the mountain. Because the grotto has deteriorated somewhat a glass wall with humidity controls has been installed at the front of the cave to protect the Buddha and treasures around it. The Grotto can be reached by a hiking trail as well the road, which winds through a beautiful forested mountain.

According to UNESCO: Established in the 8th century on the slopes of Mount Toham, the Seokguram Grotto contains a monumental statue of the Buddha looking at the sea in the bhumisparsha mudra position. With the surrounding portrayals of gods, Bodhisattvas and disciples, all realistically and delicately sculpted in high and low relief, it is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East. The Temple of Bulguksa (built in 774) and the Seokguram Grotto form a religious architectural complex of exceptional significance.

Seokguram is an artificial grotto constructed of granite that comprises an antechamber, a corridor and a main rotunda. It enshrines a monumental statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha looking out to sea with his left hand in dhyana mudra, the mudra of concentration, and his right hand in bhumisparsa mudra, the earth-touching mudra position. Together with the portrayals of devas, bodhisattvas and disciples, sculpted in high and low relief on the surrounding walls, the statues are considered to be a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art. The domed ceiling of the rotunda and the entrance corridor employed an innovative construction technique that involved the use of more than 360 stone slabs.

Buddhist Temples in Korea

There are around Buddhist 7,300 temples and monasteries in Korea, many of which are located in the forests and mountains. There are two reason for their remote locations: first, mountains and forest have always been associated with spiritual purity, and second, Buddhist monks were often persecuted by Korea's rulers and remote location gave them some safety. All Korean temples are built without nails so that they can be dismantled and moved to new locations. In China, Japan and Thailand temples are often in the middle of town. Now more Buddhist temples are being erected in urban areas.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Their rectangular compounds house a main hall, in which there are usually three large statues of different types of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Other buildings include memorial halls to former congregational members who have died, gates and buildings that guard and protect the temple and its believers from demons and other enemies, and living quarters for the resident clergy. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

A temple feature that is found in Korea and nowhere else in the Buddhist world is a shrine to the mountain god (sanshin) on the hillside above the temple. It usually contains a painting of a kindly old man with a white beard (the mountain spirit), a tiger (a mountain animal), and a pine tree (a symbol of long life). The shrine of the mountain god has nothing to do with Buddhism but more likely refers to the long period when Buddhist temples in Korea had to be hidden away in the mountains at the mercy of mountain forces including the fearsome tiger. Its presence at nearly every Buddhist temple suggests the continuing harmony between Korean Buddhism and other signs and symbols in Korean tradition. In Korea you will often see swastikas on temples. This does not mean the Koreans worship Nazis. In Asia the swastika represents good fortune, plus the lines are turned counterclockwise, while those on a Nazi swastika turn clockwise.

According to Buddhanet.net: “Most traditional buildings are built of wood. Usually no nails are used and the wood, often, whole tree trunks are merely interlocked. In this way, the buildings can be dismantled and moved to different locations. Each piece of the building depends on all of the others and the whole depends on each part. In the cities, cement is being more and more used, but much care is taken to make it look like the traditional wood complex. The temple builders are so keen to preserve the traditional atmosphere that they even go to the trouble of making the washing and toilet facilities in the same style as the other buildings. When you visit a temple, you will notice a lot of wood and stone used to make different objects.”


Monks and Nuns in Korea

In South Korea, there are around 20,000 Buddhist monk and nuns, both of wear grey robes and have shaved heads, and are sometimes difficult to tell apart. In 1996, the Jogye Order of Buddhism decided to color-code robes worn by monks so that it would be easier to distinguish novice monks from monks with more seniority and experience. Some monk trainees are very young. Even when they are pre-school age they get their heads shaved.

The monks that live in the temple are woken up at 3:00am by the sounds of brass gongs, and bells. They begin their day with sacred chants which are spoken to the rhythm of drums and beating gourds. Asked why he prayed three times day for Korea to get the World Cup in 2002, a Buddhist monk at a temple in Seoul said, "The Korean people's wish to have the event here was so strong, we decided to help the dream come true." Buddhist monks may perform personalized prayer services in return for monetary donations. Some do fortunetelling.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: “Buddhism is experiencing a modernization movement: "mountain Buddhism" is changing toward "community Buddhism," and "temple-centered Buddhism" is turning into "socially relevant Buddhism." Accordingly, the role of monks goes beyond the religious sphere, and their worldly possessions are also modernized. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]|

Married Monks and Lonely Monks in Korea

Most Korean Buddhist monks are celibate and have few personal possessions, but monks in some sects, however, allow monks to get married and own four-wheel drive vehicles and other expensive material goods earned by fees from funeral services and other rites. Some smoke, drink beer and eat meat. Some sects vie for control of tax-free properties and donations from worshippers. One married monk with children from Ulsan was arrested for beating up his girlfriend.

Other monks live very isolated lives in forests and mountains. 'The monk is very lonely,” the friend of one monk said, The monk, Jiyul, who became an activist, rallying against a railroad tunnel in a sacred mountain, said she wasn't ready for modern life. "I was naive — I had been in isolation for so long, I didn't even know there were cellphones and computers. I didn't realize how big a challenge I was facing. Once I stepped through that door, there was this huge picture I had never seen before. The speed that the culture was moving at, it was too fast." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2009]

For years, according to the Los Angeles Times, Jiyul had kept her own counsel. For days on end, she said little, losing herself in meditation, focusing on the inner self. "I tried to be careful in the outside world. I was really timid after so many years in isolation," Jiyul says. "It was painful to overcome my own personality. I didn't get hostile or agitated. No matter what the critics said, it's only important if it is based on truth." The friend, Kim Jong-chul, a former English literature professor and the editor of an environmental magazine, “It really hurts me. If she had known how much this society has been corrupted and spoiled, she would never have come out from solitary."

Commercials and Monk Head-Shaving Initiations in Korea

Suzannah Hills wrote in the Daily Mail: “Most children hate having their hair cut and it appears these young apprentice monks are no different as they have their heads shaved for the first time. Many couldn't hold back the tears as their locks were chopped off for their initiation to the Jogye order at the Jogye temple in Seoul. Nine children underwent the ceremony, ahead of Buddha's birthday, to join the order. [Source: Suzannah Hills, Daily Mail, May 14, 2012]

“But the young apprentices soon got used to their new look and cheekily started pulling faces at each other, with some sticking out their tongues, while others pulled their faces into different poses. They will spend three weeks living at the temple as novice monks with the Jogye order who live 'according to the teachings of Buddha'.

Monks and nuns have been featured in Korean television commercials: eating garlic-flavored Marso-brand snacks and saying "Eating is not a sin;" mediating undisturbed by an new ultra-quiet Samsung vacuum cleaner; and using an IBM OS/2 computers and Hyundai cellular phones in a temple. An architect, who saw the cellular phone commercial, told the Wall Street Journal, "It's bad enough that a monk is carrying a cellular phone, but receiving a call in the temples when everyone else is praying. Monks are supposed to keep away from secular pleasures."

Gambling and Heavy Drinking Monks in South Korea

In 2012, Six leaders of the Jogye order were forced to quit after secret video footage showed them playing high-stakes poker, drinking, smoking and having a rowdy time at a at a luxury lakeside hotel. The scandal came to light just days before the holiday to celebrate the birth of Buddha, the holiest day of the religion's calendar. The head of the Jogye order, made a public apology, vowing "self-repentance". [Source: Reuters, May 11, 2012]

Reuters reported: South Korean TV networks aired shots of monks playing poker, some smoking and drinking, after gathering at a luxury lakeside hotel in late April for a fellow monk's memorial service. "The stakes for 13 hours of gambling were more than 1 billion won (US$875,300)," Seongho, a senior monk who uses one name, told Reuters. Gambling outside of licensed casinos and horse racing tracks is illegal in South Korea and frowned upon by religious leaders. "Basically, Buddhist rules say don't steal. Look at what they did, they abused money from Buddhists for gambling," Seongho said.

“The behavior of the supposedly abstemious monks has led to Korean media speculation of a power split within the order. Seongho said he had obtained a thumb drive that contains a video clip from a camera hidden in the hotel. He would not say who his source was because of recent threats made against him.

“The wayward monks appear to have upset many in Korea. "A group of monks who gamble, drink and smoke in a hotel room is tainted in the eyes of all people in the nation," civic group Buddhist Solidarity for Reform said in a statement. The scandal also excited attention on Twitter, with some posts calling for reforms within the sect. " ...it can be good news. Please, Jogye Order, cut out the rotten part before it gets worse and take this opportunity to be reborn," one Twitter post said.

Monk Fights and Abuses in Korea

In the autumn of 1998, more than 50 people were hurt, some seriously, when Buddhist monks in Seoul overturned cars, threw rocks and bottles, wielded clubs, and generally beat the hell out of each other and police in a dispute between factions within the Jogye Order (South Korea's largest Buddhist sect) over control of the 100-year-old Jogye temple and an effort by a head monk to block elections for a new leader.

The fights, which featured water cannons and riot police in full regalia, were shown around the world on television. Some of the most dramatic footage was of riot police plunging to the ground after their ladder broke during an assault. The same day, two monks slashed themselves with knives in suicide attempts but sustained only minor wounds. Most of the injured were mainstream monks who were trying to retake the temple’s administrative building, which had been occupied by dissident monks for several weeks.

Buddhist temples own most of Korea's national and provincial parks. Gangsters have reportedly tried to muscle into Buddhist organization to get their hands on money from tax breaks and donations. According to the Jogye Order a social worker at one of its government-subsidized welfare centers was forced to read a Buddhist prayer and bow 3,000 times in worship at an annual event. The order stated it was taking steps to prevent recurrence. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]

Tensions between Buddhists and Christians

There are also tensions between Buddhists and Christians in South Korea. In 2008 Buddhist monks complained that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak had a pro-Christian bias. AFP reported: “Then of thousands of South Korean Buddhists rallied in central Seoul yesterday in protest at the alleged pro-Christian bias by the Government of President Lee Myung-bak. A crowd estimated by police at about 55,000, including thousands of grey-robed monks, packed the City Hall plaza for the rare protest, which began with the beating of a giant drum. Organisers said Buddhist temples across the country simultaneously rang bronze bells. [Source: AFP, December 17, 2012]

“Buddhists have been uneasy over what they see as Christian bias since Mr Lee, a Presbyterian church elder, came to power. They were unhappy when he included members of his church network in his first cabinet. An online map published by two ministries, showing Seoul's churches but not major Buddhist temples, also sparked anger. Earlier, seven activists wanted by police following protests against US beef imports took refuge in Seoul's Jogyesa temple. Tensions grew late last month when police stopped a car carrying Jigwan, head monk of the Jogye Buddhist order, outside the temple and searched the boot. President Lee apologized but Buddhists were not appeased.

▪“Tensions between Buddhism and the Christian Church have deep roots in South Korea. Historically the dominant religion, Buddhism has been eclipsed by Christianity which grew at an incredible pace in the 20th century, especially after the 1950-53 Korean War. Thirty per cent of the population describe themselves as Christian, making South Korea one of the most Christian countries in Asia, ranking third after the traditionally Catholic Philippines and East Timor. Buddhists now comprise a little over 20 per cent, and there is some resentment in the Buddhist community over South Korea's embrace of a particularly evangelical style of Christianity that places a strong emphasis on proselytising and missionary work.

In 2011, on the rather benign issue of tourists lodging at Buddhist temples, “the Korean Association of Church Communication issued a statement arguing that there was "room for conflict" in the government subsidising a program associated with one particular religion. "There clearly is a problem with financially supporting missionary events by specific religion," it said. The official Templestay website stresses that the program is mainly aimed at providing a cultural experience, rather than an effort to promote religious belief.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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