Buddhists behaving badly

Hypocrisy sells newspapers.

This is a conclusion I have drawn in my years as a religion reporter. Story proposals on a new doctrinal development or a report on a major church conference seldom excites the interest of an editor. [A story proposal about doctrinal development discussed at a conference in Canada is the kiss of death].

But if I can work in an angle about church leaders behaving badly, it may generate a return phone call. And if there is hypocrisy involved I’m just about home. I’ve even found that a long time staple of mine — the naughty vicar story — no longer generates the same level of interest. Sex does not sell by itself. You need an element of hypocrisy in the story to close the deal with a commissioning editor.

All of which brings me to a great story from The Korea Times. While there is no sex, it has the next best thing: monks behaving badly.

Here is the lede from the article entitled from the 11 May 2012 story “Jogye Order in disarray over gambling monks”:

The leadership of Jogye, the nation’s largest Buddhist order, is being thrown into question following the disclosure Thursday of a video clip showing monks gambling, drinking and smoking in a hotel room.

The monks were seen playing poker with hundreds of millions of won, which is believed to be from donations from believers.

Many within and outside the Buddhist circle sees the case as only the tip of the iceberg, saying the government must take action to address corrupt practices in religious groups. Some activists urged the government to introduce a “tax on religion” in a bid to make their spending of donations and expenditure transparent.

Behind the revelation is an internal conflict between the head of the Jogye Order, Ven. Jaseung, and his critics.

The article lays out the disputes within the Jogye Order, which have led to lawsuits between the various factions (Who says Episcopalians have all the fun in suing each other?) And reports that the leader of the Jogye Order has issued an apology for the actions of his worldly clerics.

We deeply apologize for the behavior of several monks in our order. The monks who have caused public concern are currently being investigated and will be punished according to Buddhist regulations as soon as the truth is verified by the prosecution,” said Ven. Jaseung in a statement.

He added that his order will conduct a 108-bows ritual for 100 days starting next Tuesday to repent the misbehavior of the monks.

The Korea Times also reports on how the film of the monks made it into the public eye. It reported that the leader of the dissident faction within the Jogye Order gave the film clip to government prosecutors after he “found a USB drive containing the footage on the floor of his temple.”

I give the Korea Times great credit for playing the article straight. Imagine what another newspaper whose name contains the word “Times” would do with this story about hypocrisy in top religious leaders coupled with a extraordinary explanation of how the tape came into the possession of the dissident faction. He might as well have said it fell off the back of a truck.

The article closes with a comment from an advocate for the reform of the Buddhist orders who states:

“In Europe, religions pay taxes to the government on donations from believers and that money is redistributed to religious groups. In Korea, there’s no such system so temples or churches are not properly monitored. It’s not like the monks make money out of farming or any other work. So basically all the money comes from donations,” said Chung.

“The Jogye Order and its monks must make their financial affairs transparent and rethink the role of Buddhism in society.”

All in all this was a great article. There were opportunities galore to be cynical or to advance an agenda, but The Korea Times allowed the facts to tell the story, provided the context of the internal feuds within the Jongye Order, and closed with a note about the scandals relevance to the Korean religious scene. No hyperbole — just solid reporting. Well done.

As this article was written for an English-speaking Korean audience, or for resident foreigners in Korea, there was one angle that is not mentioned in the story that would have been helpful for a foreign reader. Is gambling, smoking and drinking problematic for Jogye Order monks? One can deduce that this is so, but it isn’t spelled out in full.

This is not a problem for a Korean newspaper as the answer would likely be self-evident in a Korean context. However, this issue leads me to a deeper journalistic issue. It begins with the question as to whether there are universal human norms of moral conduct. Couched in journalistic terms — should a reporter assume that an action that is regarded as bad behavior in the West be labeled a bad behavior when it occurs in the non-Western world? In the Christian, or post-Christian, or Jude0-Christian West hypocrisy is regarded as sinful, or bad conduct. Can we assume that this is so in non-Western cultures?

In this particular case, the Western conception of bad behavior is in line with the Buddhist, both have clearly defined standards of ethical conduct. In the Simile of the Cloth, the Buddha lists the sixteen defilements of the mind of which number 9, maya, is hypocrisy:

1. Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was staying at Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. There he addressed the monks thus: “Monks.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this:

2. “Monks, suppose a cloth were stained and dirty, and a dyer dipped it in some dye or other, whether blue or yellow or red or pink, it would take the dye badly and be impure in color. And why is that? Because the cloth was not clean. So too, monks, when the mind is defiled, an unhappy destination [in a future existence] may be expected.

“Monks, suppose a cloth were clean and bright, and a dyer dipped it in some dye or other, whether blue or yellow or red or pink, it would take the dye well and be pure in color. And why is that? Because the cloth was clean. So too, monks, when the mind is undefiled, a happy destination [in a future existence] may be expected.

3. “And what, monks, are the defilements of the mind? (1) Covetousness and unrighteous greed are a defilement of the mind; (2) ill will is a defilement of the mind; (3) anger is a defilement of the mind; (4) hostility…(5) denigration…(6) domineering…(7) envy…(8) jealousy…(9) hypocrisy…(10) fraud…(11) obstinacy…(12) presumption…(13) conceit…(14) arrogance…(15) vanity…(16) negligence is a defilement of the mind.

4. “Knowing, monks, covetousness and unrighteous greed to be a defilement of the mind, the monk abandons them …

There are hypocritical Buddhists just as there are hypocritical Christians, but the way this hypocrisy works itself out has different theological connotations. Shallow Buddhists have not renounced their selfish desires. Shallow Christians have not surrendered their lives to Christ’s authority.

While Western and Buddhist ethical standards matched up in this instance, they do not always do so — nor do the ethical constructs of other thought or religious systems always line up with Christian or Jewish moral teachings. If a reporter does not address this issue, is he not guilty of some form of imperialistic thinking? Is he not saying “the world operates according to my culture’s norms and shall be judged by my standards”?

In writing a story of less than 500 words a reporter is not given the opportunity to speculate on the nature of truth. Should he not then have a line in a story that states why a particular behavior offends in non-Western cultures? Or, is this stating the obvious? Or, are there non-negotiable moral norms that are present through out humanity?

What say you GetReligion readers? What is truth and where can it be found?

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About geoconger
  • Julia

    I don’t think there are universal Western standards.

    Are drinking and gambling, in themselves, universally considered bad behavior in the West? I don’t think so. In some quarters yes; in other quarters no.

    Hypocracy is another. Is it simply preaching one thing and doing another? For many Christian denominations that is all there is to it. Not so, for instance, for Catholics where the church is considered a hospital for sinners who slip now and then, including priests and nuns and even Popes. For Catholics, insisting on and expecting totally virtuous priests is the heresy of Donatism. That’s why there is confession, atonement and sincere promise to amend your life.

    What jumped out at me in the article, is the idea that the government should do something about monks drinking and gambling. That’s quite different from the US & the West where we have separation of church and state, most everywhere. Is it necessary for the reporter to explain the exact nature of governmental authority regarding religious or non-religious behavior in Korea? Does the Korean government have jurisdiction over these monks’ behavior? To what degree?

    Looks to me like the problem in Korean eyes is misuse of funds on frivolity. Monks are supposed to be living a simple, frugal life. Probably spending donated money on entertaining themselves is the crime, akin to theft or fraud – not the drinking and gambling per se. When I lived in Seoul for a year, drinking and gambling were considered normal activities – short of drunkenness and losing the family’s rent money. Maybe with the growth of Protestantism that has changed.

  • Jerry

    …if I can work in an angle about church leaders behaving badly… And if there is hypocrisy involved I’m just about home. I’ve even found that a long time staple of mine — the naughty vicar story — no longer generates the same level of interest. Sex does not sell by itself. You need an element of hypocrisy in the story to close the deal with a commissioning editor.

    I call that the MSM Behaving Badly.

    But your experience is fortunately not universally true. There was a charming small story in my local paper today about a Jewish boy getting his first haircut which is a religiously significant event. No sex, no violence, no hypocrisy just a cute boy and religion. (Does cute override the need for sex and hypocrisy? Just asking.)

    Yankele Resnick, 3, of Pleasanton, takes part in his Upshernish, an ancient Jewish tradition where a boy’s hair is cut for the first time on his third birthday.

    It marks the start of his formal introduction to Jewish education. It is at this time that a Jewish boy begins to perform mitzvahs, learn prayers, and develop a love towards God, the Torah and his Jewish heritage


  • frank

    The incident is sad but far more worse things happen. The fact it is taken such hype is because these things happen much lesser comparatively while elsewhere people openly preach hatred, incite to blow others and themself, yet fails to make such headlines, there are so many examples. So I think there is over reaction.

  • sari

    The answer to your question lies in the newspaper’s target audience -and- the point to be made in the article. Was the point here to report on internal dissension and bad behavior within a monastery, to exert pressure on the government to adopt a new policy vis-a-vis religious groups, or to generate support for the new policy from readers? Is it drinking and gambling that are bad or is it that charitable contributions designated for religious purposes was used for non-religious purposes? What vows does this order require of its monks?

    Any discussion should be placed in context of the particular society’s mores sans speculation on universal truths or the nature of truth.

    Jerry–Cute picture, though the custom and ceremony are considered fairly recent (500 years). This is, by the way, a minhag (custom) that was practiced by the Sephardim and then adopted by the Hasidim. It’s not a universal practice among the Orthodox. Surprising that the Chabad Rabbi did not provide the rationale.

  • MJBubba

    Jerry, I think most daily papers like to run short features on weekends about local activities in the community. These are puff pieces about colorful or cute or charming or interesting or praiseworthy activities. The more outside the norm the better. My own paper frequently runs these weekend pieces about good works by local nonprofits, which means they occasionally talk about churches as well. They ran one not long ago about a local Buddhist monastery.
    Of course these are uniformly devoid of doctrinal content; they focus entirely on customs or activities.
    The story GeoConger posted on, however, is a real news article, and his question is legitimate. If you are going to take the hypocricy angle, how much can you expect of readers to understand as common background material? I think less and less as we go, because of both globalization of our communities and the internet-spread of the readership, and also because we are so poorly-informed due to the longstanding habit of our media people of avoiding doctrine as a matter worthy of coverage.

  • Julia

    BTW In the West monks not only drink alcohol, some of them are famous for making liqueurs and beer to sell to support themselves. I’ve seen genre Asian water colors with jolly monks enjoying a drink.

    Until the internet came along, the Korea Times was for ex-pats, foreign business personnel, GIs interested in the country they were helping to defend and Koreans who speak or were learning to speak English. This particular story may be addressing something that has been an issue for awhile and doesn’t need lots of explanation. If not, a sidebar or follow-up article for the benefit of lesser-informed foreigners might be in order – particularly, why the Korean government would get involved.

    BTW The drunken, womanizing, corrupt monk is a stock figure in Korean plays and operas.