The largest Buddhist order in South Korea has apologized after a video showed its monks playing poker for eye-watering stakes, and drinking. The revelation is the latest incident in a feud over the group's leadership.
South Korea's largest Buddhist grouping, the Jogye order, issued a public apology on Friday over a scandal in which secret video footage was released showing its monks gambling, smoking and drinking.
Order leader Master Jinje said he would make a vow of "self-repentance" on behalf of the monks involved. A day earlier, six leading figures had resigned from the order's executive committee in light of the revelations.
"The high-ranking monks tendered their resignation en masse earlier in the day because they need to take responsibility for the incident that should not have taken place," the country's Yonhap news agency reported one senior monk as saying.
The scandal broke when South Korean TV networks aired the footage of monks playing poker, with some of them smoking and drinking. The 13-hour gambling session took place at a luxury lakeside hotel, with the stakes reported to have totaled one billion won (875,300 US dollars).
It's not the first time that misbehavior by Buddhist monks has created waves. "It's not unusual for Buddhist orders in South Korea to cause some controversy," said Jason Strother, DW correspondent in South Korea. "Several years back some Buddhists monks got involved in a kung fu style brawl outside a temple in Seoul (in 1999), so it's not completely unusual."
"Most South Koreans are only nominally Buddhist anyway but some more elderly people might be quite disappointed."
Advocates of the poor, opponents of corruption
The resignations may have amounted to an effort to avoid accusations of double-standards, said Strother.
"The Jogyi often take on the role of advocates of the poor and are often the first to point out corrupt practices, so this may have come across as hypocritical."
Gambling outside special venues such as licensed casinos and horse racing tracks is illegal in South Korea and is viewed with disdain by religious leaders.
The scandal blew up only days before a national holiday to celebrate the birth of Buddha, the holiest day of the religion's calendar.
"A group of monks who gamble, drink and smoke in a hotel room is tainted in the eyes of all people in the nation," the civic group Buddhist Solidarity for Reform said in a statement.
The footage is believed to have been recorded by an internal opponent of the group's leaders, who subsequently slipped it to the media. Deep rifts exist within the order, which has some 10 million adherents - a fifth of the South Korean population.
Former member Ven. Seongho, who had been expelled from the order for defaming the Buddhist leader, Ven. Jaesung, has now sued eight fellow monks in relation to the gambling. He claims that the monks abused money that was not rightfully theirs.
Dispute linked with internal elections
Seongho has been at odds with the leadership since making comments about Jaesung's qualifications when the pair contested the executive committee leadership role in a 2010 election. New elections are set to take place later this year.
Secretary-general of the Buddhist Solidarity for Reform Chung Yoon-sun told said on Friday that such political conflicts between monks were not longer surprising.
"It's just like politics," said Chung, in comments reported by Korean English-language newspaper, the Korea Times. "In society, if there's a conflict in interest between two groups, they make a deal or they fight."
"This incident also might have something to do with the upcoming election in the autumn," said Chung, speaking to a local radio station.
The controversy is the latest in a long-running feud between rival factions within the Jogye. Dozens of monks were injured in the Seoul temple incident in 1999, when rival groups clashed in a battle for control.
Author: Richard Connor (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Sarah Berning