Over at the blog ROK Drop, there's a linked article (Korea Times) about how the American-born monk Hyeon-gak (also romanized Hyon-gak, Hyon Gak, Hyun-gak, Hyun Gak, etc.; in hangeul, it's 현각, and in Chinese, it's 玄覺), né Paul Muenzen from New Jersey, has decided to leave the Jogye Order, Korean Buddhism's largest order, out of disappointment with its institutional greed, discrimination, and hierarchism.
A well-known monk from the United States said Friday that he will cut ties with Korean Buddhism which he said is dominated by “bad monks” who pursue money and discriminate against foreign monks.
On his Facebook account, Monk Hyun Gak wrote, “I am deeply disappointed with Korean Buddhism. August will be my last visit to Korea.”
Hyun Gak currently serves as chief monk at Hyeongjeong Temple in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. He is now staying in Germany.
Born in New Jersey, the monk became a member of the Jogye Order in 1992. He became a Korean citizen in 2008.
He was inspired by Seungsahn, the master of the Jogye Order and a founder of the International Kwan Um School of Zen. The two met at a lecture in the U.S. [Seungsahn] died in 2004, and Hyun Gak took over the Zen school as director.
The monk cited the authoritarian culture, hierarchical system, discrimination against nationality and gender, and the pursuit of money within the Jogye Order as reasons for his departure.
Many foreigners who enter into Korean Buddhist monasticism end up leaving for various reasons. I personally know three such people: Hyeon-gak seunim, Dr. Robert Buswell at UCLA (my academic hero), and Andi Young (who goes by the dharma name Seonjoon despite having put aside her monastic precepts to leave her order of nuns). Hyeon-gak wrote further:
"Korean Buddhism under Seungsahn was different. They were open to diversity and more tolerable.* But the Jogye Order changed things."
Hyeon-gak seunim was a popular fixture at Hwagye-sa, a temple in northern Seoul. His often-uproarious dharma talks were the highlight of the day for many visitors, quite a few of whom would skip the meditative practice (three rounds of seated meditation over a nearly two-hour period) just to attend the talks. Fluent in Korean and well settled in Korean life, Hyeon-gak was—or so I thought—an integral part of Korean Buddhist monasticism. Along with compiling and editing large books like The Compass of Zen, Hyeon-gak wrote his own book, Myriad Practices: From Harvard to Hwagye-sa, and became famous in Korea for his story. I've heard that he later described the book as a mistake, given the fame that descended upon him. That fame may have been one reason why he was sent out of the country to spread the dharma in Germany, but I really don't know the inside story. In fact, Hyeon-gak's recent self-exile from Korean Buddhism shows that there's much of the inside story that I don't know. (Then again, I haven't been in touch with institutional religion of any sort for the past six years.)
Hyeon-gak actually wrote me, at my other blog, on the occasion of my mother's death (see here). He's not a personal friend, but I'd consider him at least a friendly acquaintance. I don't know what future lies in store for him; can he still be a monk if he's no longer part of the Jogye Order? Does he revert to his lay life as Paul Muenzen, or will he, like Seonjoon, keep his dharma name? He's a Korean citizen, but above, he's quoted as saying that this coming August will be "[his] last visit to Korea." Has he rejected Korea so utterly? I refuse to believe that Korea, for all its flaws, is that unsalvageable.
Whatever he may do next, I wish Hyeon-gak the best of luck, and I respect his decision to abandon an institution that seems to have failed him. His fight is basically the same fight conducted by many expats who (1) live within any sort of Korean system, (2) notice its flaws, and (3) try to effect change from the inside. This struggle rarely results in any significant change, at which point a person can either resign himself to just living within that system, or he can abandon it after determining how toxic it can be to the soul.
*I wonder whether he meant "tolerant."