Monday, August 01, 2016

big news from the world of Korean Buddhism

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), 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."


King Baeksu said...

"...out of disappointment with its institutional greed, discrimination, and hierarchies."

I lived right in front of Jogye Temple in Chongno for many years. I remember when the monks would literally battle each over "factional disputes," which were really about money and power; things got so bad at one point that the riot police finally had to be called in. I would often see monks buying cigarettes at the local convenience store, or enjoying Korean BBQ in the company of an attractive ajumma or two at a nearby restaurant. It was whispered that some of them were even gangsters laying low for a time. I also recall them giving sanctuary to the violent, lying organizers of the mad-cow protests of 2008; the protest organizers were cynical leftist authoritarians who liked to beat up their opponents, some of whom were innocent passersby, and the monks didn't seem to have a problem with that at all. Fit right in, I suppose.

One time they were renovating the main hall and set up a temporary prayer tent on the outer grounds, right outside my window. They also brought out a number of massive speaker towers, which began blasting away at four in the morning. They were so loud that my windows were literally vibrating. I came out a few times and told the security guards, "There are people living in the neighborhood here and your speakers are too loud for this time of the morning. Can you please turn them down?" They would just nod and then do nothing about it. I finally got so pissed off that I came out in my underwear and began complaining right during the predawn prayer service. Soon several monks in grey robes came out, and one grabbed my right hand, twisted it behind my back pressed down so hard on my thumb that he actually fractured it. It was obvious that he was well-trained in martial arts of some kind or other. He led me out of the main grounds and literally kicked me in my ass from behind as I was walking away. Very enlightened indeed.

I had to go to the hospital and wound up paying W170,000 for X-rays and a splint. The folks at the temple's administration office denied any wrongdoing whatsoever, so I filed a report at the big police station in nearby Insa-dong. A while later, I was asked to come back and saw the monk who had attacked me making a statement of his own to another police officer at a nearby desk. After he was done, the police told me that it would be "advisable" for me to drop the charges as I had been the instigator. Obviously, the Jogye Order had far more clout with the police than a lone round-eye such as myself. I never did get reimbursed for my hospital bill, which was bit a drag as I was unemployed at the time (i.e., working full-time on a book) and really couldn't afford it.

Some time later, I saw the monk who had attacked me walking down the street in Insa-dong. He shot me a big grin as if nothing had ever happened. I ignored him and continued on my way.

Not too long after that, they bought the building that I was living in, forcing me to relocate elsewhere. They quickly tore it down and incorporated the extra land into their already massive complex, which is bejeweled with a number of very large, shiny glass-and-steel administrative buildings and whatnot. I don't doubt that many of the monks there are sincere in their beliefs, but it seems to me that the institutional needs of the organization are what really count, and that they are downright ruthless when something, or someone, stands in their way.

Kevin Kim said...

A shame that you had such an experience, but it's not surprising that big religion has a scummy underbelly. I agree: there probably are "good eggs," and I suspect they're increasingly hard to find. One would have better luck tracking the good people down in the mountain hermitages, I think. Unless those places are being used for money-laundering or something...

King Baeksu said...

In retrospect, I guess should appreciate that I had been given a hard-boiled lesson in "Zen enlightenment" for the low, low price of $150 or so. It was well worth it.

I have also met 현각스님 in person many, many years ago, but shall leave that curious anecdote for another time. Suffice to say that it was considerably less violent, albeit also fraught with radically conflicting modes of attitude and thought.

Kevin Kim said...

Perhaps one day you'll tell the story, here or elsewhere.

hahnak said...

tell the story now. now is the right time!