Buddhist monks get unexpected wake-up call

The famous temple of Beomeosa (Temple of the Nirvana Fish) belongs to the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It sits on the slopes of Mt. Geumjeongsan in South Korea where legend tells there is a golden well that never dries up.

According to the early Korean geography book Dongguk Yeojiseungram, “There is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colourful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (golden well) and the temple is named ‘fish from heaven’.”

The original Beomeosa (Temple of the Nirvana Fish) was destroyed by fire during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. It was rebuilt in 1602, but burned down again in an accident. In 1613 it was reconstructed and the main hall and the front gate with its spectacularly decorated Buddhas date from this period. Today, Beomeosa comprises seven royal palace wings, pavilions, three gates, eleven hermitages, and a three-story pagoda with four pillars. Designated as a natural monument, the valleys and wisteria woods that surround it are at their most beautiful in the month of May.

Korean Buddhism is distinguished from other forms of Buddhism by its attempt to resolve what it sees as inconsistencies. Early Korean monks developed a holistic approach to Buddhism which resulted in “interpenetrated Buddhism”, a form that seeks to harmonize all disagreements and disputes. Paradoxically, the monks at Beomeosa are famed for their fighting prowess. In the early 16th century they used swords, knives, spears and throwing stars to help repel a Japanese invasion that ended in the burning of their temple by retreating troops. Centuries later, a rebuilt Beomeosa became the headquarters of the monks’ resistance to the Japanese occupation of 1910-45 – a story little known in the West.

South Korea’s Jogye Order has recently been in the news after several monks were caught on camera smoking, drinking and gambling in a hotel bedroom. Gambling is illegal in South Korea, apart from designated places such as casinos that cater mostly to tourists. It is also a violation of the code of conduct for monks of the Jogye Order, which has been dogged by in-fighting and criticism since the latest scandal.

The controversy has sparked a public debate about the role and place of Buddhist monks in modern-day Korea – a wake-up call they are unlikely to ignore.

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