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?

Please respect our Commenting Policy