Pay Your Own Way

This cartoon in a major Buddhist newspaper in Korea points to a problem facing the Chogye Order: While soldiers and priests are provided with clothing and basic necessities in exchange for sacrificing their lives (however differently) for their “mission,” the central Chogye Order provides nothing whatsoever to monks (and even less to nuns). Nada. The looming crisis is among the “haves” and “have nots” in monastic society — and there is zero assistance for monks as they age and decline in usefulness and activity. There is nothing to support them in their infirmity.

There is a misconception that I must somehow be “provided for”, as a monastic of 30 years ordination: the Order sustains this very burdensome work, with all of its many costs and material needs. And it surprises the people who ask me, when I tell them that I have never received a single spoonful of support from the Order and nothing, too, from the temple where I was raised — not even, as the cartoon makes clear, the kasa and robes. We must seek out lay donors if we wish to be clothed and fed, thereby creating an unnatural relationship of dependency. This is where all of the decidedly un-Buddhist ceremony-making and corruption come into nuns’ and monks’ lives.

I am glad, now, not to be receiving assistance from a central authority, because then I am not beholden to any institutional pressure or politics. But I have a fairly unique situation, especially since being a Westerner and then a publicly-facing teacher for so long gave me the tools that nearly all Korean monks do not have, or even know how to seek. Yet, I cannot be active for long. Already I notice greater retirement into quieter attempts at expression of Dharma, such as this blog, things not requiring so much movement and generating of enthusiasm and organization. How will my many years contributing to the development of this tradition’s voice in the modern age be acquitted when hospital visits and treatments start their inevitable hegemony over my life?

The current kerfuffle over Hae Min Sunim touched this nerve: a relatively youngish monk who has amassed a vast fortune in the tens of millions of dollars, including ownership of real estate properties in the pricey Gangnam, Namsan, and Brooklyn waterfront districts. He was a completely unregulated man, less monk than businessman and impresario. His revenue streams (through shallow-thinking bestselling books in 35 languages, a lucrative speaking schedule, income from videos and tapes, and a strongly monetised YouTube channel, in addition to the usual flow of private enveloped-donations which are the oxygen of life in Korea’s generosity-based society) were never questioned by any force of the eternally self-regulating power of Sangha.

Meanwhile, some monks whither out their final years in the back room of some temple, parked out in front of a loud TV back by the kitchen where the cats fight over scraps of garbage and overflowed ceremony leftovers.

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