Buddhist monks behaving badly

Buddhist monks, especially those belonging to the Theravada/Hinayana branch, are supposed to live austere lives, detaching themselves from all worldly things, living celibate lives in monasteries and subsisting entirely on the charity of others. And the charitable donations they receive are not taxed.

Hence there was a scandal recently in South Korea when a secret camera recording emerged showing six leaders of the country’s largest Buddhist order playing high-stakes poker, smoking, and drinking in a luxury hotel.

This did not surprise me in the least, since I have written before that growing up in Sri Lanka that has a majority Buddhist population, I am well aware that the monks are as susceptible to the pleasures of life as anyone else. But in the west, Buddhism still carries with it a certain cachet in intellectual circles, that it is somehow a cut above other religions, so this may come as a surprise.

What did surprise me was that these monks were not caught cavorting sexually with women or other men. Perhaps this was because the camera was only recording for a limited time and poker and sex don’t mix.

In Sri Lanka, my school was located near two major Buddhist monasteries and there used to be whispered rumors of monks engaging in all kinds of activities, including pedophilia, though nothing was ever said publicly. I wonder if it is only a matter of time before the same kinds of scandals that have engulfed the Catholic church also explode on the Buddhist scene.


  1. left0ver1under says

    Buddhists don’t have a clean record when it comes to war. They can be as willing and complicit in war crimes as anyone else, vis-a-vis Thailand/Burma, or imperial Japan. I would bet that only pacifist religions like quakers and baha’is have no history of war crimes (on a large scale, not individuals).

    I heard of a case several years ago of a buddhist monk in Thailand who molested a child, tempting the child with “winning lottery numbers” or somesuch. I didn’t find that article to cite it and show that molestation has happened. Unfortunately, I found another which shows it has happened more than once. And probably numerous times.


    As for why the Korean buddhists weren’t fooling around with women, some sects of buddhism completely prohibit male/female contact for monks. Those drinking and smoking may have rationalized the things that could be excused, and not partaken in the things that couldn’t. It’s much like the protestant attitude of “I can do anything, and then pray for forgiveness!”

  2. Tualha says

    Er, I don’t know what role any individual Japanese Buddhists may have played in WWII, but I’ve read that Buddhism was suppressed in favor of State Shinto during the period of extreme militarism that led to the war.

  3. Henry Gale says

    I wrote an essay for an undergraduate class on the history of Buddhism in China from the Qing Dynasty through communism.

    With regards to the Buddhism during the communist period there are two prevailing view-points.

    1. Chinese communism inflected great damage, harm, and irreparable damage during the cultural revolution.

    2. Chinese Buddhism had grown fat and many monks were not really invested in Buddhism. Rather, they were ‘lice’ looking for a free place to stay and a free meal.

    The author of the source for the second viewpoint (I forget the name) argued that the cultural revolution helped to shake the tree and get rid of all the rotten fruit.

    It would seem that Korean Buddhism may have some rotten fruit on their tree. I’m interested to see if this is a systemic problem or just a bunch of ‘lice.’

  4. says

    As an aside, I was just looking up the wikipedia entry on Nichiren buddhism and noticed something I’ve noticed about buddhism on wikipedia in general – its history of violence has been substantially downplayed. The warrior monks of Mt Heiei (who nearly overthrew the shogunate at one point in time) appear to no longer be part of buddhist history… And the last time I looked on wikipedia for the history of the buddhist on buddhist bloodbaths in Tibet … all the violence is now edited out. There used to be black hat, red hat, blue hat, and yellow hat buddhists – now there is primarily one sect, due to the usual religious carnage over doctrinal disagreements.

    Buddhism has a pretty fair history of violence but not on wikipedia, it doesn’t. I am wondering when the christians will catch on to this trick and edit the 30 years’ war down to a bun-fight between some academics who disagreed over the cafeteria table in a monastery. 🙁

  5. stonyground says

    I can’t see how it can be a moral decision to live on charity. Some people have no choice, but to actually make a conscious decision to live off the labour of others is immoral as far as I can see. It is far better, in my view, to hold down a job, pay tax and support yourself and your family with honest work.

    As Henry Gale says, lice.

  6. Sunny says

    I have always wondered about this. They especially seem to leech off poor people. Living off charity my foot! Even Siddhartha lived off charity. How about working a field and growing your own vegetables?

  7. keansimmons says

    “Perhaps this was because the camera was only recording for a limited time and poker and sex don’t mix.”

    Mano, have you not heard of the venerable western tradition called strip poker? That’s the only kind of high stakes poker that I like to play:)

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