Monday, May 14, 2012

Buddhist Monks Busted

Buddhist monks playing high-stakes pokerCatch that news item over the weekend with the eye-catching headline “Monks Resign Over Poker Scandal”? Had to click on that, right?

Reading more, we learn that the monks were Buddhist, part of the Jogye order in South Korea. A video was surreptitiously shot of a group of monks -- leaders in the order, apparently -- playing poker. The video shows them in a hotel room sitting cross-legged around what looks like a bedsheet with chips and cards in the middle, smoking and drinking as they play, and appearing to laugh as one drags a pot.

Hey, at least they weren’t rubbing a laughing Buddha’s belly for good luck.

At first glance, it looks like just another private game. That said, according to one report “Seongho, a senior monk, said the stakes for the gambling were about $875,300.” Another article in The Korea Times says the money with which they were playing “is believed to be from donations from believers.” Also read that the group was engaged in a "marathon 13-hour game” in the Janseong hotel room, with the monks having gathered there for a memorial service.

Six of those who participated in the game have since resigned from the Jogye order. All of this is happening just a few days before South Korea celebrates “Chopail” or the birth of Buddha on May 28.

Apparently the game and the secret video are all part of a larger political struggle involving the Jogye order and its leadership, a big deal for the 10 million or so adherents of the order.

Not entirely sure about how it all fits together, but it sounds like this Seongho had been among the candidates to become head of the order a couple of years ago, but another monk, Jaseung, was elected. Seongho was eventually expelled from the order for defamation against its new leader, and subsequently brought a complaint against the order that included the gambling charge.

The article in The Korea Times explains that Seongho “claimed he found a USB drive containing the footage on the floor of his temple.” I don’t believe it has been made clear as yet who shot the video. I have seen references both to it having been from a hidden surveillance camera as well as the suggestion that it was shot by someone who was present at the game.

Meanwhile, the leader Jaseung has apologized to the Jogye adherents, saying that “his order will conduct a 108-bows ritual for 100 days starting next Tuesday to repent the misbehavior of the monks.” Who knows what will eventually happen with regard to the DOJ trying to resolve the cases associated with the Black Friday indictment and civil complaint, but I’m going to guess no bowing rituals will be part of any negotiated settlement.

The Sigalovada SuttaBuddha -- i.e., the spiritual leader (Guatama), not the laughing one (Budai) -- was no fan of gambling. The Sigalovada Sutta, one of the scriptures in which Buddha imparts wisdom to a young man named Sigala, includes a discussion of gambling, there listed as one of six ways of squandering wealth.

According to Buddha, there are “six dangers of being addicted to gambling.” There's the fact that “in winning one begets hatred.” There’s the danger of losing wealth, of course, plus the additional danger that “in losing one mourns the loss of one’s wealth.” There’s the effect that being a gambler can have on your perceived character, since “one’s word is not accepted in court.” Gambling also leads to isolation, as “one is avoided by both friends and officials.” Finally, by gambling “one is not sought after for marriage because people say a gambler cannot support a wife.”

In practice, though, I think Buddhists are somewhat tolerant of recreational gambling (as opposed to the addictive variety). Meanwhile, with drinking alcohol or taking drugs there's less wiggle room; thus did those monks passing the bottle around in the video compound their troubles significantly. And I guess Buddha also talked about monks being forbidden from handling money at all -- which is obviously happening in the poker game -- although that's not really a rule followed by monks today.

Interesting stuff, and as full of political intrigue, possible corruption, and church-and-state conflict as any scandal on this side of the globe.

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