The Fist-Fighting monks:  the aching wounds of Korea.


   This is a strange thing about our civilization and our epoch that such word-combination as “religious violence” fails to raise eye-brows; on the contrary, the fact that seemingly idealistic and other-worldly “believes” lead to bludgeon-brandishing and blooded noses (if not to the things of worse sort, like the snipers taking the targets in Ireland and tanks crushing the villages in Sri-Lanka) is taken as the most normal part of the most ordinary reality, just as a commonplace of the most usual kind. People wishing to look as worldly-wise and not too childishly naïve (or even just wishing to look normal at all) will never ask “stupid” questions on why the famous “Thou should not kill” doesn’t prevent fascistic Israeli settlers (presumably “religious” people!) from hunting on Palestinians, or why the “pro-life” activists in the most civilized USA sometime end up gunning down and taking the lives of the gynecologist performing abortions. It is just an “accepted fact” of modern life that presumably other-worldly truth of one’s cherished beliefs can, in some cases, be protected (or asserted, or advanced; the vocabulary varies) by very worldly arguments of broken sculls and ribs; it is just as well accepted as the “sovereign” “right” of the states to break, wreck, and blow up much broader list of human body parts. In fact, scenes of the kind we can witness on the Photo 1 (the heads of pro-Moscow Ukrainian Orthodox Church concluding the agreement with Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior to defend them from two rival anti-Moscow Orthodox Churches) hardly will raise any brows in Russia and Ukraine: in troubled times, professional and uniformed ribs- and scull-breakers are of better service to the cause of God and Church that unprofessional (who already gave a lot of extra-work to the Ukraine’s almost-defunct state medical service in the course of that long and complicated conflict), and that is all that matters. In their fevered imagination, those bearded “servants of Christ” are doing “the God’s work” cleansing their part of the world from the “satanic” and “inhuman” rivals.


 Photo 1.



Still, however “culturally accepted” can be the blood-letting between the rival confessions, people tend to be highly surprised when fist and bludgeon solve the disputes within one and the same confession, especially when there are no visible doctrinal or ideological differences to argue about. That is the reason the world was so astonished in December 1998, when fighting resembling classical gangland truncheon battles erupted between supposedly “peaceful” monks of the same Chogye Order – main Buddhist religious organization in Korea, which claims about 10 millions of the faithful - without no obvious background in creeds and beliefs. In fact, the only background for fighting known to general public, both Korean and foreign, was the dispute between two rival fractions in the leadership, namely between the all-mighty group of the incumbents who used to dominate over the Order after very similar street battles of 1994 (when previous, corruption-marred leadership was thrown out from the main temple), and the team of the aspiring dissidents (known under quite assuming title of the Purification and Reform Committee, or PRC) wishing to take the helm themselves and unwilling to grant the incumbent supreme administrative leader, Rev. Song Wǒlchu, a chance to be elected for the 3rd consecutive term. The dissident group – sponsored, in fact, by the “spiritual elder” (chongjǒng) of the Chogye Order and thus possessing certain legitimacy – used the usual tactic of the weaker minority in such cases and took the main temple, Chogyesa, by a surprise night attack, establishing its dominant position in tangible “physical” way (See Photo 2; the dissident faction defending its positions in Chogyesa). The incumbents, showing their superior political cloud and strategic wisdom, prefer relying on court decisions and police force. On having secured the favorable court ruling, they organized a police assault on the “illegally occupied” main temple premises. Police assault took place on the memorable day of December 23, 1998, when the temple premises in the very center of Seoul became a virtual battleground.      


 Photo 2.


In the surprise pre-dawn raid, more than 1000 of riot police in full battle gear surrounded Chogyesa where estimated 100 die-hard supporters of the dissident group – who were pre-supposed to be monks – barricaded themselves with suspiciously professional skill. Even more suspicious was their level of professionalism in engaging the attacking police force. Their stubborn and highly well coordinated resistance caused some of the most tragic episodes of the day, including the collapse of police storm ladder that led to very serious injuries on the part of several ill-fated policemen (Photo 3). Amidst the rain of Molotov

[ image: Disaster: Repeated attempts to storm building failed] Photo 3. [ image: Determined: Dissident monks kept rivals out]  Photo 4.


cocktails and rocks, around 18 people suffered the injuries of various degrees – most of them, actually, policemen. Some of the defenders – who, amidst the cold winter weather, did not even wear the monks’ robes - threatened the suicide by either self-immolation (thus the canister with petrol, to be witnessed on Photo 4) or by the way of self-disembowelment (reminiscent more of samurai warriors than Korean Buddhist tradition); still, luckily, no self-styled “martyrs” lived up to their threats. 45 of the most violent defenders were arrested, but the subsequent communiqué from police gave no clues to the question most tantalizing for many ordinary Koreans – who, in reality, were the half-naked toughies brandishing knifes and petrol bottles with surprising dexterity? If they were not monks, who were they and what brought them to the scene of Buddhist factional strife? For Korean Buddhist, both lay and frocked, as well as for large number of intellectuals, the theme for painful soul-searching was broader and more philosophical: what could degrade to the vulgar – and totally ideologically unmotivated – violence the ancient tradition which formed the backbone of Korean spiritual culture from 6th to 14th C. and secured Korea an honorable place in the pan-East Asian metaphysical discourse? And for most foreigners – including even many professional Korea-watchers – the whole incident remained a total mystery: why did not the covetous leaders   from both sides think about the de-legitimizing effect, about the gross loss of “face” and social credit their televised belligerence could easily bring? And what kind of PR technologies Chogye Order will have to mobilize to brush up the shattered image?

Intriguingly enough, the presumably de-legitimizing and self-harming violence broke out again in less than a year, in October 1999, between the same two seemingly indefatigable fractions and with the use of similarly well-trained “manpower” of doubtful monastic credentials. Now, the sides obviously learned each other’s tactic: the incumbent group dismissed the PRC sympathizer from the post of the “spiritual elder” and thus secured the religious sanction for the defense of its administrative power, while the PRC dissidents were able to secure new and unexpectedly favorable court ruling and certain police backing. Thus, the question of what enabled the “perpetrators of violent acts” and “illegal occupants of the temples” of 1998 became a partner for the authorities in 1999, was added to many other items both Korean and foreign observers were increasingly curious about. In the course of the resumed street battles, with the police trying hard not to visibly take sides and keep to the minimum its own eventual casualties (quite an unusual strategy for this routinely authoritarian organization, notorious for the heavy-handed treatment of students and labor activists), not only usual cudgels but even heavy ladders and fire-extinguishers were extensively – and highly professionally – used contributing to the overall ghastly, blood-curdling picture (See Photos 5,6).           


 [ image:  ]


Photo 5.                                                                Photo 6.


The incumbents’ group remained apparently victorious, being able to defend both the main temple, Chogyesa, and also most important provincial temples from “hostile takeovers” by force by PRC-affiliated monks. Still, the embattled PRC managed to survive, constituting now practically an independent Buddhist religious group (without any doctrinal or ideological differences with the incumbents’ mainstream Chogye Order). In the incumbents-led Chogye Order, some facial change of leadership took place, the erstwhile administrative leader, Song Wǒlchu, stepping down – of course, in favor of his closest associate. The change of leadership was intended at “renewing” the organization’s legitimacy, making a visible “parting” with the unsavory moments of very recent past. However, questions persist: what made the ugly violence so acceptable, easy-to-choose and easy-to-condone option both for the “combatants” and for the lay believers who, as the polls show, did not haste to leave the fold of the Chogye Order even after witnessing the grisliest of the scenes on TV? What makes the issue of which fraction will make its own man the administrative leader worth to fight for in such ferocious way? Who were the professionals of the violence able to force even riot police, a symbol of high-handedness in South Korea, to behave itself very cautiously, and what brought them to the temples? And, last but not least, what enabled the irreconcilable PRC – clearly a minority among the Chogye Order clergy – not only to survive up to this day, but also secure certain goodwill on the part of the authorities? In short, what is historical, cultural, and political pedigree of the fighting?

Buddhist community, downtrodden and victimized for more than 5 centuries by Korea’s Chosǒn Dynasty (1392-1910) strict Neo-Confucian government and systematically “squeezed” by local authorities and Confucian gentry for money, goods and unpaid services, was, in fact, an enthusiastic and willing collaborator to Japanese colonial power that ultimately annexed Korea in 1910 after decades of penetration into all spheres of life and several cruel “extermination” campaigns against Confucian guerillas. Remade into main religious basis of support for the colonizers (supposedly Buddhist themselves), Buddhist community was permitted not only to preserve, but also greatly enlarge its tenant-cultivated land-holdings; younger Buddhist monks able to receive coveted Japanese higher education, became an organic part of new colonial middle-class. Economical expansion of Buddhism under the aegis of the colonial rulers and increased contacts with Japanese Buddhist milieu naturally led to its Japanization: monks started to marry (frequently with Japanese women met during the studies in Japanese universities) just as their Japanese counterparts used to do for the long time, and many of them very naturally came to sharing Imperial Japan’s official racist beliefs according to which “the yellow race”, unified under the Japanese “benevolent guidance” was to dominate Asia and, in the perspective, the world. In fact, in the time of the Pacific War (1937-1945), especially after the start of war against the USA (1941), the articles urging younger monks to go to the war and kill more white Christians in order to quicker obtain the Bodhisattva-hood could be easily found in Buddhist newspapers and journals. That was, in fact, the point when the patterns of unnatural “marriage” between the modern institutional Buddhism and violence (still, of its “legitimate” state-sponsored kind) started to emerge. Other feature of colonial Japanized Buddhism fraught with potential for future trouble was the forcible introduction of modern “bureaucratic” top-down order of command into the Buddhist administration: abbots of Japanese-designated 31 “head temples”, themselves appointed by the Japanese Governor-General, were allowed now both to appoint the abbots of the subordinate “branch temples” and to manage the property of the temples under the jurisdiction arbitrarily, on their own authority. In the thoroughly corrupt and money-obsessed society of colonial Korea, this decision was tantamount to re-making the “head temples” abbots into practically large landlords, able, among other things, to hire the gangs of hoodlums to protect and advance their business and financial interests. It was, in fact, this pattern of behavior that so visibly manifested itself in the lurid events of 1998 and 1999.

“Liberation” of 1945 – in effect, the re-occupation of the long-suffering Korean Peninsula by the Soviet (North to 38th parallel) and American (South to 38th parallel) troops after the Japanese defeat – brought a succession of disasters to Korean Buddhism. The erstwhile privileged position was gone forever, as well as the temples and their property in the Soviet-occupied North where the building of Communist and atheist state was now in full swing. In fact, the active state protection the Japanese authorities previously rendered to the institutional Buddhism, was now accorded to the Christians (primarily Protestants) by the American Military Government and its Korean successors. Being a Christian started to be considered as an informal (in some cases, even formal) prerequisite to entering the echelons of power and influence, Buddhism gradually becoming the religion of the less-educated and rural dwellers (primarily women). As the result of the land reform in the South (1949-1952), around 80% of the temple agricultural land was lost, and the all-mighty “head temple” abbots (whom the Americans retained in their offices, wishing to make those Japanized landlords into the “bastion of anti-Communism”) diverted most of the compensation money for their personal purposes. But the worst blow to the institutional Buddhism was, doubtlessly, the fratricidal Korean War (1950-1953) when hundreds of temples were burned to the ground by both North Korean and Chinese communists, who considered it simple “opiate” for the people and “dens” of “reactionary pro-Japanese landlords”, and American troops, who did not perceive much value in the “Oriental idolatry”. The latter’s actions were for very long lime a complete taboo for discussions in anti-Communist South Korea, and only now some leftist monks are starting to think over the possibility of taking the USA administration to the court for violating the international conventions on cultural assets protection in war! In the course of tumultuous events of 1945-1953, Buddhism lost much of both its material basis and better-educated flock. But that was only the beginning of the real troubles.

 Willing to boost almost non-existent popular support through obtaining better nationalistic credentials, landlord-based and fiercely anti-Communist Syngman Rhee administration (1948-1960) decided to score some points by the severe crackdown on the “anti-patriotic Japanized monks”. By the presidential decision of 1954, all temples were to be given to the supposedly “patriotic” celibate monks, and “Japanized” married monks were to quit the Buddhist community forever. The problem was that celibate “patriots” – usually simply monks from poorer families and smaller temples who could not get Japanese education (and many of them did not get any education at all) and were in no position to support the family – numbered only 200, against more than 7000 of married “pro-Japanese collaborators”. Then, the stigmatized “collaborators” were eager to defend their temples by all possible means, for the expulsion meant very possibly the death by starvation in devastated South Korea of that time. So, the only possible solution for the celibate monks was to augment greatly their rather thin ranks through accepting all wishing to be ordained – usually either paupers or ruffians trying to escape the prison, - and start to take the temples by force, under the patronage of the police. This can look like a un-Buddhist decision, to say the least, but in the violence-ridden atmosphere of post-war rural Korea of the 1950th, resorting to the help of hired toughies was very usual method of resolving property and financial issues. Then, we should remember that the celibate monks had to overcome the resistance of the Japanized abbots who – as most members of colonial rural elite – already had private gangs at their disposal. And so the “battles for temples” started, with extensive use of all kinds of hand-made arms (still, excluding the fire-arms) and extremely high tolls of casualties, including dead and severely maimed. As administration was mainly on their side, the celibate attackers were mostly successful, taking the control over more than 90% of established temples. And the main heroes of those “battles”, the newly ordained gangsters, could successfully raise in the monastic hierarchy. It is them who constitute the “hard core” of today’s Korean Buddhist leadership. And certainly, they are not going to forget the “skills” that ensured their careers in 50th and 60th, as we can see from the appalling events of 1998 and 1999. The events of the 1961, when the new military dictator, Park Chong Hee, started an anti-gangster crackdown of unprecedented severity and crowds of the most feared street heavies had to join the ranks of the monks, only intensified this tendency of the “criminalization” of monastic community.

During the 70th and 80th , the feuds – sometimes turning into pitched hand-to-hand combats -  continued, as both sides established their own nation-wide organization (the celibate monks in 1962, and their married adversaries – in 1970). While mainly Protestant Christianity was, primarily due to superior educational system  (around 40-50% of all South Korean private universities are owned and run by Protestant foundations), becoming new religion of educated urban middle-class, and Catholicism spearheaded the intellectuals’ resistance to dictatorial rule, the “ecological niche” for the Buddhism was largely narrowed to rural and provincial lower-class population, especially to rural womenfolk (Photo 7; the night cityscape of Seoul, dotted with church-crosses). It is not that this audience was totally indifferent to the question         









 Photo 7.


of violence among their “spiritual preceptors”, but, inasmuch as violent methods of problem-solving (typically, violence of the creditors to the debtors on the informal “curb market” of loans) persisted on the lower levels of Korean capitalist structure, the violence inside religious organizations could also be largely tolerated by the faithful. But, among the general decline of social influence and popularity, one new tendency clearly emerged among the Buddhist monastic community, especially inside the celibate Chogye Order which controlled more than 90% of the temples: influx of tourist and “political” money made several leading temples extremely rich, and the post of their abbots highly coveted. The “tourist” money primarily means the “temple admission charge” which is obligatorily included into the price of tickets to South Korea’s national parks. According to the current National Park Law, it does not matter if you do not intend to visit the temple; if there are any temples inside the park, you have to pay for visiting them before entering the park. By introducing this Law, the government intended both to boost its own revenues (part of the “temple admission charge”) and to placate the Buddhist clergy (and, ultimately, the rural voters) highly alienated and irritated by what it perceived (and perceives) as “Christian predominance” throughout the echelons of power. The “political” money primarily means the secret “slash funds” of most leading political and administrative figures (many of them are not even Buddhists) customarily “laundered” through bigger temples under the disguise of “donations”. This method of money laundering is relatively safe and reliable, for the temples are not subject to any form of taxation and not even required to keep the accounting of the donations! With larger temples becoming as rich as some minor corporations, and with their abbots as fully in control of temple finance as in Japanese times, abbotships there – and, ultimately, the post of the supreme administrative leader of Chogye Order (who, as Governor-General of Japanese period, has the right to appoint the abbots of the “head temples”) – became the objects of fierce struggle between various cliques. Violence erupted many times in the course of this struggle – in 1975-76 (when armed pseudo-monks even threatened the “spiritual elder” of the Chogye Order with death), 1979, 1980, 1984, and 1989. Violence – with the use of hired hoodlums and police interference – accompanied the ascension of Song Wǒlchu to the post of supreme administrative leader in 1994. It was Song Wǒlchu, whose dismissal was urged by the dissident PRC in 1998 and 1999 and whose stubborn desire to handpick his successor provoked the ugly clashes. The basic underlying reason for fighting in 1998 and 1999 was, thus, the question of who will manage the Order’s solid budget (US 10 m. $ of legal money only) and distribute the coveted abbotships of “tourist” and “political” temples. The suspiciously professional “warriors” from both sides handling cudgels and Molotov cocktails much more dexterously than prayer rosaries were well-trained gangsters (sometimes disguised as monks, sometimes not) hired by the “warring parties” to “resolve” the issue, in full accordance with the patterns established already in Japanese times and never really changed after. The fact that many leaders on the both sides, hastily ordained in 1950th and 1960th to provide the celibate monks’ group with the “manpower” for “temple-taking”, belonged to the gangsters’ underworld before their ordination and never really severed their old connections, greatly facilitated the use of violent means. And the shocking buoyancy of the irreconcilable PRC owes, to very large degree, to old and extremely close connections to various influential politicians and their “temple-laundered” “slash funds”, as well as to the fact that, based in the rural districts of one particular Korean region (Kyǒngsang Province), the group greatly influences the voting preferences of rural populace. For current President Kim Dae-Jung, whose minority government does not control the National Assembly, the “PRC-influenced vote” counts, and counts a lot.

 The scenes of monks-turned-gangsters and gangsters-turned-monks punching each other on the streets for the ultimate sake of monetary profit can look really apocalyptic. Still, the reality is to be faced up to: not only Buddhism, but also seemingly “upscale” urban Protestant churches are extremely money-obsessed and violent in South Korea. Violent hand-to-hand   battles between various fractions (see Photo 8 for example) seldom erupted in connection, for example, with the allegations of donation embezzlement (for the sake of publishing pornographic “sport” tabloid) by the son of the founder of the Yǒido Pure Gospel Church, one of the biggest in the whole world (around 300 thousand believers; see the Church’s building on Photo 9). The underlying socio-psychological condition of all those fights – the extremely violent nature of post-colonial anti-Communist dictatorial state and society in divided Korea – has, in fact, nothing to do with the precepts of any concrete religious creed at all. We still can hope that many truly religiously minded Korean believers, both Buddhist and Christians, will be able to skillfully use current tendency to general democratization of Korean society for gradually “cleaning” their confessions from the politicized and corrupt leaders of the recent dictatorial past, from the former and present gangsters and money-launderers. Still, as one young Korean monk put very succinctly, “before the present generation of our leadership will not enter Nirvana, our religion will not become cleaner”. If, of course, they will enter Nirvana this time at all, one has to add…                     










Photo 8

                         Photo 9