Haemin Sunim sits in meditation posture, an open, toothy grin on his face. In place of each of his eyes is a thick white dollar sign. Fanned-out bands of cash cover where his hands would normally be resting on his knees. The video’s cover art disappears, and Krokodile Choi, singer of the 1980s metal band Victim Mentality, asks his followers to subscribe to his channel. Then he starts in on the Korean monk.

“He is the greediest person that I’ve ever known,” Choi says in the video, as reported in Korean and Chinese media. “He is making money by ripping off those who are emotionally hurt with sugarcoated words that are far from supportive.”

In the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, Haemin, known internationally as the “Twitter monk” for his large social media presence—he had close to one million followers—had skyrocketed to fame in South Korea, writing three best-selling books, opening two centers, and launching the meditation app Kokkiri. He had appeared on the side of buses, in commercials, and on game shows. Netflix was interested in launching a series. International media, including myself, for this magazine, covered his relatable, modern approach to teaching Buddhism, which was clearly resonating with its audience.

“There was a real need in Korea,” said Robert Buswell, a scholar of Korean Buddhism at UCLA, who has known Haemin for over ten years, “for someone like him, who was willing to take seriously the concerns and the issues that were facing laypeople. He was able to address them in a way that virtually no other Korean monk was able to do.”

In early November 2020, Haemin appeared on the Korean reality TV show On & Off, something like a less ostentatious version of MTV Cribs. The show films celebrities in their “off” lives at home and in their “on” lives at work. In Haemin’s episode, he wakes up, meditates, and cooks breakfast in his home in Seoul. It’s not luxurious, but it is nice, sunny, and minimalist-chic, and spacious by the standards of expensive global cities. He has a quaint attic space that doubles as a home office, and a kitchen with gleaming white tiles and cupboards, which opens onto a terrace and a beautiful view of Mount Namsan, one of Seoul’s peaks. After eating, he heads off to Kokkiri’s offices, where he plunks himself down in front of a Mac desktop. He owns the normal trappings of a modern life—an iPad, a cell phone, and wireless Apple earbuds—and uses them all with familiarity.

The first inklings of what is to come begin on the show itself. Two of the four on-screen On & Off commentators express surprise to see a monk living on his own. Then, three days later, Krokodile Choi follows up with his YouTube video. It starts to quickly rack up views, eventually reaching over half a million. The singer releases another video soon after, and other YouTubers join in. Viewers start to dig into Haemin’s records and find out that he is an American citizen who possibly owns his house and other real estate in the US. This is considered a no-no for Buddhist monks in Korea, where monks are expected to live in temple accommodations and not own private property.

Korean monastics mostly stay silent, neither supporting nor criticizing Haemin publicly. But one doesn’t hold back. Hyon Gak Sunim—an American Korean–trained monk whose 1990s best seller turned him into a household name before he went through his own crucible of Korean fame—adds to the online brouhaha a post on his personal Facebook page. It reads in part: “[Haemin] is merely an actor . . . a parasite who will end up in hell for selling Buddha’s teachings for profits.”

One famous monk attacking another is red meat for the media, and the post gets picked up by Korean and Chinese outlets. The post itself goes viral, and Haemin becomes a major story. Reporters camp outside his house. The South China Morning Post calls Haemin a bon vivant and reports that he might drive a Ferrari. (He does not.) The more informal online discussion shifts from a critique of his lifestyle and teaching methods to unsubstantiated gossip about his personal life. “My ground was shaking,” Haemin told me in a 2021 Zoom interview.

On November 15, just over a week from when the On & Off episode aired, Haemin tweets out an apology and announces that he is going to a temple to refocus on the Buddhist teachings and pray. “It is my fault,” he writes, “for failing to fulfill my duties as a monk.” Then he deactivates his account.

The word “canceled” does not seem accurate when used in reference to modern American Buddhism. Buddhist figures simply aren’t in the public eye enough to merit a cancellation, and in the US, no value-based online mob would ever form, the way one did, for example, over the woman who tweeted a tasteless joke about getting AIDS on her way to South Africa, on the basis of the violation of traditional Buddhist mores.

But in Korea, old Buddhist values and expectations that are baked into the culture are now meeting with the new cultural element of extreme celebrity cyberbullying. While Haemin doesn’t fit exactly into the framework of American cancel culture, and while “cancel culture” is not a commonly used term in Korea, there is a whiff of its presence in his case just the same, in the way that online mob justice now is both driven by and drives cultural change. 

Haemin is unequivocally a Buddhist modernizer. (“I do believe in all kinds of expedient means,” he told me.) Buddhism is widely seen as out of touch and corrupt in Korea, a perception bolstered by consistent scandals connected to the dominant Jogye Order. With his looser ties to Korean institutional Buddhism, plus the success of his books, which led to financial independence from the laity, Haemin has had the freedom to innovate, be creative, and minister to modern concerns with methods that traditional Korean monastics cannot so easily tap into, like Western psychology or reiki.

“He is a monk who is within the tradition but not of the tradition,” summarized Buswell. Not fitting into the mold of a traditional Buddhist monk is what made Haemin popular—so popular that Korea’s Buddhist institutions were willing to give him a pass for his more experimental approach, explained Korean Buddhist scholar Sujung Kim. (She is also a student of Hyon Gak’s.) In terms of branding, “he was really good material” for them, she said, from his American education to his boyish looks.

The same factors that led to his rise, however, were also what ultimately brought the internet down upon him, an irony not lost on Haemin himself. “People liked me because I was different,” he said. But “during this incident, people hated me because of it.”

Haemin was born and raised in Seoul but moved to the US when he was 18, studying at UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton. He lived in the US for twenty years, working mostly in academia, and became naturalized in order to cosign a mortgage for his teacher’s center in New York, giving up his Korean citizenship in the process.

These things can strike a nerve in Korea, where people “are really fixated on credentials,” said June Yong Lee, an attorney living in Seoul who became aware of the Haemin controversy through Hyon Gak’s Facebook post. Lee said online mobs have formed in the past to discredit diplomas from high-ranking American schools. “It’s always easy to blame Americans,” said Lee. “There’s the feeling of, ‘They don’t know anything about our culture, they are taking advantage of us.’”

Buswell points out that Haemin was being fundamentally honest and transparent by showing his apartment on On & Off. But he’s also not surprised that it has garnered such a reaction. While the tenor, pitch, and size of the criticism in the fall of 2020 was unique, this wasn’t the first time that Haemin has weathered complaints.

“He has been a little bit naive in not realizing that appearances do matter,” said Buswell.

One Western Korean–trained abbot, who did not wish to be named, wrote in an email to me that Haemin was a “sitting duck.”

As the journalist Ligaya Mishan wrote in a 2020 article on cancel culture in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, “‘Cancel’ is a consumerist verb, almost always involving a commodity or transaction.” Indeed, a cancellation holds its greatest power when wielded on the economic fortunes of the cancelee—a job lost, future opportunity denied—which is another reason it’s a modern circumstance that a monastic could be canceled at all.

While there is some insider grumbling in the West about expensive courses and retreats, it’s mostly accepted without question that the teaching of mindfulness, and Buddhism by proxy, can be a profit-making exercise, especially since many Western Buddhist teachers are not renunciants. The meditation app Calm is now worth $2 billion, to the concern of no one outside of traditional Buddhist settings and a minor population within them. Like many other meditation apps, the one Haemin is affiliated with, Kokkiri, is free to download but includes in-app purchases of $28.99 per year or $4.99-per-month content passes. Since its release in 2019, it has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

“Buddhism has a moral choice it has to make,” said Kurt Spellmeyer, a Zen priest who has written about the collision of Buddhism, democracy, and market forces (he is also a Tricycle contributing editor). He believes that it is a missed opportunity for modern Buddhism not to ameliorate social inequities, and he is not the only one who worries that the idea of the dharma as a sacred commons is being lost in the modernization and commodifying of Buddhism.

It’s one of the reasons Hyon Gak is sharply critical of institutional Korean Buddhism. “They’re going headlong into commercializing Korean Buddhism for touristic purposes,” he said in a 2021 Zoom interview, mentioning temple stays and cooking classes that have little to do with actual Buddhist teachings. He said that his post about Haemin was not personal, but instead he understood Haemin as a representative case of the state of Korean Buddhism, in which “the fundamental technology of liberation” has been mixed too much with commerce.

“Enough was enough,” Hyon Gak said of his motivations. “I didn’t like it, but it had to be done.” And as for the harsh wording? “Well,” he answered, “I’m from New Jersey.”

He stressed that he had no personal animosity toward Haemin, and that after his first post, the two monks had had a friendly telephone call, which he described in a second Facebook post: “In our conversation this morning, Sunim and I expressed our love for each other . . . he will always be my eternal dharma brother, and I respect his pure heart very very very much.”

Then he deleted both posts, an action he likened to the sweeping away of Tibetan sand mandalas.

Haemin, however, sees Hyon Gak’s post as the main reason the situation exploded. He called the monk’s first post “the fatal attack.”

The two men do know each other outside of the public context. Haemin said he felt he was following in Hyon Gak’s footsteps, in a way; in turn Hyon Gak described Haemin in an email to me as a kind of “nephew.” The day of Hyon Gak’s first post, what led to the conciliatory telephone call was not the post itself but direct Facebook messages sent by Hyon Gak to Haemin, who took screenshots of them.

“CONTACT ME NOW,” they said. “You absolute bullshit piece of shit, I will completely destroy you . . . I want you to go down, motherfucker.”

For his part, Hyon Gak understands the messages as their own kind of expedient means, so to speak. In an email to me about them, he wrote: “My extremely strong and passionate methods to wake Haemin up were not intended to harm, but to heal . . . A royal pounding was necessary to get his attention.”

Methods notwithstanding, Hyon Gak is not alone in his concerns about the future of Korean Buddhism. Korea became a wealthy, modernized, and globalized country in a very short span of time, but it “still bears scars of centuries of infighting,” the Korean-trained abbot who wishes to remain anonymous wrote to me. “The imprisoning of presidents, CEOs, and societal leaders, along with corruption, intolerance, and competitiveness of religious orders, have impacted the broader society, and fewer are embarking on a monastic life.”

The Jogye Order’s senior monks in particular have been marred by scandal. Though the Order was formed in the ’60s as “the order of pure celibate clergy,” as Sujung Kim has outlined in her scholarly work “Flesh in the Closet: ‘The Secret Wife’  in Korean Buddhism,” Jogye monks’ girlfriends and children have been an open secret since at least the ’70s. In 2012, a video surfaced of Jogye monks drinking, smoking, and gambling; as the years went on, other improprieties followed. The Korean public was so fed up, Kim writes, that a grassroots reform movement called “The People’s Coalition for Purging the Jogye Order’s Corruptions” was started in 2017.

The Jogye Order is fully capable of cleaning up a PR mess—they closed ranks recently when a former head monk committed suicide—even running their own news channels inside the country. It also has political connections. During Haemin’s “cancellation,” however, the Order let him twist in the wind. They were happy to take advantage of his good image when he was on the rise, Kim said. But now that he is falling, “it’s time to flush him out, and wait for the next star monk.” To Koreans, Haemin was just the latest in a long line of monastic disappointments.

While the relationship between the laity and monastics is partly economic, it’s also a social contract. Monastics are people, and fall prey to human error as anyone else does, but in the public sphere, they are also symbols that represent the seeking of sacred terrain that is available to anyone without prejudice.

The rules of behavior monastics agree to when they ordain protect this radically egalitarian idea at the heart of Buddhism. Without the rule book, what’s the difference between Buddhist monasticism and any other worldly endeavor? It’s this contract that Haemin is seen to have broken, a breach of trust that has an additional depth to it past the obvious hypocrisy of not practicing what you preach.

“It’s not rigid-minded to have clear terms,” said Spellmeyer, the Zen priest. Recalling his own experiences with Eido Shimano Roshi, who by most accounts was a brilliant, charismatic teacher as well as a sexual predator who caused many people serious, lasting harm, he pointed out that without delineated boundaries, we can’t always rely on our personal BS detectors to make a judgment on whether or not a teacher we see before us is someone we can rely on.

What ethical responsibilities does a monastic—or even a lay teacher or influential practitioner—living in the modern world hold?

It’s systems and structures, not charisma or even personal integrity, that we must turn to not only in evaluating a teacher but also in our efforts to establish Buddhism’s position within the modern economy—that is, as something apart from spiritual entrepreneurship. What ethical responsibilities does a monastic—or even a lay teacher or influential practitioner—living in the modern world hold?

For a monk, Buswell pointed out, appearances matter. Then again, appearances can be deceiving. It is not just the situation with Hyon Gak that Haemin thinks has been broadly misunderstood.

The way Haemin understands it, this story began not in November 2020 but at the start of the pandemic, in April of that year, when the then-mayor of Seoul began a movement encouraging building owners to issue rent credits. Haemin was tapped by a friend to get involved, so he tweeted his support. Actually, Haemin told me, as a renter himself he was hoping the movement would succeed. The School of Broken Hearts, his counseling center in Seoul, was suffering financially; meeting the rent and keeping its staff employed during the pandemic was tough going. But the public thought that Haemin owned the building the center was in. When his On & Off appearance kicked off the second wave of criticism, it was built upon this first misunderstanding.

Haemin laid out the particulars of his financial situation without hesitation when we spoke in 2021. He hadn’t expected the success of his first book, he said, and its contract was set up so he personally received the royalties. He purchased his Seoul home from these proceeds, which he “realized quickly was not a good idea.” A couple of years later, his entity repurchased the home from him, and the royalties of his second and third book flowed to the entity as well. He had indeed purchased an apartment in New York when he was a professor.

His app, Kokkiri, is “nowhere near profitable,” he said, and he has never taken a salary from it. He had been paying the app’s five full-time employees’ salaries from his first book’s royalties in addition to a loan from the Korean government. He parted ways with Kokkiri soon after the controversy, however, since the team felt his continued involvement might do the app more harm than good. In late November 2023, Kokkiri was acquired by Atommerce, a Korean startup that plans to incorporate it into its successful virtual therapy platform Mind Cafe.

As for his current house, Haemin chose it because it was within walking distance of the School of Broken Hearts and because it was “small enough that it was easy to maintain.” An out-of-control real estate market means it’s worth much more now than it was when it was purchased in 2015. And one last thing—he’s not the only one living in it.

The other two occupants of Haemin’s house in Seoul are his parents, who are in their 70s and did not appear on On & Off. When the building they were living in was demolished in 2015, Haemin saw taking care of them as an act of filial responsibility, but one he was wary of talking about. It is frowned upon in Korean culture, he said, since monastics are supposed to fully separate from their families.

“Ordinary people do not know the reality of Buddhist monks,” Haemin told me. It is not unusual for Korean monastics to purchase a residence, he said, because the Jogye Order does not provide a salary or accommodations for monastics unless you’re working for one of their large temples, which leaves the very real problem of where to live and how to provide for yourself. You can start your own temple, but with what money? What happens is that monastics are sometimes the beneficiaries of inheritance from a late teacher or parents.

haemin sunim twitter monk 2
Illustration by Eddie Guy

It has clearly frustrated him to see himself painted as some sort of real estate tycoon or hedonist, but since he promised in his November Twitter statement that he would be offline, he couldn’t correct the rumors, like the one about him driving a Ferrari.

“I don’t even have a Korean driver’s license,” Haemin wrote to me. “The only car that my Zen center had ever owned was a Kia Carnival.”

Immediately after the online furor, Haemin stayed for a time at Ma Hwang Sa temple in southwest Korea, before returning to Seoul. He has stayed under the radar for several years now, taking daily long walks, volunteering, and teaching and practicing with his sangha, or community, which recites the Lotus Sutra together every Wednesday and Sunday. The School of Broken Hearts is on an indefinite hiatus. His Twitter has remained shut down.

In some ways, the internet is simply a new place for the very old human condition. The severity might be the product of our online lives, but the checking of monastics by the laity is not.

In some ways, the internet is simply a new place for the very old human condition. The severity might be the product of our online lives, but the checking of monastics by the laity is not. The rules of the Vinaya, the monastic code, were made in precisely this way: the laity would complain about a monk’s behavior, and then the Buddha would make a rule, concerned as he often was about society’s perception of his project. While what Haemin went through was undoubtedly personally painful, it may also be of use; critical voices, as we’ve seen especially in the sexual abuse and scandal cases of American Buddhism, can be a necessary course corrective.

What of Haemin’s future in Korea?

Buswell, the scholar and acquaintance, believes that Haemin’s intentions have always been sincere, and that Koreans will recognize that. Lee, the Korean attorney, also thinks Haemin will be forgiven. Judging from other Korean cancellations, he said it depends on how Haemin handles reentry. “The person needs to make clear they have changed,” Lee said. Sujung Kim, the scholar who is also a student of Hyon Gak Sunim’s, disagrees. She sees Haemin as having gone through the wash, as far as Koreans are concerned. “He’s out,” she said. “He expired.”

It’s too soon to say, as his Korean reentry isn’t happening quite yet. Another one is in the works, though. Haemin’s new book, aptly titled When Things Don’t Go Your Way, was published in January in English and Dutch. He addresses the incident in its first pages, repeating many of the details—about his finances, his parents, and some of the beef with Hyon Gak Sunim—that he first explained to me in 2021. As ever, he remains both a Buddhist monk and an eager vessel for modern psychological leanings like connecting with his inner child and doing shadow and trauma work.

Haemin told me, when we spoke recently, that becoming a Buddhist monk was about changing his fundamental understanding of the world. He had adopted his father’s worldview, shaped by the privations of the Korean War, that “you have to struggle to survive. Nobody is going to come and help you.” That mindset of deficiency and fear, he said, drove not only him but also many people in Korean society to hustle and compete. “There’s always the feeling that something can go wrong,” he said.

And then something did. At first, Haemin viewed the whole experience just as something bad that had happened to him, to his life. But when I spoke to him in 2021 and again in late 2023, he called it an opportunity to practice. “The experience taught me many great lessons,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that.”

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