Image 1: Chogye monks and hired bodyguards clash in South Korea. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos.
Image 1: Chogye monks and hired bodyguards clash in South Korea. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos.

Power Plays in Korea

For months, images became increasingly bizarre. Shaven-headed monks in yellow construction helmets. Opposing monks in gray robes and combat boots. Barricades, firebombs, burning furniture, bodyguards, bulldozers, praying mothers, a melee. At issue: leadership of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, the Chogye order, with opposing factions attempting to gain control of an annual budget of $9.2 million, property valued in the millions, and the appointment of 1,700 monks to various duties, including head monks at 24 parish temples. An estimated 10 million followers (approximately one fourth of South Korea’s population) belong to the Chogye order, which emphasizes meditation and dates back to the early Koryo period (917-1392).

Elections for head of the order, scheduled for last November, were postponed due to rioting. The current head, Song Wol-ju, withdrew his bid for a third four-year term, and riots continued over disputed terms of the new election. The Chogye Temple in downtown Seoul is one of the country’s most popular Buddhist and tourist attractions. In some instances worshipers were among the hundreds injured in their attempts to stop the “hoodlum” monks.

According to Yoon Won-chul, a professor of religious studies at Seoul National University, in an interview with The Associated Press, “The monks are more like politicians than monks. And they know that the winner gets everything and the loser gets nothing.” Yoon said that it is well known that once in control of an order, many monks begin to amass wealth, houses, and expensive cars.

The sights were disturbing. As one lay worshiper said: “Monks are supposed to be spiritual guides to people. What would Buddha say about this?”

Image 2: Statues on South Korea's Cheju Island. Courtesy Korea National Tourism Organization.
Image 2: Statues on South Korea’s Cheju Island. Courtesy Korea National Tourism Organization.

In Korea, while Chogye Buddhist monks threw stones and furniture at one another, reports spread of Buddhist statues smashed by Christian fanatics. As noted in the Korea Herald last October, anti-Buddhist incidents, which peaked under the Christian leadership of former President Kim Young-Sam, are on the rise again, with some 20 incidents in 1998. In June, a Bible-wielding fanatic smashed hundreds of granite statues in a Buddhist temple on the resort island of Cheju. By fall, the Oct. 25 issue of Kidokkyo Sasang(Christian Thought), Korea’s oldest and most prestigious Christian publication, was devoted to the subject of religious vandalism. It came out shortly after Korea’s largest organization of Protestant denominations, the KNCC, released a statement of “concern” about religious vandalism.

Buddhist scholar Frank Tedesco, who teaches at Sejong University, issued a report to the Committee to Counter Religious Discrimination, comprised of 14 Buddhist organizations, in which he detailed the 20 temples damaged or destroyed in arson attacks . In an interview, Dr. Tedesco said he believed that some of the Christian leadership’s reluctance to call attention to the issue was rooted in embarrassment. “Extremist Christian intolerance and violence against Buddhist temples and images in Korea . . . is the fly in the ointment,” he said.

Dr. Tedesco, a practicing Buddhist, wrote Tricycle: “Why am I so concerned about this issue? One temple only a five-minute walk from our apartment lost two beautiful traditional wooden Buddha halls (and 500 wooden arhat sculptures) to flames (like Dresden!) in the middle of the night. It is where I taught my five-year-old daughter to bow!”

In the Korean Herald article, Dr. Tedesco pointed out that the vandalism represents a great loss to Korea’s cultural heritage: “Over 90 percent of Korean cultural artifacts in museums here and abroad are Buddhist. And it’s pathetic that many South Koreans, regarded as among the world’s most educated people, teach their children to be afraid of Buddhist monks and nuns and do not dare venture into a compound of temples.”

Lights, Camera—No Action—in Thailand

It’s been filmed before and raised eyebrows in Thailand before, but the current incarnation of The King and I with Jodie Foster as Anna, will not be shot in Thailand. That country’s film board is still bristling from what it perceives as insults to King Mongkut in earlier films, that they feel portrayed their ruler as a buffoon and despot.

Image 3: Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the 1956 version of The King and I. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
Image 3: Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the 1956 version of The King and I. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Mongkut is revered in Thailand as a Buddhist scholar and linguist who helped bring his country into the modern era. He was a monk for twenty-seven years before ascending the throne as King Rama IV, and historians view him as learned and enlightened. Mongkut studied the Vinaya and classic dhutanga (ascetic) practices.

The board ruled that the Jodie Foster remake for 20th Century Fox,Anna and the King, did not adequately alter the historical inaccuracies about Mongkut, who ruled in what was then called Siam in the 19th century. The Thai board rejected five revised scripts.

The Foster film, also featuring Hong Kong star Chow Yun Fat, is a remake of the original 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn. It later became a Broadway musical, and the 1956 film,The King and I, catapulted Yul Brynner into stardom, but incensed Thai authorities.

Although the 1946 film was shot on location in Thailand, Brynner’s musical version remains banned in that country to this day. Both films were based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, an Englishwoman invited to teach English to King Mongkut’s children. Although Foster’s film had the help of a Thai historian, it was a no-go. In Thailand, insulting the monarchy still carries a punishment of 3 to 15 years in prison. The new production location is Malaysia.

A Chinese Order 

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, a human rights organization, has reported a new crackdown by Chinese authorities on Tibetan parents who educate their children in India.

Image 4: A Tibetan girl practicing calligraphy. Courtesy Phil Borges.
Image 4: A Tibetan girl practicing calligraphy. Courtesy Phil Borges.

According to a wire story by Agence France Presse, the human rights group quoted a Chinese order that prohibits party and government officials from sending their children to Tibetan Children’s Village school in Dharamsala, headquarters of the exiled Tibetan government: “Those who fail to bring back their children and allow them to study at the schools run by the separatist group and escapees must be castigated depending on their mistake through the code of the Communist Party and through political process.”

The group claims that Tibetan children face discrimination in the Chinese-controlled school system and continue to flee Tibet to seek a better education in exile. It stated that three parents had arrived in Dharamsala to return their children to the Lhasa Middle School, which was the first school to enforce the 1994 order, suspending three of its staff and revoking their bonuses until they brought their children back to Tibet.

Brighter Days for Land of Blue Sky

Mongolia is known as the “Land of Blue Sky,” but years of religious repression darkened its image. Now there could be a revitalization of Mongolia’s culture and religion due, in part, to restoration plans for one of its most important Buddhist temples. According to a report by the San Francisco-based Cultural Restoration Tourism Project, the government, Buddhist community, and people of the Khentii region of Mongolia have all pledged support for restoration of the temple at Baldan Baraivan monastery.

Baldan Baraivan was established by decree of the Bogd-Khan (God-King) of Mongolia in the 16th century and sits in the same area where Genghis Khan was born and raised. This remote area is located 200 miles east of Ulaanbataar, and the temple served as center of religion, education, and culture in eastern Mongolia for more than 200 years. Its main temple was destroyed by the Communist regime in 1937 at a time when 17,000 monks and nuns from throughout Mongolia were sent to work camps in Siberia.

Image 5 and 6: Left: The Baldan Baraivan monastery before it was destroyed. Right: Today, only a fraction of the original monastery remains. Photos courtesy Cultural Restoration Tourism Project.
Image 5 and 6: Left: The Baldan Baraivan monastery before it was destroyed. Right: Today, only a fraction of the original monastery remains. Photos courtesy Cultural Restoration Tourism Project.

Volunteers from the San Francisco organization will begin work on the main temple in June. As part of a volunteer-tourism project, volunteers will work alongside a local crew and stay at the site, living in traditional gers (yurts) and eating local foods for a two- to three-week stay. Buddhist rituals are still practiced by a handful of monks now at the monastery. For more information, call 415-563-7221 or 2277

Boom Time

It ranks tenth in India’s population, but the state of Gujarat, lying in India’s northwestern province, now claims more Buddhists than followers of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, or Jainism. According to figures released by the Gujarat State Government in its 1998 Socio-economic Review, the overall growth rate for Buddhism in the last decade was 53.84 percent. Comparatively, the growth rate was 21.2 percent for Hinduism, 36.96 percent for Christianity, and 24.05 percent for Islam.

Image 6: Buddhism is growing in India's north and west. Courtesy Rand McNally.
Image 6: Buddhism is growing in India’s north and west. Courtesy Rand McNally.

Figures provided by the Commissionerate of Population Studies in Delhi also show the highest growth rate of Buddhism in the 18- to 30-year-old population. Increased sales of books on Buddhism was cited as a factor. The spread of Buddhism is not only an urban phenomenon, however. Of the six districts where Buddhism has grown by more than 200 percent in the last decade, four are considered backward districts. The state of Gujarat has 19 districts, and the highest recorded growth rate of Buddhist population has been a staggering 3,700 percent in the Banaskantha district, which borders Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in Australia, according to that country’s 1996 census figures. In his opening remarks to the 20th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in New South Wales last fall, Collin Markham, M.P., Parliamentary Secretary for Aboriginal Affairs and for the Illawarra electorate office, noted that Buddhism is now Australia’s third-largest religious group after Christianity and Islam.

Markham said that Australia counts 200,000 Buddhists, 82,000 of whom live in New South Wales, representing a 39.4 percent increase since the 1991 census.

Found Horizons

Image 7: Ian Baker, leader of the historic expedition, at Tsango Gorge. Courtesy National Geographic.
Image 7: Ian Baker, leader of the historic expedition, at Tsango Gorge. Courtesy National Geographic.

For the first time, Western explorers have reached the falls on Tibet’s Tsangpo River, which have been the stuff of legend and folklore since Victorian times. In an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the great falls were reached on November 8 by Westerners, as reported by TheAssociated Press. This region called Pemako is held sacred in Tibetan Buddhism and has been known previously only to hunters and religious pilgrims.

The falls, 100 to 115 feet high, are located between the rising cliffs of Tsangpo gorge. Located in an area of rugged wilderness in southeastern Tibet. Located inside a hairpin turn, most of the time the falls are hidden from view by shadows. Explorers named them Hidden Falls. Ken Storm, Jr., said that the team’s first sighting of the falls was “enchanting . . . we were all stunned and excited. It’s just a great wonder. The fact that we’re here, in the late 20th century, and a large waterfall on a major river of the world has yet to be recorded, is a wonder in itself.”

Denver’s Mile-High Divide

The Vietnamese community in Denver became divided over weeks of continuous public protest last winter. Rev. Cuong Kim Le, a monk at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in southwest Denver, was accused of sexually molesting at least two young female members of the temple. The allegations are under police investigation.

Charges against the monk became known when an alleged victim, Thu Ho, a 24-year-old college student, went public. She claimed that the monk had abused her four years ago and that she had said nothing out of embarrassment. When she learned of other possible victims, including a friend, she decided to speak out. “My culture is that female cannot say anything,” she told the Denver Rocky Mountain News. “To me this is America. If I don’t say anything, then someone else will get hurt.”

Software Monastery

They’re going to try to complete it in 30 days—the construction of a monastery in Nepal for the Segyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. October 1, 2001, is the start date for several hundred American volunteers to begin building a much-needed home and temple for monks in exile. Americans, along with volunteers from around the world, will work side by side with local laborers in Nepal.

Called The Monastery Project, the work is being organized by Dan Smith, president of The Master Builder construction management software by Omware Inc. located in Sebastopol, California. Smith said, “I believe that success in business means a privileged opportunity to change the world. Though I do not consider myself Buddhist, I do see that the world stands in need of the teachings of compassion and kindness that these monks have passed on for so many centuries. We cannot afford to let them die out.”

Image 8: Venerable Gen Enyi-la, holder of the Segyupa lineage. Courtesy The Monastery Project.
Image 8: Venerable Gen Enyi-la, holder of the Segyupa lineage. Courtesy The Monastery Project.

More than 40 years ago, the 15th-century Segyu Ganden Phodrang monastery was destroyed during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Only seven of the Segyu monks who survived by crossing the Himalayas into India and Nepal are alive today. Through the Healing Buddha Foundation of Sebastopol, the Segyupas were recently able to purchase a plot of land for a new monastery next to their current home in Nepal.

Construction logistics for the 2001 Monastery Project will be managed by a group of expert project managers recruited from leading construction firms across the U.S. Skilled construction workers will make up at least half of the crew. At this time, the Monastery Project is seeking donations, skilled construction workers, project managers, food service volunteers, medical professionals, and volunteers fluent in Tibetan and/or Nepalese. Additional information or an application may be requested by calling 800-843-4037 or by e-mail at

A Hershey Kiss for Buddha

Last fall, the Hershey Professorship in Buddhist Studies was endowed at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by the family foundation of Connie and Barry J. Hershey.

Dean Ronald F. Thiemann commented in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin: “The establishment of a senior professorship in Buddhist studies has been a high priority at the Divinity School, especially since so many students at Harvard are increasingly attracted to this area of study. We are deeply grateful for this generous gift to the School. It is one that will greatly enrich the University’s Buddhist studies curriculum.”

The Hershey professorship will augment the curriculum in world religions at the Divinity School and serve as the cornerstone of its expanded program in Buddhist studies.

Thus far, the first Hershey professor has not been named.

Call of the Wild

Image 9: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Courtesy Phil Borges.
Image 9: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Courtesy Phil Borges.

During the Dalai Lama’s most recent visit to the United States, hopes were raised for possible talks between His Holiness and Chinese officials regarding Tibet’s future. After a 30-minute visit with President Clinton on November 10, the Dalai Lama expressed his gratitude for Clinton’s efforts “to encourage a negotiated settlement to resolve the Tibetan situation.”

During this visit, which included conferences and meetings in four cities in the U.S., the Dalai Lama also revealed something about himself at a press conference in Washington. He spoke of his “only ambition”—that as soon as a self-rule solution is found for Tibet, he will “seek solitude like a wild animal.”

The Wheel

After winning Thailand’s first laughing contest, a 54-year-old mother of four donated a part of her winnings ($280) to a Buddhist temple.

  • Japanese cult: The Tokyo District Court sentenced former Aum Shinrikyo Truth senior member Kazuaki Okazaki to death for murdering a lawyer and his family and another cult member. It was the cult’s first death sentence. 
  • Jeweled remains of a saintly monk were believed to be in a chest shown on China’s first-ever broadcast of an excavation, an ancient Buddhist tomb in Zhouzhi county. 
  • Tortoises have lost the race in Kuala Lumpur, where thieves did away with dozens of tortoises at a Buddhist temple’s Liberation Pond. Two weeks earlier, 250 tortoises were lifted, presumably to be resold as food. 
  • In November, Lord Buddha’s ashes and relics were taken out of the Patna Museum for the first time and placed inside the Mahabodhi Mahavina temple in Bodh Gaya for a few hours. Bihar’s chief minister said it would “add attraction to tourism.” 
  • Skipping a (heart) beat: On the back cover of Mark Epstein’s new book, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, a blurb by Jack Kornfield listed the vipassana teacher as author of A Path Without a Heart
  • Buddhists aid Hurricane Mitch victims in Central America: Tokyo’s Soka Gakkai International donated $60,000 to victims, and Taiwan’s Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation sent 30 members to help in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. 
  • O Karma? Scientists at Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, California, reported the “immortalizing” of certain cells. This does not mean that Geron plans to immortalize the body, according to its vice president for research, Thomas Okarma.

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