A famous South Korean Zen Buddhist monk and bestselling author has withdrawn from public life after his un-Zen-like lifestyle came under fire, adding another chapter to the religion’s sometimes sketchy history in the country.
The monk, who goes by the name Haemin Sunim, recently said he would bow out of all public activities and return to being a Zen Buddhism educator after he became a target of fierce online attacks over his lifestyle, which some critics said was closer to that of a bon vivant rather than to a Zen Buddhist monk.
Haemin is also known as the “Twitter monk”, having accumulated more than a million followers on the platform.
“It is my fault for failing to fulfil my duties as a monk,” Haemin tweeted on Sunday. “As of today, I will put everything down and go back to a public
But controversy erupted after he recently appeared on a TVN entertainment show called On & Off , which follows people in the public eye at home and at work.
In an episode that aired earlier this month, Haemin wakes up in a relatively spacious, US$800,000 (S$1.1 million) two-storey house with commanding views of Mount Namsan in central Seoul, uses expensive mobile devices and flaunts his own mobile meditation app before heading off to his app-development company to work.
Rumours have it that he also drives a Ferrari and owns a building in central Seoul. All of this from a supposed Zen monk leading an austere life whose line from his bestselling book, True giving is done without expecting anything in return , has become widely cited in South Korea and elsewhere.
One of the most severe attacks on Haemin’s character came from Krokodile Choi, the popular lead singer of heavy metal band Victim Mentality whose YouTube videos excoriating what he sees as Haemin’s hypocrisy went viral.
“He is the greediest person that I’ve ever known,” Choi said on his YouTube channel. “He is making money by ripping off those who are emotionally hurt with sugarcoated words that are far from supportive.”
Hyon Gak, an American monk who was ordained in South Korea but now practices Zen in the US, joined the fray, calling Haemin a “parasite”.
“He is merely an actor … a parasite who will end up in hell for selling Buddha‘s teachings for profits,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
But the two monks later reconciled after a phone call that Hyon Gak said was “full of love and mutual respect and profound gratitude for one another”. Hyon Gak then praised Haemin as “an unbelievably beautiful human being with great sincerity” on his Facebook page. “We are both passionately committed to the same thing: practising Dharma.”
Internet users have continued to heap ridicule on Haemin, though. “Anyone can say nice things about controlling the mind, but what is important is to implement them. While posing as a monk, you are accumulating your private wealth”, a post said in Korean.
Another post said: “Buddhist monks tell others not to be greedy but they themselves are all out making money. That‘s why they are being criticised as hypocrites.”
Haemin has also reportedly never taken part in a three-month reclusive meditation session in his dozen years as a monk – something that is normally expected of them.
Chang Yong-jin, a journalist who has long covered Buddhism in South Korea, said that there were other Buddhist monks in the country who were much richer than Haemin, but that Haemin was getting more criticism because he has passed himself off as pure and become a celebrity while the other monks largely remained out of the public eye.
“People thought Haemin would be different from them and they were all the more disappointed when he turned out be no exception,” he said on a radio news show.
Like most of Korean Buddhist monks, both Haemin and Hyon Gak were ordained by the country‘s biggest denomination, the Jogye Order, which has long been dogged by corruption allegations and factional feuds. Its former executive head, Seoljeong, was forced to step down in 2018 amid allegations that he had forged his academic credentials, accumulated vast wealth and broke his vows of celibacy.
In 1994, the Jogye Temple in central Seoul saw rival factions of monks clash violently over control over the order‘s executive posts, leaving many monks and riot police injured.
A 2015 survey showed of the country‘s 51 million population, the number of South Koreans who identified as Buddhist stood at 7.6 million, down 30 per cent from 10 years earlier. Protestants totalled 9.7 million people, followed by Catholics at 3.9 million.
This article was first published in Asia One . All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.