SEOUL -- South Korea marked a holiday honoring Buddha's birthday with services in 20,000 temples across the country amidst a scandal over the behavior of monks who had been filmed gambling, drinking and smoking in a hotel suite.
About 22% of South Korea's people are Buddhists. As the annual holiday marking Buddha's birthday was celebrated Monday. As it nears, lotus laterns are hung in the streets.
But this year's celebration was marred by reports of misbehavior of a number of monks belonging to the Jogye Order, the largest in South Korea. A former member of the order's executive committee, Seongho, obtained footage of the gambling party and took it to a prosecutor's office on May 15. He accused monks of gambling, which is illegal in South Korea outside of legal casinos, with money contributed by believers.
The scandal shocked Buddhist society and the public alike. Six members of the executive committee of the order resigned. But the scandal has only gotten worse. Seongho told the media that monks also have been going to racy bars and paying for sex. The executive committee responded by accusing him of attempting to sexually assault a Buddhist nun in 2004, and buying luxury cars with the temple's money.
Furious South Koreans voiced their anger on the web.
"How can they dare conduct Buddhist services day and night while having done such things?" one asked on a blog.
While Jogye Order is still in turmoil and the issue remains unresolved, on Monday hoards of citizens flocked to Jogyesa temple in downtown Seoul.
Some high-profile guests such Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Roman Catholic Archbishop Kim Hee-joong and other major politicians participated in the service held at the temple, which is known as the center of South Korean Buddhism.
Venerable Jaseung, head executive of the Jogye order who has been under a pressure to resign, acknowledged that the monks' behavior had wounded believers and other members of the public.
"Because it's a deep, huge wound, it will take a while to heal," he said. "But with patience and continuous effort I will work towards healing with the members of the priesthood."
Some who came this year said the scandal had not dented their faith. Hundreds of people stood in line to to pour water over baby Buddha's statue, a ritual of this holiday.
"I've coming with my family to Jogye temple for several years now," said Noh Yeo-beom, a follower waiting in line with his 5-year-old son, wife and mother. "The recent scandals didn't affect my faith at all."
-- Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: Young girls pour water on a small statue of Buddha during a service to celebrate Buddha's birthday at Jogyesa temple in Seoul, South Korea, on May 28, 2012. Credit: Matt Douma/For The Times.