DP lawmaker attending Buddhist conference shunned from temple gates
A lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) found himself to be persona non grata at a temple in central Seoul on Friday, just as he arrived to attend a conference of Buddhist monks who gathered to denounce comments and policies by ruling party officials they deemed to be discriminatory.
DP lawmaker Jung Chung-rae was scheduled to make an apology for remarks made in October at the large-scale monks’ convention held at Jogye Temple in Jongno District, but was declared unwelcome by officials in charge of the conference shortly before his arrival.
The rest of his entourage, which included DP leader Song Young-gil, were permitted to attend the outdoor conference, where some 5,000 monks gathered to denounce government policies they deem hostile to Buddhists.
Jung’s comments, made at an Oct. 5 audit conducted by the parliamentary Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee, are seen by Buddhist officials as emblematic of the government’s attitude toward their religious community.
During the audit, Jung employed a Joseon-era fraudster as a metaphor for Buddhist temples that levy admission fees on travelers and hikers passing through their grounds into national parks.
Many of Korea’s famed national parks, such as Mount Seorak in Gangwon and Mount Jiri in South Gyeongsang, have their entry points occupied by longstanding temples, which were historically built in mountainous areas to avoid official persecution under the Confucian Joseon Dynasty.
Such temples charge admissions fees to travelers traversing their grounds to reach hiking trails, regardless of whether the visitors intend to see the temple itself or plan only on passing through.
Jung took issue with the fees, characterizing them as “tolls” extracted from travelers that deliver little benefit to public access to national parks.
Jung’s comments elicited a strong backlash from the Buddhist community, and Jogye Temple, which serves as the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, demanded an apology from the DP lawmaker.
After initially declining, Jung offered an apology in late November, which was in turn rejected by Jogye Temple.
At Friday’s conference, the monks gathered at Jogye Temple denounced not only what they called the ruling party’s officials’ “mischaracterization and distortion” of temple admission fees, but also the perceived religious bias of President Moon Jae-in, who is a Catholic.
In a speech at Friday’s gathering, the secretary general of the Association of Korean Buddhist Orders, Do Gak, took direct aim at the president for his perceived “bias in favor of certain religions.”
“Not only did the president hold a mass to celebrate his inauguration at the Blue House, he always visits cathedrals during his overseas visits and even used the humbling expression ‘audience’ to request a meeting with the Pope,” Do said in a statement.
“The government, which waived entry fees for national parks, has made temples and monks who collect admissions fees targets for public criticism,” he added. “Now, even ruling party lawmakers mock temples and monks who receive admissions fees for [Buddhist] cultural properties as toll collectors.”
Although Song was scheduled to deliver an apology on behalf of the government and ruling party for perceived slights against the Buddhist community, his speech was canceled due to the uproar from the monks at the conference. As a result, Song read his prepared apology to reporters at the event.
“We apologize for causing consternation among the Buddhist community without understanding the 1,700-year history of Korean Buddhism,” he said. “We will communicate more actively with the Buddhist community in regards to the management of our traditional culture and relics.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]