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Korean monks power struggle turns violent
The Associated Press

On the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Seoul, thousands of monks wield firebombs and clubs as two factions vie for control of their order

SEOUL, South Korea - The gray-robed monks of the Chogye Buddhist order are generally a meditative lot, spending long hours in silent search of spiritual enlightenment.

But not lately.

For the past three weeks, thousands of them have been fighting each other with fists, rocks, fire bombs and clubs about matters far more temporal and mundane: power and money.

At the heart of the dispute is a struggle for control of the order, the largest in South Korea. A swift resolution does not appear likely, and riot police stood guard around the temple Wednesday in case of new violence.

The frequent clashes at the Chogye order's main temple in downtown Seoul have been captured by cameras, sending surreal images to millions of South Korean homes.

During one melee, a portly, middle-aged monk swings a collapsable metal chair at a fellow monk wearing a bright yellow construction hard hat atop his shaven head.

In another scene, a monk wearing what appear to be combat boots tries to scale a barricade barring the main door of the order's administration building. From above, a rival dumps the contents of a chamber .pot on his head.

The latest brawl this week left 37 people injured, some seriously, and .the two main sanctuaries on the temple grounds badly damaged.

"The monks are more like politicians than monks. And they know that the winner gets everything and the loser gets nothing." - Yoon Won-chul, professor of religious studies, Seoul National University

It also left many of South Korea's 8 million lay Buddhists dismayed.

The trouble began when the head of the order, Song Wol-ju, sought a third four-year term. Opponents seized his office early last month, effectively blocking his re-election.

"This whole dispute was caused by some greedy, corrupt, power oriented monks. We are determined to reform the order at any cost," said Wol Tan, a spokesman for the anti-Song monks.

Under public pressure, Song offered to resign, but his followers refused to give in and tried to oust opponents from the temple grounds.

"The people who have seized the office building are not monks but hoodlums," said Ji Sun, a spokes man for Song. "We cannot possibly let them lead the order. And it is clear which side the public supports. "

Brawling monks at Chogye Temple in Seoul, as in this clash Monday, are upsetting lay Buddhists. "What would Buddha say?" cried one woman.

The public, however, does not appear to support either side.

"The monks are more like politicians than monks. And they know that the winner gets everything and the loser gets nothing," said Yoon Won-chul, a professor of religious studies at Seoul National University.

The victorious faction gets to control an annual budget of $9.2 million and millions of dollars in property and appoint 1,700 monks to various duties. In the past, those on the losing side were accused of corruption and deprived of their status as monks.

Yoon said it is an open secret that many monks, once they take control of an order, begin to amass wealth—houses and expensive cars—through donations by worshippers.

He said many Korean Buddhist monks are not well-educated and are ill-equipped to support themselves if they leave their temples.

"Those who are not interested in power and money stay in their temples and rarely make public appearances. And hearing about this dispute, they will become even more reluctant to be involved," Yoon said.

"In the meantime, the order's high ranking jobs get filled with monks who are much more interested in power than the religion itself. It is a vicious cycle.

On Wednesday, as several monks strolled temple grounds strewn with garbage, broken lumber, the burned remains of homemade bombs and other debris, an angry laywoman shouted, "This is a place for Buddha! You hoodlums get out of here!"

"Monks are supposed to be spiritual guides to people," she lamented.  "They should be ashamed of what they are doing. What would Buddha say about this?"

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