By Shyamal Sinha
Venerable Seoljeong, the presiding executive of the Jogye Order of South Korea, the country’s largest Buddhist order, announced yesterday that he would step down after a series of allegations and reversals lead to a vote of no confidence on 16 July by the Jogye Order’s executive council.
“I came forward in order to change Korean Buddhism for the better, but now I will return to the mountains with this goal unattained,” Ven. Seoljeong said during a press conference yesterday at the Jogye Order headquarters in central Seoul. (Korea Joogang Daily)
After the press conference, Ven. Seoljeong, 76, said farewell to the monastics and laypeople at Jogye Temple and then left Seoul for Sudeok Temple in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province, where he once served as abbot before his election as the president of the Jogye Order in October last year. The executive council of the Jogye Order plans to elect a new president in the coming two months.
Ven. Seoljeong has been at the center of a series of scandals that have shaken the reputation of the Jogye Order and have contributed to a crisis within the order. The allegations against the monk include accusations of him forging his academic credentials, misusing and embezzling the order’s funds, and secretly fathering a daughter out of wedlock against the order’s celibacy rule.
While he originally apologized for the scandals and announced his intent to resign on 2 August following heavy criticism from reformist monks and the public, he reversed this decision on 13 August stating that he would remain in office for the remainder of the year to oversee a reform committee tasked with reorganizing the order’s organization.
Although he has admitted to lying about his college degree, Ven. Seoljeong has denied the other charges throughout the proceedings, dismissing them as “groundless” and meant to do him harm.
His resignation comes five days after the order’s executive council passed a vote of no confidence against the monk, with 56 of 75 members in favor of Ven. Seoljeong’s resignation. The decision to impeach Ven. Seoljeong is unprecedented in the history of the organization—the current organizational structure of the order dates from 1962—and will need to be approved by the order’s senior members, who are meeting today. Ven. Seoljeong, however, pre-empted his forced removal by resigning yesterday. The council of senior monks will now meet to approve Ven. Seoljeong’s resignation, after which they have to elect a new executive within 60 days. In the meantime, Ven. Jinwoo, Ven. Seoljeong’s deputy, will preside over the order as acting chief.
Ven. Seoljeong began his four-year tenure as the chief executive of the Jogye Order in November last year. As the executive, Ven. Seoljeong controlled all of the order’s financial and administrative decisions, including the right to appoint and dismiss abbots of its 1,900 active temples, which is why the position is often referred to as the “presidency of the Jogye order”. This vast concentration of power is often cited as one of the reasons for the heightened criticism and renewed allegations against the venerable.
Ven. Seoljeong’s resignation, however, will not end the political crisis within the order as reformist monk are demanding a complete overhaul of the organization to increase the transparency. The Jogye Order has requested that the Korean government not intervene in the internal dispute, citing the separation of church and state laid out in South Korea’s constitution.
The Jogye Order is a school of Seon (Zen) Buddhism that traces its roots back 1,200 years to the Unified Silla (also known as the Later Silla) kingdom (668–935). The Jogye school as a distinct entity emerged in the late 11th century when the monk Bojo Jinul, credited as the school’s founder, sought to combine Seon practices with the theological underpinnings of sutra-based Buddhist schools, including Korean Pure Land Buddhism. The order now represents the largest segment of South Korea’s Buddhist population, administering about 1,900 active temples and more than 13,000 monastics nationwide.