How are Buddhist monasteries financially supported?

Monks and nuns in Buddhist monasteries - more colorful than the gray robes suggest

Culture & Society

by Alexander Reisenbichler, 25.10.2018

Entrance gate (All photos: Alexander Reisenbichler)

A brief historical introduction

A Chinese king sent a Buddhist monk with statues and Buddhist scriptures in AD 372. to Korea into the empire Goguryeo (37 BC-668 AD), the northernmost of the three empires Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje, into which Korea was then divided. A few years later, an Indian monk came from the Chinese Jin Empire (265-420), and Buddhism began to spread in Baekje (18 BC - 660 AD). Only in the 5th / 6th In the 19th century, this religion and philosophy, originally from India, reached the southern Silla Empire (57 BC - 935 AD). Korean Buddhism was strongly influenced by Chinese, but many Korean monks went to India and translated scriptures from Pali and Sanskrit, the languages ​​in which the Buddhist scriptures were mostly written. Many Korean monks were trained in China and spent many years there before returning to Korea. Chinese Buddhism, in turn, was heavily influenced by that of India. The Kushana Empire (1st-4th centuries AD) stretched from India via Afghanistan to what is now western China (Xinjiang Province), dominated the Silk Road and guaranteed an unhindered connection from India to Korea.

Gardens can be seen in many monasteries. They symbolize the creed of Zen Buddhism that one should also be physically active and work.

Buddhism was very closely associated with the state in the Korean Middle Ages, and many Buddhist rituals were used to protect the empire. In the 7th century, the above three Korean empires were united under the leadership of Silla (United Silla Empire, AD 668-935). The strongly centralized bone rank system, which paid homage to the Maitreya cult, received competition during this time (This system divided the aristocracy in terms of family closeness to the king and thus determined the sphere of influence. Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, stood in Center of Buddhist worship). Local elites in the countryside gained power and supported the emerging Zen school. So their influence was exhibited against aristocratic centralism through Buddhism. That is the reason why many Zen monasteries were founded in the country during this time.

In the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), Buddhism also had a state-consolidating function, and Zen Buddhism had close ties to the military. Buddhist rituals were performed to ward off military attacks, the pressure of the Tripitaka Koreana, of the Korean Buddhist canon, owes its existence in the 11th century to the incursion of the Mongolian Khitan army. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century gave rise to the pressure of the second Tripitaka Koreanawhich took 16 years to make and which can be viewed today in Haeinsa Monastery near Daegu.

While there was a lively Buddhist exchange with the outside world in the Korean Goryeo dynasty (think of the heavily decorated and ornamented Buddha statues of this time, which owe their appearance to Tibetan Buddhism, but also to the exchange in the field of Buddhist philosophy) , Buddhism became more and more associated with greed and corruption towards the end of the Goryeo dynasty. The monasteries owned a lot of power and land (these were tax-free, so 'many farmers donated their land to the monastery in order to receive tax breaks; even today monasteries still own a lot of land on which villages were partly built; the villagers are allowed to sell their houses , but not the country itself) and thwarted the meaning of the Chinese character for monastery (寺, pronunciation in Korean: sa), which consists of two components: "small" and "country". The following Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) was dominated by the neo-Confucian philosophy, which was elevated to state doctrine in the empire; this was openly hostile to Buddhism. Monks were sometimes not allowed to enter the cities, and monasteries were only founded in the countryside. But Buddhism was still held in high esteem among the rural population in Korea, and King Sejong, who invented the Korean syllabary Hangeul in the 15th century, had the first Buddhist books printed in this script so that they could also be used by the less educated people. who did not master classical Chinese, in which all important government decrees, literature, and scientific and philosophical writings were written. Due to the isolation of the Joseon Dynasty, contact with other Buddhist schools from abroad was lost. Instead, the Korean state focused on justifying neo-Confucian philosophies and shifted its activities to ancestor worship, which is so important in Confucianism. For this reason, Buddhist shrines or monasteries can be found near many royal tombs. In order to improve the position of Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhist monk armies were organized against the Japanese invasion in the 16th century, which were also very successful. Thereupon monks were installed as provincial generals, but soon these were only symbolic posts with no real power. In the last two centuries of the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhsimus turned more and more to the people and incorporated Taoist and shamanic gods that were firmly anchored in popular belief, such as the mountain god Sansin, who visitors with his tiger in almost all monasteries , often in their own shrine.

Sanshin - the mountain god with the tiger, who should not be missing in any monastery. He was in the 17th century. Adopted from local beliefs and shamanism in the Buddhist pantheon.

Now it is still possible to talk about rituals and norms of different sects, but it is my concern to present personalities and individuals, to portray monks and nuns with their feelings, their dreams, their personality and their wishes as people. I have known all of the monks and nuns described here personally for years and would like to add that this selection cannot and must not be generalized. None of the mentioned were given by real names.

From drugs to belief

Gak-seong Seunim (30) has South Korean parents, but grew up in the USA and feels culturally American. Substance abuse and a brawl with a police officer who discriminated against him because of his origin almost brought him to prison in the USA (but he was not convicted, otherwise, according to the monastic rules that existed in the Vinaya 2,200 years ago, he would have a collection of Buddhist order rules, which were written down and are still valid today, cannot be ordained). The judge gave him another chance, and it was agreed to spend a year in a Buddhist monastery with South Korean characteristics in Hawaii. During his time in the monastery, he decided to continue his career as a monk. The beginning was anything but easy. His knowledge of Korean was very limited, and life in the monastery was very strict and more conservative than the not very open society of South Korea, as he said. In the United States, he had only peripheral Korean culture, he wanted to integrate and not end up like his parents, who still spoke only broken English and mostly met other Korean expats. He was very happy to have found me as a contact person, and his father-monk (uensa-seunim, the monk who is his teacher, is responsible for him and supports him) also understood that. He went into a worldly low one evening and we met at my house. We chatted about Buddha and the world and his adjustment problems. As a novice, he is not allowed to speak to anyone, he is not allowed to leave the monastery, and he complained that the Korean monastery kitchen would play a huge role in his stomach. That evening we had a few bottles of beer together. Since Gak-seong Seunim didn't normally drink, he later emptied the contents of his stomach into my sock drawer. When I spoke to him about it the next day, he didn't want to believe that he had caused the medium natural disaster. He washed my socks off with a red head.

A few months later he moved to another monastery in Seoul, where other foreigners lived as monks, and learned Korean and Buddhist philosophy. I was amazed at how quickly he settled in, and his Korean was getting better every day.

The main temple with Amithaba, which is often venerated in East Asia.

Scholar and norm breaker

Hyeon-muk Seunim (63) lived for 15 years in Pune, India, a four-hour drive from Mumbai (better known in the west under the old name of Bombay). The city's Deccan College was very popular among South Korean monks who studied Sanskrit or Pali there. While Zen Buddhism is extremely popular in Europe as a very hip and modern interpretation of Buddhism, there are some monks who are followers of early Buddhism. This is considered to be the purest form of Buddhism (in the books of this belief, among other things, it is stated that there is no god in Buddhism, but this tradition can only be found today in philosophy; it has not established itself in Buddhist practice. ) and was written down in Pali 2200 years ago. The ancient Zen Buddhist scriptures in East Asia are written in classical Chinese (there are of course new Buddhist texts in the national languages, e.g. in Japanese and Korean) and do not always correspond to the true teachings of the Buddha. My wife, who was studying Buddhist philosophy at Pune University, met Hyeon-muk Seunim there, and he invited us to the Korean Silsang Monastery, which is connected to an alternative community. That was the place where we settled in South Korea and still live today.

As a teenager, Hyeon-muk Seunim dealt with philosophy and religion and then decided very early on to pursue a career as a monk. He studied in South Korea and India for many years and explained Buddhist philosophy with wit and deep knowledge. He and other fellow believers founded a school for monks in Silsang Monastery, and monks from all over South Korea gathered here. He advocates pragmatic Buddhism and abhors rituals. After a lecture on ahimsa (the prohibition on killing living beings), he came into his room and killed a few gelsen. “With Ahimsa, Buddha did not mean that you should be stung by gels and become infected with malaria. You have to interpret this commandment in a more practical way, ”he explained to us.

He didn't care about rituals and prohibitions. He was even proud of his deviant behavior and emphasized that he drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and also enjoyed a beer or a schnapps. It doesn't come as a surprise to South Koreans that monks sometimes consume alcohol in moderation. It is partly also a sign of conscious nonconformity and a sign of the senselessness of rituals. The novel, Mandala ’by Kim Seong-dong, published in 1981, deals with this topic and also with corruption in monasteries (published in German by pendragon Verlag). Two French tourists found his behavior not at all cool, but rather disturbing. They imagined monks as ascetic and always meditating people who crept quietly through the monastery with their heads down. Hyoen-muk Seunim did not really correspond to this ideal.

Music and philosophy - enfant terrible in search of enlightenment

Hyeon-cheong Seunim (52) wanted to escape everyday life. His company, which made number plates, showed him the limits of his economic talent, and he decided to test the spiritual infinity. He loves philosophical discussions, is interested in Plato and Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and donned a Christian monk's robe at an event. In his CD collection, Western classical music meets Pakistani Sufi music and psychedelic bands - the musical underground reaches the overground of earthly existence. At a recital at a local alternative school he appeared as a singer and interpreted “Highway to Hell” by AC / DC in monk's robe.

His interest in the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (2nd century AD) brought him to Pune, India, to study Sanskrit. But his interest soon shifted and he listened to the sounds of the Indian musical instrument sitar in the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges, read Jack Kerouac in Manali and smoked to the sounds of Just a poke the group Sweet Smoke a joint. He enjoyed his freedom. After a year he made an early return to Korea and tried to give his life in the monastery a new direction. Breaking out of strict monastic discipline was more likely to be chalked up by lay Buddhists than by monks themselves. He taught in a Buddhist seminary and made some money. He traveled to China and cycled from Beijing to Xian, flew to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), and then went on to Varanasi in northern India. From there he took a 40-hour train to Pune, where I was living with my family at the time, and we visited Buddhist caves on the Deccan Plateau. Back in South Korea, he enrolled in a convent school and has been studying Classical Chinese diligently ever since.

Monks in worldly life - we start a family

Monks are human too, and so interpersonal relationships harm monastic innocence. Mostly it is monks who get to know a woman and then turn their backs on monastic life and start a new life. This phenomenon is well known in South Korea and is often associated with failure. Often monks only know life in a monastery, have never had to pay for their living and have no education. Mu-ka Seunim (50) met his future wife in Pune, who was studying there. She was fascinated by his calm and balanced manner, no macho behavior or showing off, as she knew from other South Korean men. They soon moved in together and Ms. Lee Ji-hae gave birth to two sons. After studying in India, they moved back to South Korea and were caught up in harsh reality after the birth of a third son. She was plagued by financial worries and Mu-ka Seunim could not find work. He started drinking, alone. The computer course he attended in Daegu only got him a job after a long search. At this point the marriage was very broken and they were living apart. While other ex-monks often return to a monastery after failure, Mu-ka Seunim did not shirk responsibility, regularly sent money to his family and also visited his three sons.

But there are also success stories. Go-hyeon Seunim was living in a small monastery when he fell in love with a woman and got married. After the wedding, he got a job as a temple employee in his former monastery and has since taken care of his wife and their child, with whom he lives in a small house in the neighboring village. They are happy and I keep seeing them shopping in the supermarket.

The environmental activist and animal rights activist

Many South Koreans know his picture from daily newspapers and television, also outside the Buddhist community. With his flat wool hat he is very committed and has already organized many social projects. Through his initiatives, he founded a community in the province of North Jeolla, which is now one of the best-known and largest back-to-country communities. An alternative school was founded next to the monastery, which still taught its students in containers. The farm, which produced products from organic farming, sold its products to the monastery, where the students of the alternative school ate their meals and was also the contact point for townspeople who had escaped city life and wanted to start a new life in the country. It was a symbiosis and the social meeting point for many newcomers from the city. The farm and school still exist, but the school has moved and so the connection with the farm was cut. When we arrived in the community and couldn't find a house at the beginning, we lived in the temple for a while and were fed there - all for free.

The abbot's accommodation. There are clear hierarchies in the monastery. Archaeological finds also prove this for the beginning of Buddhism.

Corruption does not stop at monastery walls either

As an abbot one is not only the spiritual but also the secular head of a monastery. An abbot I knew was in charge of the finances and there was practically no controlling body. When he suddenly drove a new jeep, the rumor of embezzlement of funds arose, but since monks often have very financially strong donors, it initially remained with the rumors.In a great many monasteries, nothing would have happened, since no one except the abbot has any insight into the finances, but Silsangsa with the alternative community and a network that extends beyond the temple was not a good place to withhold money. An internal investigation revealed his machinations and he was thrown from the monastery. With him went his lover, who had worked as a temple clerk in the temple.

A few years later I went to a hermitage. Hermits are small monasteries, often only consisting of a temple and a house, which are connected to a main monastery and are located a few kilometers, mostly higher in the mountains, from this. Most monasteries have four or five hermitages, to which monks and nuns often retreat to meditate in peace. Suddenly I saw a woman who looked familiar and who invited me and my wife for a cup of tea. She was the abbot's mistress, who had been transferred to the new monastery with him. The order had obviously held its hand protectively over the black sheep (perhaps a different metaphor should be used in this Buddhist context, e.g. black elephant). The count told us something about an award he had received, we drank our tea and said goodbye.

The translator

Translations have a long tradition in Buddhist history. The first millennium of our era was a very busy time for Buddhist monks from Central Asia through South and Southeast Asia to East Asia. Hyecho from the 8th century is arguably the most famous Korean monk to travel to India. Skilled translators were in great demand, and many monks traveled on foot from China to India, the promised land of Buddhism, to copy, translate, and take scriptures back to their home countries. This lively cultural exchange was not limited to Buddhism, but also mythology (compare my article about Dokkaebi, whose appearance goes back to Indian hell-dwellers), astronomical knowledge and other sciences from regions as remote as the Arab region reached the Korean peninsula. Hae-san Seunim (65) belongs to this group of learned monks. He lived in India for almost 20 years and studied Pali. Today he is considered one of the best translators in South Korea. Among other things, he translated the Pali canon Samyutta Nikaya into Korean. Buddhist monks translate not only Buddhist texts, but also Hindu ones such as the Upanishads, thereby continuing a 2000 year old tradition. Thinking outside the box is responsible for the fact that, for example, many Sanskrit texts that have long been lost in India still exist in other languages ​​such as classical Chinese. The Siddham script was used in India between the 5th and 12th centuries and is still seen today in Japan (Shingon sect) and South Korea, while it has evolved in India. The lively exchange between South and East Asia ended, so this script was retained in its old form. The lettering on the ceiling of Mihwang Monastery in Haenam, South Korea, from the middle of the 8th century is a very famous example. In Japan, Hindu gods are still worshiped today, who no longer exist in today's India. The Japanese Tantric Shingon sect worships the deity Goma (former Indian name Havan or Homa) and the Japanese Tendai sect has rituals that are very similar in many details to the Hindu Agni worship.

Hae-san Seunim is a very calm and rather shy monk, but always friendly and helpful. He corresponds to the withdrawn, ascetic monk who devotes himself entirely to his studies and also indulges in meditation. But meditation is not necessarily a guarantee for a balanced person who always plays a smile on the lips. Ji-ok Seunim (61) spent three years in a row in meditation, but that didn't stop him from regularly yelling at his Indian housekeeper (60) in Pune when she was twenty minutes late. Since he lived right above us in Pune, I was able to follow the domestic escapades. The housekeeper would often come to us crying and complain about the monk. When I once asked him about his behavior, he said succinctly that you simply have to put an end to the eternal delay.

Ceiling painting and dragons


Korean Buddhist sects do not do a lot of social work, that is left to the Christian churches, which, among other things, devote themselves very much to the North Korean refugees. The Jungto sect under the leadership of the charismatic Pomnyun Seunim is an exception here. In our village there is a small temple of this sect, which was often visited by a sprightly nun, Mu-ju bhikuni Seunim (62). She speaks Hindi and English and has worked abroad for more than 20 years, a long time near Bamiyan in Afghanistan and Bodh Gaya in Bihar, northern India, not far from the famous Nalanda Buddhist University, which was established in the 5th century . There she sacrificed to help children and people in need without proselytizing, which made a great impression on me.

Go-do Bhikuni Seunim (58) spent many years meditating in monasteries in Myanmar. The country is very popular among monks and nuns, but also among lay Buddhists who want to meditate. There the Vipassana meditation is taught by Goenka, the leading teacher of this meditation school, who takes the view that Buddha did not teach a religion, but a path to universal liberation that goes far beyond the boundaries of the various Buddhist sects. Myanmar is the first port of call for meditation, so to speak, while one studies Buddhist philosophy or history in India. Today Go-do Bhikuni Seunim lives in Silsangsa, where she plays every Sunday with the children from the surrounding villages. She is currently planning to build a playground on the monastery grounds. A unique idea, I've never seen a playground on a monastery site. Gymnastics rooms and volleyball fields for monks, on the other hand, are not uncommon. Since our daughter Maya also attends this Dharma meeting, I am involved in building the playground with the fathers of other children.

Foreign monks

There are some foreign monks from different countries in South Korea. Hyon-gak Seunim is one of the best known, among other things he edited the Zen writings of Seung-sahn Seunim, which were published by the English-language publisher Shambala Publications. In Japan, for example, there is a German monk, Abbot Muho, who heads the Antaiji Monastery as the monastery head and Zen master. His book Zazen or the way to happiness was published by Rowohlt Verlag.

The monk Tannu welcomes his guests in this tea room. You can taste very expensive and special types of tea here. Because the guests get a lot of tea very often, some people jokingly speak of water torture (mul-go-mun).

But I would like to introduce you to two monks from India who have been living in a monastery in South Korea for two years, Tannu from Ladakh (30) on the border with Tibet and Tenzin from Sikkim (24), the former independent kingdom that lies between Nepal and Bhutan and has belonged to India since the 1970s. Both were invited to South Korea by the monk Sa-ra Seunim. The change was not very easy for them. Korean food is very spicy, sour and vegetarian because of the fermentation. Monks from the high mountains such as Ladakh and Tibet eat meat, so they felt constantly hungry and illegally sneaked into the monastery kitchen during the night and cooked instant noodle dishes. After a few months, they suddenly had pimples on their face, instant noodles (ramen or ramyeon in Korean) are not foods that should be eaten over a long period of time. The daily routine in a monastery in India is very different from that in South Korea. In Ladakh there are many rituals that are performed in households in the surrounding villages. That brings variety and also a good meal. In the monastery in South Korea, which was also very secluded, there was a great silence, they hardly had anything to do except learn Korean. The monk Mu-si Seunim, whom they met in India and who took them to South Korea, understood their situation, as he had spent years in India and Thailand himself, and he was even glad that I had something with them undertook. Sometimes my wife cooked Indian meat dishes such as tandoori chicken, other times we visited surrounding cities or listened to old Hindi songs together. During a visit to a larger city, Tannu confessed to me: “The trips with the monks are so boring, we are constantly visiting monasteries. We live in a monastery, so that's nothing special. Then we go to the mountains and they show us landscapes. In India we live in the countryside in the mountains and here in South Korea too, we want to see cities, something new, you understand? "

After half a year, Sa-ra Seunim suddenly disappeared. He didn't say goodbye to anyone, just briefed the abbot of the monastery, and we haven't heard from him since. It is believed that he is studying in a monastery in India or China. This is actually nothing unusual for monks here in South Korea. The above-mentioned Hyeon-cheong Suenim, a good friend of mine, informed me three days before he left that he would leave the local monastery and study in another monastery for at least two years. This had major consequences for Tannu and Tenzin because the monk who was now responsible for them, Mu-si Seunim, strictly followed the rules and, with a few exceptions, the two were no longer allowed to leave the temple alone. In the meantime, however, this monk is also history, and the two monks have settled in, speak a decent Korean, learn Buddhist chants and are more involved in monastery life.

Office and devotional sales

Tips to get to know Buddhist monasteries and monastery life better

The western visitor has the opportunity to take part in a temple stay program (between 20 and 40 dollars a night, usually lasts 2 days), during which one can learn about the monastic tea ceremonies, the rituals and the everyday life of the monks. Some temples also offer tours in English. If you want to delve deeper into the life of the monastery, you can help out on request as a volunteer, e.g. in the kitchen. Food and accommodation are then free.

Alexander Reisenbichler (far right) with his family (Photo: private)

"The Austrian ethnologist Alexander Reisenbichler (* 1977) has lived and researched in South Korea and India for 15 years. He is currently writing his dissertation on Indian Christians in the state of Goa and is working on a travelogue about South Korea and life in a South Korean community He set up his base camp for his Korean wife and two daughters in a small village in the Jiri Mountains in South Korea.

Alexander Reisenbichler is among other things the author of "The many faces of dokkaebi: On the trail of a Korean phenomenon" ", published in 2014 by OSTASIEN Verlag, Phönixfeder series ( ). "