Relatively large number of ordained bhikkhunis in Korea compared to other countries
More Buddhist nuns will be able to reach top positions with the introduction of a merit-based system like Taiwanese Buddhism
Established in 1962, the Jogye Order is the largest Buddhist Order in South Korea. The order relies on the Diamond Sutra as its guiding text, and inherits the Buddhist doctrines of Ven. Hye Neung. As is hard to find women in top posts of government offices and companies, Buddhist nuns are severely under-represented on senior positions of central administrative bodies of the Jogye Order. In this sense, Ven. Jin Myung, Manager of the Culture Department under the Administrative Office of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism is special. “While South Korean Buddhism is gender-balanced in numbers with ordained bhikkunis and bhikkus each taking up 50% of the monk population, gender discrimination clearly exists when it comes to appointment to senior posts,” said Ven. Jin Myung.
Discrimination against female monks starts well before they receive ordination. Unlike men who want to be ordained as monks, women have to go through Sikkchamana training, which mainly consists of the six precepts young nuns must adhere to, for two years. The precepts teach no obscene acts, no taking of life, no lies, no alcoholic drinks, and no excessive eating.
Ven. Jin Myung is careful on the gender discrimination issue. She clearly opposes discrimination against bhikkunis, but she thinks that the gender balance at the top must be improved at a gradual pace. “More Buddhist nuns should be able to hold senior positions for sure, but what’s equally important is they also focus on missionary work, counseling, and welfare as proud members of the Jogye Order. Both bhikkunis and bhikkus should strive to advance Korean Buddhism instead of confronting with each other,” said Ven. Jin Myung. She went on to suggest that a merit-based system, like the one in Taiwanese Buddhism, be developed in order to ensure that both bhikkunis and bhikkus equally benefit from it.
“Such system based on merit not only has positive implications for our Jogye Order but also for the entire Buddhist community. A great leader bolsters faith. Take for example Taiwanese Buddhism, which has seen a remarkable growth in recent years. A performance-based system has taken roots in Taiwanese Buddhism, which in turn reduced gender discrimination. As a result, the number of ordained Buddhist nuns has increased. In particular, the Taiwanese ‘Jajegongdeokhoe,’ the Buddhist community service association, was organized and run by a bhikkhuni, Ven. Jeung um. As such, the status and roles of bhikkunis in the Taiwanese society is a role model for South Korean Buddhism, even though South Korean Buddhists’ training is the envy of Taiwanese Buddhists.”
Jogye Order at the forefront of redistribution
Ven. Jin Myung sent a clear message about the social role of Buddhism. She said that the Buddhists should be more active on relief efforts for the socially marginalized and aid work for the disadvantaged such as women and the disabled.
“Like any other religions, I believe we have to make sure the offerings made by Buddhists are used to serve the right purposes. Social work by Buddhist community, which rapidly declined under the suppression of the Joseon Dynasty, is now actively being carried out by our Jogye Order. Most of the work started after South Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule. One example is the leadership shown by the monks of the Joggye Order in the establishment of the House of Sharing for comfort women,” said Ven. Jin Myung.
As of 2012, the number of welfare facilities run by Jogye Order is 1,065, less than 1,633 of the Protestant Church but more than 1,043 of the Catholic Church. This is an indication of a positive change South Korean Buddhism is going through, departing from its traditional emphasis on training.
“Until the era of the Three Kingdoms and Koryo Dynasty, Buddhists were engaged in active relief work. But, as Buddhism came under persecution during the Joseon Dynasty, the work started to wane. However, these days, things have changed. With so many problems in our society, Buddhism is under pressure to play a bigger role than before. Monks at our Order are committed to social work, but they are not as good at publicizing their work as at doing the work itself. That’s why our social work is not widely known yet,” said Ven. Jin Myung.
Every member of the society, including family, should work for gender equality
“There has always been discrimination in any society. Buddhism was discriminated and persecuted during the Joseon Dynasty. My advice for Buddhist nuns is they do their best to empower themselves, improve their capabilities and make the most of their talents,” said Ven. Jin Myung. “No one expected during the Joseon Dynasty that Buddhism would be reinvigorated to today’s level. This is also true for gender issues. Korean women’s rights have gradually improved after 500 years of long suppression under patriarchy. I believe we will achieve gender equality as a society as long as we keep up our efforts with a firm conviction that this is not the end,” she added.
When asked whether she thinks there still is a “glass ceiling” for women in our society, Ven. Jin Myung said, “Of course there is. Unless relevant laws change, the glass ceiling will not go away, especially in the world of religion. But, as most people are aware, things are changing little by little as things cannot change overnight. In order to build a social consensus on gender equality, more agenda should be on the table, and more women leaders should raise their voices. I myself am working harder than anybody else as the only woman manger of the Administrative Office of the Jogye Order.” She added with a smile, “The Culture Department was only a small part of the Administrative Office, which I heard was a major reason the Order appointed a Buddhist nun, me, to head it. But now, it is a key part of the Administrative Office.”
Who is Ven. Jin Myung?
Ven. Jin Myung was born in Hadong, Kyungnam Province in 1959. She received precepts called “gujok” as an ordained bhikkuni in 1998. Ven. Jin Myung graduated from Unmunsa-sangga College in 1989. From 1997 to 2005 she hosted a show on Buddhist Broadcasting System. Ven. Jin Myung became the chief nun of Manwol Temple in China in 2006. In 2011, she was appointed manager of the Manager of the Culture Department under the Administrative Office of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.