The ‘bulldozer’ and the Buddha: Korea’s dangerous middle

by Peter Schurmann, New American Media, Aug 18, 2008

Seoul, South Korea -- There’s so much frenetic energy here in Seoul, constant movement and tension as the country’s politics, religion and economy collide amidst a backdrop of smog, traffic and soju. It’s palpable on the street, as if charged by the humidity in the air.

The standoff between the administration and Jogye Temple, headquarters of the country’s largest Buddhist order, continues, with plain clothed police surrounding all exits in and out of the temple for the past month, as militant organizers of last month’s beef protests sit camped on the temple grounds. The cops are all young and baby-faced, not like cops in the US with razor mustaches and guns at the waist. These guys barely look out of high school, and are probably doing police duty as an alternative to military service.

The protest organizers meanwhile are looking more and more grizzly everyday. I don’t think they’ve bathed in a month. They sit under this large canopy, a banner announcing their cause hanging above, a cause that a month ago brought the entire country to a standstill. Around them streams of Buddhist grandmothers pass by to offer devotions inside the temple. The government is after the organizers for allegedly instigating violence during the protests, although whether they actually broke any laws is uncertain.

Beside the protesters is a group of four monks on very public hunger strike against what they say is a government hostile to Buddhism. They sit in meditation at the main entrance, with political posters denouncing the president for activeley seeking to suppress their religion. A series of political cartoons have been put up depicting the president amidst a sea of Christian crosses giving the order to crush the monkhood. Next to it is a cartoon of an officer searching the car of the Buddhist order’s highest leader, an event which seriously riled the country’s Buddhist population two weeks ago.

Meanwhile the city rolls on with people rushing here and there, flowing past these striking displays of political protest with barely a glance. I see it everyday on my walk to work from the train station, passing through the temple grounds hoping to still my mind yet awed by the political and religious forces clashing here. A stone’s throw from the presidential office adherents bow faithfully as the country’s highest leader, a man once called the bulldozer, butts heads with a silent, sitting Buddha.

Politics in Korea has for centuries been polarized by bitter factionalism. Going back to the previous dynasty state officials were ensconced within competing ideological groups, each a complete mirror of the other and each holding the keys to higher office. An aspiring civil servant just couldn’t make it without becoming a part of this system. That division continued into the twentieth century, the most glaring example being the line dividing North from South, with nothing in the middle but guns and explosives.

South Korean politics today continues that pattern, with liberals and conservatives locked in a war neither side seems able to win. And the country trudges ahead, just yesterday celebrating the 60 anniversary of its liberation from Japan. Opposition groups of course refused to join in the ceremonies, bitter over the conservative administration’s recent hostile moves against them, including the firing and arrest of the head of public broadcaster KBS, who had been appointed by the country’s previous liberal president. An attempt at total media control?

From a personal standpoint, as a quasi-Buddhist I think of the teaching of the middle way, and wonder why these striking monks aren’t doing the same. Rather than widening the gulf that already exists in this country’s political and religious landscape, a gulf far wider and more damaging than any national canal could possibly be, why not — as one of the few groups with any authority capable of doing so — operate in the middle? In a country divided between black and white, their grey robes should stand for something more.