By Yang Sung-jin
Last Tuesday, a group of church members stormed the MBC-TV main control room and interrupted the airing of a program revealing their pastor’s gambling habit and other irregularities.
It remains to be seen whether the pastor is indeed heretical, as the program charges (a court order forced the network to omit footage outlining his alleged personal sexual misconduct). What’s certain is that religion remains a highly sensitive topic and that criticizing a pseudo-religion overflowing with fanatics is an extremely risky undertaking.
Of course, self-styled saviors have never been in short supply in human history.
During the Choson period, a number of self-proclaimed “living Buddhas” cheated countless numbers of innocent people, sparking heated controversy in the royal court.
On Dec. 17, 1482, high-ranking official Kim Chong-jik told King Songjong about a self-proclaimed savior who deceived the gullible, saying, “Park Kuk-myong, a resident of Sangju, is called `living Buddha’ as he deceives people with malicious claims. Since Park went to bed with the daughter of a yangban named Mun Kwi-son through his fraudulent words, he should be severely punished.”
The king ordered an official named Song Kun to immediately arrest and grill the impostor.
Choson kings and officials reacted with anger whenever supposed living Buddhas appeared and stirred up society, mainly because the nation was founded upon Confucianism through the open suppression of Buddhism, the national religion of the Koryo Kingdom.
But the time-honored tradition and influence of Buddhism was hard to keep down.
During the reign of King Taejong, the third monarch of Choson, people were drawn to yet another so-called living Buddha.
According to an official report authored by An No-saeng, a Buddhist monk who was known to be an Indian, came to Choson via Ming China. He was reportedly respected by people as a living Buddha.
“This monk is by no means different from ordinary people, considering his way of talking and behavior. But he enjoys eating broiled lamb and his body sends off some mysterious light at night, which is what has drawn the attention of a number of people,” An said in the report.
In 1448, court officials were alerted to the existence of two monks who were spreading “heretical” religion among the public.
Yu Sang-hae filed an appeal with King Sejong: “A fraudulent monk named Shin Mi is said to be posing as a living Buddha, misguiding the populace and undermining their orthodox religious studies.”
Yu also described Shin’s younger brother Su-won as a heretic who violated the principles of Confucianism by flattering the wealthy and powerful to gain their patronage.
The king, who personally championed Buddhism, did not sanction Yu’s request to punish the two monks.
Not all fraudulent monks went unscathed, however, as Huh Woong, another self-styled Buddha, was arrested, charged and persecuted by the authorities concerned.
The extent of Huh’s quackery puts today’s cult leaders to shame.
Wherever he went, rumors followed that he had miraculously cured seemingly incurable diseases and tumors. His eloquence also attracted adherents both young and old from all walks of life. According to extant documents, thousands of people, not the least of whom were prominent intellectuals, rushed to meet Huh.
On April 23, 1503, Chungchong Province Gov. Lee Cha-kon filed a detailed report on Huh and called for his persecution along with other followers.
Lee said that even local officials including Hong Suk, Lee Ye-shin and Kim Chung-nul had invited Huh to cure their diseases, failing to protect their dignity and honor as government representatives.
Peculiar Treatment of Female Patients
Lee also cited rampant rumors of Huh’s peculiar treatment of female patients, saying, “When an ailing woman requests help, Huh always takes her into a closed room, banning others to observe what’s happening inside and forcing her husband to pray in the backyard.”
Officials embroiled in the Huh scandal were expelled and permanently banned from holding public posts and Huh himself was executed in public.
Until two days later, the court still wasn’t through discussing the scandal. King Yonsangun initially banned the offspring of officials charged in the controversy from taking state examinations, thereby blocking their entry into officialdom.
A group of officials claimed the punishment was too harsh, saying, “Since the officials involved in the Huh quackery tried to cure their diseases out of personal vanity, their children shouldn’t be penalized.”
On Dec. 1, 1599, Pyongan-do Gov. Kim Shin-won reported a strange incident involving three heaven-sent “angels.”
According to the report, a servant named San Pi who worked for a local government official allowed a mysterious couple to stay at his master’s house. Kang Ka-si, one of the strange guests, told the servant that three “sons” would visit him from above.
Puzzled by the inexplicable remarks, San Pi awaited their arrival. Finally the three sons turned up out of nowhere and told San they had come from the heavens.
All three figures were described as tall and husky with long beards. They wore black hats and robes, evoking fear from curious observers.
Interestingly, they ate just as if they were ordinary mortals while their mother explained that her three sons were called saints or living Buddhas, which deeply impressed San Pi and his family members.
At dawn, the heavenly messengers left San’s house, leaving no trace of their visit. Villagers wanted to see the mysterious trio themselves, only to be greeted by their mother, who was ready to boast of her offspring.
“I gave birth to the eldest son normally but the other two through my side. All of them were born this year, but they grew up like this,” she was quoted as saying in the report.
A historiographer of the Annals commented on the report in a bitter tone. “How can there exist a thing outside of normal principles?” he asked, adding, “Deception through wicked words is bound to fall apart in the end. Not only the person who reported the incident in the first place but also those who passed it around are lamentably foolish and ignorant.”
Normalcy, however, is still an elusive concept for fanatics who are more than willing to demonstrate their matchless infiltration technique in the name of You-Know-Who.