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Flesh in the Closet: The Secret Wife Tradition among Eminent Monks of Korean Buddhism

Sujung Kim (Columbia University)

A few months ago, a monk from Chogye Order, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea, made an extraordinary accusation that some of the order’s senior leaders have secretly married and have children. The claim that monks have secret wives however came as no surprise to those in the know because Buddhist clerical marriage has a long history in Korea and has been openly accepted.

This paper will explore the historical and cultural background of ŭnch’ŏ p’ungsŭb, or the ‘secret wife’ tradition of Korean Buddhism. It starts with the term itself—what secret wife implies in Korean Buddhism and how it is problematized in attendant discourse. I will then examine this phenomenon in relation with post-colonial discourses and the establishment of Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism in 1962.

A careful analysis of Buddhist clerical marriage reveals that the secret wife tradition is not merely a marginal phenomenon in modern/contemporary Korean Buddhism. Sŏn antinomianism and its uncritical acceptance among Buddhist monks and lay followers have allowed such a tradition to thrive, and have encouraged among the public a tolerant attitude towards monks’ transgressive behavior. Beyond the monastic boundary, the social emphasis on the Confucian family model and value system has helped the tradition endure in Korean society. Finally, the persistence of these secret marriages speaks to the problem of locating role models in Korean Buddhist historiography, as well as the failure of scholarship to give a nuanced view of eminent monks in the history of Korean Buddhism.