The well-known South Korean Seon (Zen) monk and best-selling author, Venerable Haemin Sunim, 46, has stated that he will step back from public life after his appearance on a reality TV program led to a public outcry. Haemin, who is ordained in the country’s largest order of Buddhism, the Jogye Order, is seen in the program living in the comfort of a luxury home in central Seoul and working at an office job where his popular mindfulness app is developed.
After the TV show—On & Off, which follows the lives of famous people in South Korea—was aired, Haemin saw backlash on social media for not living the ideals of simplicity that he teaches on his app and in his popular books.
“It is my fault for failing to fulfil my duties as a monk,” Haemin tweeted on Sunday. “As of today, I will put everything down and go back to a public seonwon [Buddhist education institution] to study Buddha’s words again and focus on my prayer.” (Korea JoongAng Daily)
The strongest criticism of Haemin came from Krocadile Choi, singer for the South Korean heavy metal band Victim Mentality, who uploaded two videos criticizing Haemin to his YouTube channel, which has more than 8.9 million subscribers.
“He is the greediest person that I’ve ever known,” said Choi. “His meditation app requires in-app purchases. He is making money by ripping off those who are emotionally hurt with sugarcoated words that are far from supportive. All the content in the app is very low quality.” (Korea JoongAng Daily)
Haemin’s mobile app, Kokkiri, was launched in August 2019 and quickly gained more than 330,000 subscribers. It features relaxing music, sounds from nature, and guided meditations.
Hyon Gak, an American monk who lived and studied in South Korea for a number of years before returning to the United States, said of Haemin that “He is merely an actor . . . a parasite who will end up in hell for selling Buddha’s teachings for profits.” (South China Morning Post)
However, Hyon Gak later changed his tone after a reported telephone call with Haemin, writing on his Facebook page that Haemin is “an unbelievably beautiful human being with great sincerity” and, “We are both passionately committed to the same thing: practicing Dharma.” (South China Morning Post)
Haemin, who is American and was born Ryan Joo, has degrees from both Harvard and Princeton, and had amassed more than a million followers on Twitter at one point, although his account—where he shared his apology and plans to return to monastic study—currently shows 975,000 followers.
Haemin came into the public spotlight after the publication of his book The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World (Penguin Books 2012), which has been translated into more than 35 languages, with sales topping 4 million copies. His second book, Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection (Penguin Books 2016), was a bestseller in South Korea and has been translated into several languages. Haemin’s editor at Penguin Books said in 2018: “[Haemin] has a foot in both cultures, studied in the US, speaks perfect English, is prominent on social media, and has a universal message. He was a media star monk!” (Publishers Weekly)
Chang Yong-jin, a journalist who has covered Buddhism in South Korea, suggested that Haemin was receiving greater scrutiny than other monks in the country because of his celebrity status and his teachings on simplicity.
“People thought Haemin would be different from them and they were all the more disappointed when he turned out to be no exception,” Chang remarked. (South China Morning Post)
Monk Haemin quits public activities after not-so-Buddhist behavior (Korea JoongAng Daily)
Popular South Korean Buddhist monk’s un-Zen-like lifestyle ends in karmic downfall (South China Morning Post)
The Media Star Monk’s Next Self-Care Tome (Publishers Weekly)