Buddhist monks' riot injures 40

IT SOUNDS like a scene from a Bruce Lee film, or perhaps one of the wackier Monty Python episodes: rival gangs of martial arts monks beating up one another, throwing one another down the stairs and bombarding one another with potted plants, stones, petrol bombs and fire extinguishers. But this was the scene yesterday in Seoul, the South Korean capital, after 12 hours' fighting between members of the country's biggest Buddhist sect.

By the time it had died down at dawn, 40 people had been injured, some seriously, during the worst battle yet in a civil war in the Chogye Temple.

Late on Monday 2,000 monks of the Chogye sect gathered from all over the country to seize control of their administrative headquarters from 800 dissidents who occupied it three weeks ago.

Several thousand riot police looked on as the attackers turned over a lorry and used a bulldozer to clear a barricade of logs in front of the building. Shielding themselves with panels of wood, the attackers reached the first floor, but were beaten back by a rain of stones, petrol bombs, hoses and fire extinguishers. Elderly members of the temple's congregation attempting to separate and pacify the two sides came to blows with the monks, who shouted at them to go home.

The violence began last month after the sect's "executive chief", the Venerable Song Wol Ju, announced his intention to stand for re-election to the position. His opponents objected that this was against the rules: according to the sect's constitution, an incumbent abbot is not allowed to serve more than two terms, and the Venerable Song was proposing to stand for a third time. But his supporters say his first term, a six-month stint in the 1980s, did not count - after falling out with South Korea's then military rulers, he fled the country, cutting short his tenure. In any case, the rule about a third term was passed only in 1994, after he had been elected for the second time.

On 11 November, the night before the election, a dissident group, the "Committee for Purification", stormed the headquarters, ejecting the Songist forces. The election was cancelled and the chief monk said he had changed his mind about standing.

But the occupation has continued, despite an initial attempt to retake the temple a fortnight ago. "Those religious figures who are supposed to set good spiritual examples for ordinary people are only showing their vulgar humanity," wrote the Korea Times under the headline "Shame on Buddhist Monks!". "One cannot help but shake one's head in dismay on seeing the violence."

But there is a lot at stake in the leadership of the Chogye sect, founded on principles of meditation and contemplation 1,000 years ago during Korea's Koryo period.

As head of the order the chief monk commands a budget of $10m (pounds 6.2m) a year; 1,700 appointments are his to make. The local monastic chiefs he chooses manage substantial properties owned by the order

"The rival monks are proving themselves to be the stereotypical greedy monks," the Korea Times said. "As [one] saying puts it, `They are indifferent to the prayers to Buddha. They are only interested in the rice offered to Buddha'."

The dispute is bringing relief to a small corner of the economy, ravaged by the Asian currency crisis. Hotels and restaurants near the temple are enjoying a boom with the patronage of the angry monks and hundreds of "bodyguards" hired to do their dirty work.