SEOUL (Reuters) - Six leaders from South Korea's biggest Buddhist order have quit after secret video footage showed some supposedly serene monks raising hell, playing high-stakes poker, drinking and smoking.
The scandal erupted just days before Koreans observe a national holiday to celebrate the birth of Buddha, the holiest day of the religion's calendar.
The head of the Jogye order, which has some 10 million followers, or about a fifth of the population, made a public apology on Friday, vowing "self-repentance".
South Korean TV networks aired shots of monks playing poker, some smoking and drinking, after gathering at a luxury lakeside hotel in late April for a fellow monk's memorial service.
"The stakes for 13 hours of gambling were more than 1 billion won ($875,300)," Seongho, a senior monk who uses one name, told Reuters on Friday.
He said he had reported the incident to prosecutors.
Gambling outside of licensed casinos and horse racing tracks is illegal in South Korea and frowned upon by religious leaders.
"Basically, Buddhist rules say don't steal. Look at what they did, they abused money from Buddhists for gambling," Seongho said.
The behavior of the supposedly abstemious monks has led to Korean media speculation of a power split within the order.
Seongho said he had obtained a thumb drive that contains a video clip from a camera hidden in the hotel. He would not say who his source was because of recent threats made against him.
The wayward monks appear to have upset many in Korea.
"A group of monks who gamble, drink and smoke in a hotel room is tainted in the eyes of all people in the nation," civic group Buddhist Solidarity for Reform said in a statement.
The scandal also excited attention on Twitter, with some posts calling for reforms within the sect.
" ...it can be good news. Please, Jogye Order, cut out the rotten part before it gets worse and take this opportunity to be reborn," one Twitter post said.
($1= 1142.4500 Korean won)
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Paul Tait and Elaine Lies)