New Year Talk
For the past eight days, my wife Cathy and I have been rushing – or better, have been gently rushed – around the peninsula of South Korea as part of a project aimed at promoting a more fruitful dialogue between Buddhists and Christians. The seed of this venture was planted, and then nurtured, by my Korean doctoral student, Mr. Kyongil Jung. But because of unexpected political and religious developments, the seed produced a sprawling tree, rather than just a healthy bush.
The unexpected circumstances had to do with fundamentalist Korean Christians who over recent months have invaded Buddhist temples in Seoul and Daegu in an effort to exorcize the “demonic powers” there and proclaim the eventual triumph of Christianity.
So in the midst of this turmoil, a septuagenarian Christian scholar from New York arrives to talk about the value and need of Buddhist-Christian dialogue and to speak about his recent book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. To talk about dialogue in the midst of such conflict had the semblance of urging relaxation in the midst of an earthquake. Still quaking, the Chogye Order of Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhists held to their invitation and asked this foreign Christian to come and talk.
Dialogue with Zen Master Jinjesunim
The media reacted with what seemed to me a journalistic feeding frenzy. With their cameras and recorders and interview-teams, they were swarming around almost constantly, eager to determine not only what I, the Christian theologian and foreigner, had to say, but also, and especially, what the Buddhist monks and laypersons were asking and how they were responding.
There were one-on-one dialogues with Seon Master Jinje-sunim, the most respected Buddhist teacher in Korea. There were panel and community discussions with monks at the temples of Donghwa-sah (in Daegu), Haewoonjung-sah (in Pusan), and Gilsang-sah (Seoul) and many casual, but sometimes intense, conversations over meals.
The core of our conversations crystallized, I believe, in three different events. On two different New Year’s celebrations (Jan 1 and 4), I was asked to follow the official Dharma talk of Jinje-sunim and address packed audiences of Buddhist lay people. One of these talks took place at the very spot where Christians had invaded and desecrated. So here was the Buddhist community responding to Christian hatred by inviting a Christian theologian and practitioner to speak to them – to enter into a dialogue with them!
And I was moved, almost to tears, when, after I assured them that many, many Christians disagreed with what these extremist Christians had done, and after I asked them to forgive and have compassion on these Christians – they responded with affirming bows and applause.
The other crystallized moment came when the abbot of Haewoonjung-sa asked Cathy to lead the monks and an assembly of about 50 laypeople, who were there for their 30 day winter retreat, in meditation! They knew that she practices and teaches a form of Tibetan meditation that is quite different from their Zen practice. Still, they wanted to show their hospitality and their openness to learn.
With Executive Chief of the Korean Buddhist Chogye Order
The final event of our line up of dialogical encounters came on our last evening in Seoul, at the recently built and beautiful International Seon Center. There was a panel of four Buddhist and four Christian teachers/scholars who responded to my questions about with how to deal with Christian fanaticism and, more importantly, how to promote greater interreligious dialogue and conversation. It was a fervent, forthright, and sometimes tense conversation. But there was agreement on the basics: the need for broader education and understanding of one’s religious neighbors, and the urgency and opportunity to bring Buddhists and Christians together to address these conflicts and to show that religion can be a greater source of peace than of violence.
The conversation at the Seon Center went on for almost three hours, with some 300 people in the audience, all of us sitting cross legged! (I managed the sitting part, but then could not get up afterwards!).
As I realized over the course of these few but intense days, the Korean Buddhists of the Chogye Order had invited me not only to learn more about Christianity but also to ask that I help make their teachings better known in the United States. Having witnessed the seriousness of their practice, having been moved by the openness and compassion with which they reacted to the hatred of some of their fellow Christian citizens – I am extremely happy to do so.