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Dr. Paul F. Knitter

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A Buddhist Example of Interfaith Dialogue

Posted: 09/15/11 11:44 AM ET

Earlier this year, my wife Cathy and I spent eight days being gently rushed around the South Korean peninsula as part of a project aimed at promoting a more fruitful dialogue between Buddhists and Christians. The seed of this idea was planted by my Korean doctoral student, Kyeongil Jung. But because of unexpected political and religious tensions, the seed blossomed into unexpected lessons of compassion in the wake of this unrest: earlier this year, fundamentalist Korean Christians over the course of several months, invaded and desecrated Buddhist temples in Seoul and Daegu, in an effort to exorcize the "demonic powers" there and proclaim the eventual triumph of Christianity.

But what is my purpose in choosing now to share my Korean experience with the reader? As another unexpected result of my trip, on September 15, you too, will have a privilege that I had while in South Korea: to "see in action" the compassion of Korea's most renowned Seon (Zen) Master and dharma descendant of Buddha, when he comes to the US for the first, and perhaps only, time.

So there I was, in the midst of this Christian violence, a septuagenarian Christian scholar from New York arrives in Korea to talk about the value and need of Buddhist-Christian dialogue and to speak about my recent book "Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian." To talk about dialogue and academia 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.

The Korean media reacted with what seemed to me a journalistic feeding frenzy. We were swarmed by interview teams and cameras 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, in light of the recent violence.

There were formal panel and community discussions with monks at leading temples in Seoul, Daegu, and Busan; and many more casual, open and sometimes intense conversations, over meals. Then there was what became the centerpiece of my experience: one-on-one dialogues with Korea's greatest living Seon (Zen) Master. Enlightened Seon Master Jinje, a direct dharma descendant of the Buddha, is the pre-emininant teacher of Ganhwa Seon, the distinctive Korean questioning-style of Zen meditation practice handed down from the Buddha.

The core of our conversations first crystallized for me at a packed Temple event. I was asked to follow the official Dharma Talk of this Buddhist Seon Master and address packed audiences of Buddhist laypeople. One of these first 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!

I assured them that many, many Christians disagreed with what these extremist Christians had done. I asked them to forgive and have compassion on them. I was moved, almost to tears, when they responded with affirming bows and applause.

Another moment crystallized for me at HaeunJeongsa Temple, which Master Jinje founded in 1971 in the mountainside above the bustling city of Busan, to provide a respite to both monks and the laypeople who live below. The abbot of this Temple asked my wife Cathy, who teaches a form of Tibetan meditation that is very different from Korean Seon practice, to lead the monks and an assembly of about 50 laypeople who were there for a 30-day retreat. They wanted to show their hospitality -- and their openness to learn.

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 outbursts of hatred shown by some of their Christian citizens -- I am extremely happy to do so.

I find myself writing this with a sense of re-affirmed openness and hope. As a result of my trip, Master Jinje will travel to the west for the very first time and share his vision of inner peace and global understanding at the historic Riverside Church in New York City on September 15, to an expected audience of 2000. His focus is the mind, which he calls "the flower of peace" and says, "Ganhwa Seon is the way of meditation practice to reach the home of heart: the mind....마음의 고향에 이르는 수행법." "By reaching the home of the heart, the flower of peace can blossom."

With the passing of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I know New Yorkers especially will welcome his words for a compassionate, peaceful world. Compassion is something Master Jinje possesses, even for those who seek to destroy. He is a great teacher not only in Korea, but a great teacher for us all. [For more information: www.jinje.us]