The Whole World is a Single Family:
the Human Race is a Single Body

Dialogue between Master Jinje and Theologian Paul Knitter

From Finding the True Self by Jinje, the 1st ed. (p.182)




Paul Knitter is the Paul Tillich Professor Emeritus of Theology, World Religions, and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in the New York City. A leading specialist in religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue, Professor Knitter is the author of many books, including Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian: A Personal Journey of Passing Over and Passing Back (Oneworld Publications, 2009). Professor Knitter is especially known for bringing different religious communities together to collaborate on promoting human and ecological well-being.

Professor Knitter visited South Korea in December, 2010, at the invitation of Master Jinje, in order to help foster reconciliation and dialogue between religions in Korea. During his visit on, Professor Knitter visited Master Jinje on New Year’s Eve at his monastery of Donghwa-sa, outside the city of Daegu. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion that followed.


Master Jinje: Since this room is blocked by a high mountain, all the buddhas and awakened ones cannot see me. Professor Knitter, how are you going to see me?

Prof. Knitter: How do I see you? Well, I see you as a representative and embodiment of a deep spiritual tradition that is even older than my own tradition of Christianity. And it is a tradition from which I know that many Christians, myself included, have learned much—the Buddhist tradition in general, but especially the teachings of Zen and Seon. And I see this as a great opportunity. In today’s world, it is crucial that religions work together and learn from each other.

Master Jinje: Oh, Prof. Knitter, you are indeed blessed! A long thread of the Buddha’s mind seal is in Korea, and a strand of that thread continues right here, in Donghwa Temple, on Palgong Mountain. This monastery preserves the favorable conditions where the supreme Dharma can be heard and practiced. Also, Donghwa Temple has a 1600-year-old history. It is a sacred place, where some 1450 relics of Shakyamuni Buddha are preserved and venerated.

Many Seon monks of resolute spirit are gathered here: there are thirty monks meditating in the Geumdang Seon Meditation Hall, and another 150 Seon practitioners from all walks of life meditating in the main temple. They sit in intensive meditation for fourteen hours every day. Inspired monks from all around Korea totally devote themselves in this way, and they spend all their energy—some without sleeping—in order to inherit the Buddha’s mind seal, which I myself hold. I deeply appreciate your visit to such a wonderful and sacred place of living practice.

Prof. Knitter: It is my honor. Sunim, one of the things that impressed me most as soon as I walked into this room was your serene and welcoming smile, the smile of enlightenment itself. I would certainly like to live the kind of contemplative life you describe going on here. If I practice as you have suggested and if I should come to an awakening about my true self, may I come back to check it with you?

Master Jinje: Of course, I will welcome you with open arms. Since you have taken such a rare step as this visit, I would like to ask you to continue to soak up Korean spiritual culture to the fullest, and please spread it to the entire world!

Prof. Knitter: Oh, we want very much to do that. But we will need some help.

Master Jinje: I will help you in any way I can.

Master Jinje and Professor Knitter then rose from their seats and walked out to the Main Buddha Hall, where a conference was being held on issues of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. There had been a heavy snowfall for several days; the temple precincts were thickly covered in white and the mountain peaks surrounding the temple were swathed in a gleaming white blanket. As the two of them passed under the ancient Bongseo pavilion, they both noticed three snowmen that visitors to the temple had made. Professor Knitter questioned Master Jinje.

Prof. Knitter: Sunim, are these snowmen enlightened?

Master Jinje: They were even before time immemorial. Ha!

Once inside the Main Buddha Hall, they took their seats, and the conversation continued.

Master Jinje: As you well know, Professor Knitter, we in Korea are in constant confrontation between North and South. In addition, the South Korean people are troubled by interreligious conflict. You, as a Christian, have come from far away, bringing your great concern about the religious situation in Korea. I truly thank you for your efforts. Just as you are doing, all Buddhists and Christians should work together to resolve conflicts and bring peace and happiness in the world. To guide people in the right way and to strive for world peace is the responsibility and mission of us all, but especially of religious leaders.

Prof. Knitter: Well, I can speak for the many Christians who are committed to working for peace, but we always say we must work for peace together with justice. Justice must go with peace. They need each other. What many are starting to realize—and what my wife Cathy and I realized during our work in the country of El Salvador during their civil war of the 1980s—is that we must have peace in our hearts before we can have peace in the world. That is a lesson we have learned especially well
from our Buddhist brothers and sisters. We are realizing that we must be active in our pursuit of peace, we must work at it, but we also must stop to pray, to be silent, to take care of our own spirituality. So action and contemplation, or action and meditation, must operate together.

I would like to ask you a question about what I understand to be a pluralistic dimension of all religions. My question is this: We Christians believe that God can make God’s truth known in many different ways. We Christians use the word “salvation”: to be saved. It is similar to the Buddhist word “enlightenment.” These terms seem to me to be so much alike! Now, we believe that God can save people through many different religions. In the same way, do you believe that enlightenment is possible in many religions, not just in Buddhism?

Master Jinje: All religions exist for a reason, and that reason is to save the human race. Religions should guide people up the mountain of truth. Every religion has its own characteristics, but they vary in their depths. In this troubled world, every religious leader should focus his energy simply on guiding people to the land of peace and bliss, regardless of the perceived differences in their various teachings and practices.

The Buddha teaches us that universal truth is found in our true self. Everyone is equally endowed with the true self. The problem is simply that people remain ignorant of their true selves, and do not harness that reality in their everyday lives.

Hence, I wish to propagate Seon practice around the world, to awaken people to the true self that exists in their minds right now. This path is at the heart of Asian culture. Anyone who attains their true self comes to understand that it has neither beginning nor end. The arising and passing away of everything in the universe occurs on the ground of that true self.

Prof. Knitter: We Christians say something similar. We teach that the truth of who we really are is within ourselves; we speak about the Holy Spirit being present within us. And perhaps in the same way as you say that you are trying to realize your buddhanature, many Christians would say that we are trying to realize our Christ-nature, which is eternally within us.

But I might need some help in order to attain this realization. I would need someone to teach me, to guide me. I need a teacher. Of course, I find a teacher in Jesus, and I find a teacher in the Buddha. But sometimes we also may need help from “outside” to realize what we are “inside.”

Master Jinje: The Buddha became enlightened to his true self. So the practice of Ganhwa Seon, or questioning meditation, which enables people today to realize their true selves, is really nothing other than the essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment. According to legend, right after Siddhartha Gautama realized his true self, he exclaimed, “In the heavens above and the earth below, I alone am venerated.” This is how he demonstrated to the world that the true self is in itself already complete and endowed with wisdom and equality. For this reason, I encourage you to take up the deep interior questioning of Ganhwa Seon so that you, too, may attain the same wisdom and equality as the Buddha himself.

Prof. Knitter: So, Sunim, we have spoken about what Christians need to learn from Buddhist practitioners like yourself. Clearly, one of the most important things that we Christians can learn from Buddhism is how to work within oneself in meditation. Now, with all due respect, in the spirit of this dialogue, I would like to ask if perhaps there is something that Buddhists might learn from Christians?

We Christians are beginning to realize that we need to learn from Buddhists how to be at peace, how to discover our true self through practice. But Christians also believe that it is important—it is an essential part of being “saved” or “enlightened,” in fact—to act in the world and in society, to get involved in the world. We believe that it is urgent to change this world in which there is so much suffering—suffering because of social injustice, unfair economic policies, or certain political policies. This need to engage in social and political action is a part of the work of enlightenment, is it not? Would you agree with such a claim?

Master Jinje: All Buddhists certainly admire the Protestant and Catholic practice of serving and loving your fellow man. But Buddhists take self- perfection as the primary matter. When you realize self-perfection, you will automatically act as a Buddha or an enlightened being. You can lead people to a land of peace and comfort. When you are not doing the inner work of becoming awakened fully to your true self, however, you are not really able to guide people.

For this reason, as a Seon monk, I strive to guide people to find their true self by means of deep interior questioning. When you go up the hill of truth, you will be endowed with the 84,000 Dharma teachings. The sole mission of an enlightened master is to deliver everyone to the other shore of wisdom and nirvana. Only then will you attain the point the Buddha made when he said, “In the heavens above and the earth below, I alone am venerated.” This insight was not something gained from a book or a tradition. The Buddha attained this view through arduous self-perfection, from his own meditation practice that looked deeply into the inner world of his mind. One taste of Korean Seon practice is enough to enable you to understand what he meant by saying, “I alone am venerated.”

Prof. Knitter: I believe you. I know that what you say is true. But help me because I have a problem in one regard—you said that one must first realize one’s true self before one goes out to act in the world for the benefit of others. You emphasize that I have to achieve nirvana in order to do this work of helping, saving, liberating. And yet, while I am sitting, doing my meditation, children are starving and people are being tortured. There is incredible racial injustice in so many parts of the world. And so, as I sit, trying to discover my true self, I cannot help but hear the cries of these suffering people. Do I really have to master this practice first before I can act? How long do I have to wait for there to be some fruit?

Master Jinje: The Buddhist teachings include the two aspects of Samantabhadra’s “activity” and Manjusri’s “wisdom.” There is the fully altruistic way of practice, as inspired by Samantabhadra, where one first enacts one’s aspiration to deliver all beings into liberation before going on to attain one’s own enlightenment. This is a very important strain of Buddhist belief. On the other hand, there is the equally valid path of holding off on such altruistic activities, and exerting oneself instead to become completely endowed with the correct eye of truth, as inspired by Manjusri’s wisdom. Such an attainment would not just be “private,” or “personal”; it would qualify one to engage in spiritual leadership, to guide people to liberation. So, in Buddhism, these two paths exist side by side and do not exclude each other.

Prof. Knitter: So it would be correct, then, to state that we have to practice, but, at the same time, we have to act in the world; both tracks are necessary. Sunim, is it correct, then, to characterize your view as saying that although we have both to engage others and to practice, practice is more important?

Master Jinje: In the Buddhist tradition, endowing oneself with the correct eye of truth comes first. One must strive to have clear eyes first, for only then can you guide people to any kind of real liberation. If you are blind, how can you guide people to a land of peace? In that sense, we teach practitioners to “see their true natures.” Since the true self is the whole point of this teaching, seeing directly into your true self enables you to see directly into the state of this suffering world.

In Korea, most large monasteries have established Seon meditation halls, where intrepid practitioners work hard, through intensive meditation, to awaken their correct Dharma eye. Only in this way can we lead people to a land of bliss.

Now, spiritual seekers in every Seon meditation hall throughout Korea focus their efforts on “see your true nature and become a buddha.” In order for them to engage in this long and lonely practice, many supporting personnel—such as abbots and temple directors—are constantly engaged in altruistic activities that support the community of meditating monks. Thus, in Korea, the two wheels of wisdom and action run very well together.

If you look at history, you will see that Buddhists never created conflicts or initiated wars for the sake of their religious beliefs. This fact alone should be proof enough that when people engage in meditation, and through their own efforts reach the home of their mind-nature, the earth becomes a single family. The material and the immaterial are revealed to be nondual and at one with you and me. Since you and I are not two, how then could there be any strife and animosity?

Prof. Knitter: Thank you for this excellent teaching! I have two follow- up questions. One is a personal one for you, Sunim, and the other one is for me. The personal question is this: As a Christian, I would like to know a little more about your own path of practice. How did you, in your own life, come to practice the way you do? Please tell me how you came to the experience of enlightenment, so that perhaps I can learn from you, from your own path, and from your own personal experience.

Master Jinje: I joined the Buddhist monastic order when I was twenty years old. After I wrestled with the deep interior questioning on the hwadu for some three or four years, all of sudden I thought that I had reached the truth. I went to see the great Seon Master Hyanggok, so he could examine whether my insight was complete or partial. In those days, Master Hyanggok was a great leader and teacher whose own spiritual insights had been sanctioned and who had thus inherited the main lineage of Korean Seon. Entering his room, I prostrated to him three times, and said, “I’ve come to have my view examined.”

Without even a perfunctory greeting, Master Hyanggok shouted, “If you speak, I will hit you thirty times with my staff; if you stay silent, I will hit you thirty times with my staff! What do you do?”

I was at a total loss for words! He thundered back, “So you can’t even answer this one simple question! How dare you come here, thinking you know something!”

He then questioned me about a famous story, well known in Seon circles: the story of Nanquan’s cat.

A long time ago in China, some seven hundred monks practiced Seon meditation in the temple of Seon Master Nanquan. The monastery had a cat that was cared for by the monks of both residential wings of the monastery. The monks of the eastern hall claimed the cat as their favorite pet, while the monks of the western hall claimed the cat as theirs. There were sometime disagreements over the proper care and feeding of the temple cat. So, one day, a huge dispute broke out in the temple.

Learning of this dispute, Master Nanquan ordered his attendant to strike the temple bell, calling all of the temple residents together. All seven hundred monks dropped what they were doing and gathered in the main Dharma Hall. The master ascended the Dharma seat and ordered his attendant: “Bring me the cat and a knife.”

Lifting the cat with one hand, and holding the knife with the other, Nanquan exclaimed to the assembly, “All you Seon practitioners have been arguing over a cat. You both claim this cat as your own. Monks of the eastern and western halls, give me one word to save this cat. If you cannot, I will cut the cat in half!”

Seeing this, a great hue and cry went up from the assembly. Some monks shouted, “It’s our cat!” Other monks shouted, “It’s our cat!” All of them remained stuck in their petty dispute. Since none of them could give a satisfactory answer, Master Nanquan sliced the cat in two and returned to his room.

Some hours later, Nanquan’s most accomplished student, Zhaozhou, returned to the temple after finishing some business in the market. Master Nanquan related to him the happenings of the day. “Today I taught the assembly of monks about this cat,” Master Nanquan said. “If you had been there, what would you have done to save it?”

Hearing this, Zhaozhou immediately placed his pair of grass sandals on top of his head and left the room. Nanquan sighed and said, “Ah, Zhaozhou, if only you had been in the assembly we could have saved that cat.”

This seemingly inscrutable action on Zhaozhou’s part suggests that simply placing a pair of grass sandals on one’s head might be an appropriate solution for this difficult question of life and death. So, Master Hyanggok asked me, “Tell me why Zhaozhou placed a pair of grass sandals on his head and went away?”

I was at a total loss for words. Master Hyanggok threw me out of his room, saying: “You stupid monk! How come you trumpet forth about realizing something when you can’t even understand this question?”

From that day on, I practiced Seon meditation for two years at various Seon halls. I strove diligently to prepare my mind to meet a clear- eyed master so that my practice would continue in the right direction. Wandering here and there like clouds and water, I lived out of my monk’s backpack from retreat season to retreat season.

One day, when I was 26 years old, I went to see Master Hyanggok again. I entreated him, “Master, give me a hwadu.”

“How can you get through this great barrier, which is so difficult and demanding?” he shot back.

I promised him, “I will devote my whole body and mind to this practice.”

Sensing the sincerity of my statement, Master Hyanggok gave me a hwadu. Bowing in eternal gratitude for his intervention and assistance in my study of the self, I said, “I will not pick up my backpack again to travel until I have broken through this hwadu.”

I grappled with this hwadu for about two years and five months, struggling with all my heart. Every single day during that period, I woke up at 3 a.m., rolled up my bedding, and went straight to the Buddha Hall for the morning service. It was always dark outside at that time of night and the monastery had no exterior lighting. One morning, on the way to services, I tripped over a paving stone. The moment I got up, the hwadu completely shattered.

In those days, the hwadu that I was using was the case of Xiangyan climbing a tree. Here is the story behind this hwadu:

Someone is dangling by his mouth from a tall tree. His hands are tied behind his back and there’s nothing beneath his feet. Someone appears under the tree and asks him, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”

If you keep your mouth clenched and refuse to answer, you will forsake the questioner. If you open your mouth to answer, you will fall to your death. What do you do?”

After tripping over that paving stone, I had broken through the barrier of the hwadu. I composed a verse of enlightenment and presented it to Master Hyanggok:

How many people have known this Seon staff?
None of the sages of past, present, or future recognize it.
This Seon staff transforms into a golden dragon
Whose responses are limitless and occur entirely at will.

Master Hyanggok read the poem; he did not comment on the first two lines at all. But taking up the next two lines, he threw a question at me like a thunderbolt: “When the dragon meets a garuda, what will you do?”

In Asian culture, a garuda is a mythical bird that beats the sea with its wings when it’s hungry, splitting sea water ten miles away; it then dives into the deep sea and snatches the dragons that are under the sea to eat. Master Hyanggok was asking me how I would react if I came across this fearsome bird.

So I responded, “I will bend my body at the chest, and move backward three steps.”

Suddenly, Master Hyanggok roared back, “Ah, right you are! Correct!”

Having solved this gongan case, I was free to give Dharma talks and teach. Nothing hindered me in practice or teaching. And yet there was still one gongan I could not break through:

Master Mazu was close to death. His attendant monk asked after the venerable master’s health every morning: “Master, did you sleep well last night?” Mazu would answer, “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.”

After relating this story to me one day, Master Hyanggok asked, “What did Master Mazu mean when he said ‘Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha’?”

I was at a total loss for words. For some five years, I devoted all my energy to questioning this hwadu.

I had spent nine years practicing Seon meditation at Myogwaneum Temple. Because that monastery is located in the extreme southern part of the Korean peninsula, it seldom snows. But one morning, during the first month of the year according to the lunar calendar, I saw snow blanketing the hills and the seashore surrounding the temple. While walking around a corner of a building, I saw a big bucket filled utterly to the brim with water. No snow had accumulated in the bucket because snowflakes melt in water. At that very instant the hwadu shattered.

I broke through this tough hwadu only after a five-year-long effort. I then composed another enlightenment verse and presented it directly to Master Hyanggok:

One strike of this staff knocks Vairocana over his head;
One thunderous shout wipes away ten million cases.
In this small thatched hut, I stretch out my legs.
A fresh breeze over the ocean is eternally renewed.

Reading this poem, Master Hyanggok praised me, saying, “The deepest meanings of the Sixth Patriarch, Master Mazu, and even Linji’s family tradition sing out from these lines!”

In the year of the Fire Goat (1967), Master Hyanggok ascended the high Dharma seat and prepared to give a Dharma talk in the Main Buddha Hall of Myogwaneum Temple. It was the closing ceremony for the ninety- day summer intensive retreat. I rose before the assembly, prostrated three times, and said: “Master, I do not want to ask about something the Buddha and patriarchs know. Would you please tell me instead what the Buddha and patriarchs don’t know?”

Master Hyanggok replied, “Nine times nine is eighty-one.”

“That is what the Buddha and patriarchs know.”

“Six times six is thirty-six.”

Upon hearing this, I bowed and departed, without saying whether it was right or wrong. Master Hyanggok continued, “I have completed today’s Dharma talk,” and promptly descended from the high Dharma seat.

The next day, putting on formal robes, I went to the master’s room and asked again, “I do not ask about the Buddha eye or the correct Dharma eye. But what is the correct Dharma eye of this patch-robed monk?”

Master Hyanggok replied, “An old Buddhist nun congenitally performs woman’s work.”

“Today, I saw you in person for the first time,” I replied. “For the last nine years, we stayed together and got along in every action. But today, I peeped into your enlightened secret. Ah-ha—so this is what it means!”

Master Hyanggok asked back, “And where did you see me?”

I shouted, “Gwan!

With this answer, he sanctioned my endowment of an eye of truth and bestowed on me the certificate of authorization he had inherited from the Buddha:

Bestowed to Patriarch Jinje Boepwon:
The great live word of the buddhas and patriarchs
Can be neither transmitted nor received.
Today I entrust this live word to you,
Whether you hold it or release it is entirely up to you.

This is the way of transmission in Korean Ganhwa Seon; this is how the essence of Korean Seon is expressed and confirmed. It is a tradition descended from the Buddha until now.

Prof. Knitter: Well, that kind of prepares me for my second question, which concerns the Dharma name you gave me this morning. My Dharma name is “True Self” (Jin-a), which also serves as my hwadu. I must say that I was very moved when you gave me this name. The notion of true self is also found in the Christian scriptures, in the Bible. We are asked to realize and discover our true selves. But it is also one of the things that I feel, as a Christian, we can learn from your tradition. Is hwadu the same as koan practice? You told me that I should keep this question, “What was I before my parents conceived me?” You told me I should keep a ball of doubt and keep asking the question: “Who am I?” “What is my true self?”

So you are telling me just to keep practicing, to keep this question in mind when I am walking, when I am sleeping, and when I am talking— not to lose contact with it during any activity. But should I just wait for enlightenment, then? My question is this (and this may be a typically Christian question): Can I be sure that there will finally be that moment when enlightenment occurs? Can I trust that this will happen before I die?

Master Jinje: The practice of seeing into your true nature and realizing enlightenment is possible anytime and anywhere. You should simply raise the question, “What is my true self from before I was born?” Just continue this questioning, day and night, with total devotion and purposefulness, like the mind of a parent yearning to see again his long-lost only son. Then, if you practice in this way, you won’t be bothered by what you see and what you hear; you won’t have any sense of time passing or of where you are. Anyone, regardless of gender or age, can reach this level. The key to awakening is how long and steady the single-mindedness of the hwadu questioning continues. If the earnest questioning continues on without interruption, you might think that just a moment has passed, but in fact days or months may have already elapsed. When you arrive at this state, you may unexpectedly see or hear something that causes the hwadu to shatter. In that instant, you will have reached the status of a Buddha right where you are standing, without moving a single step. This process can be completed only under the guidance of a clear-eyed enlightened master. You cannot succeed on your own.

Prof. Knitter: So, the Buddha emphasizes the need to realize your true self and then to act. And Jesus is talking about the need to involve yourself for the sake of justice, for the sake of stopping the sufferings of others caused by oppressive political structures. Both approaches are necessary, and I think they both can speak to each other.

Master Jinje: Religions should all aim to guide people to a land of peace and bliss, shouldn't they? Each religion has its own virtue. In the future, all religious leaders should strive to find common ground in order to save the world.