A Buddhist monk from the mountains of South Korea asked a crowd of 2,000 to self-reflect and answer the question, “What is your true self before your parents gave birth to you?” at Riverside Church on Thursday evening.
In his first trip to the United States, Zen Master Jinje delivered a Dharma talk on the philosophy of Ganhwa Seon to a packed congregation in the church’s nave.
Ganhwa Seon is the practice of constantly asking oneself a “hwadu,” or topic of inquiry, throughout the tedium of daily life. Jinje contemplated a hwadu for 13 years before achieving enlightenment.
Sitting cross-legged atop an ornate platform in gray monastic robes and a golden sash, Jinje emphasized “the spiritual culture of Asia as one step in fostering world peace.”
The first step to enlightenment is sitting correctly, Jinje said to the crowd assembled at the interdenominational church on 120th Street and Claremont Ave. Then, sitting still, one needs to “focus on questioning your hwadu without ever forgetting it.” After a long period of contemplation, the hwadu will “unexpectedly shatter” and a “dazzling wisdom” will appear before one’s eyes.
“You will become one body with the human race. You will become one house with all sentient beings,” he said.
The shattering of the hwadu allows the enlightened to become a “driving force of world peace,” he said. “This is true peace that comes from complete impartiality.”
Jinje, the 79th spiritual heir of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of the Korean Zen faith, urged the audience to think about who they were before their corporeal existence. In a video introducing Jinje, his mother was said to have dreamed that she “caught the sun in her skirt when he was conceived.”
Jinje’s hwadu is a thought-provoking one, said Robert Buswell, a UCLA professor who lived as a Buddhist monk in South Korea for five years. “What constitutes ourselves if we are not our physical bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences?” he asked.
The two-hour ceremony, presented in English and Korean, was a traditional Buddhist service that included drumming, chanting, incantations, and offerings to the Three Treasures of Buddhism.
“I thought it was a great cultural integration between the East and the West,” said Dong Suh, 72. The Manhattan businessman said he was most captivated with the Zen Master’s idea that “when you are enlightened, everything is peaceful and bright and you do not fear your death.”
Inwood resident Nancy Rakozy, 59, said she came to the ceremony “out of curiosity and respect for Buddhism.” Reading about Buddhism has inspired her to reflect on her life in a way that no other religious experience had allowed her.
“My respect comes out of the fact that they value suffering,” she said. “It is a transforming agent.”
Rachelle Brudt, 60, a regular churchgoer at Riverside, said she values the church’s interfaith event programming and the opportunity to learn from other religions.
“He was there. He filled the whole space,” she said of Jinje. “If people can find that stillness in themselves, we can have peace.”