As the Parliament of the World's Religions approaches, I reflect on Wŏn Buddhism's goal of fostering unity among the world's religious and spiritual communities. Sotaesan's view on religious pluralism was expressed as follows:
The fundamentals of all world religions are also essentially (non-dual), but as different religions have been long established with different systems and expedients, there have been many incidents of failure to achieve harmony and harmony. dialogue between these religious groups. All this is due to ignorance of the fundamental principles that underlie all religions and their sects. How could this be the original intention of all Buddhas and sages?
(Kim 2016, 18)
According to Sot'aesan, the main cause of religious discord is ignorance of the non-duality of these fundamental principles – principles that are not human creations but are expressed through religion. Stripped of religion, these principles are ineffable and beyond words and speeches. Historically, charismatic religious leaders accessed the fundamental principle that underlies all things through intuitive insight and then expressed that personal experience through language or rituals appropriate to their time and place. As history shows, however, religions evolved into different forms, split into factions, and eventually distorted the original intent of their founders. In many cases, religious teachings play a political role and are used by one school to gain legitimacy over another. And so, what began as an intention to convey an experience of this fundamental principle turned into shrill voices arguing over legitimacy and authenticity.
Sot'aesan named this fundamental principle Il-Wŏn (Unitary Circle) and explained that Il-Wŏn is the original of the myriad things in Heaven and Earth and the realm of samadhi beyond all words and speeches. Confucianism calls it the Great Ultimate (you aegŭk) or ultimate non-being (muguk), Taoism calls it nature or the path (towards), Buddhism calls it pure Dharmakaya Buddha. In principle, however, all these expressions are different for the same thing.
Although he limits his explanation to three Eastern religious traditions, we can assume that Sot'aesan encompasses Western traditions in his explanation, especially in the following conversation he had with an elder of a Protestant church:
The Master Founder said, “If a Christian becomes a disciple who truly knows Jesus, he will also come to understand what I am doing; and, if anyone becomes a disciple who truly understands me, he will come to understand what Jesus has accomplished. Consequently, the ignorant maintain gaps between this and that religion and thus think of themselves as apostates, thus becoming hostile to other religions. However, those with a real understanding know that these religions have different names simply according to time and place, and come to regard them all as belonging to one household. Thus, you must use your own discretion whether you stay or leave. Songgwang stood up, bowed, and swore to become his disciple again. The Master Founder nodded and said, “Even after becoming my disciple, you will only be a true disciple of mine when your reverence for God grows stronger.
(Kim 2016, 463)
Sot'aesan was convinced that all great religious teachers had shared the same original intention. This intention is what the Chinese thinker Confucius (551-479 BCE) expressed as Shu (reciprocity), or what is widely known as the ethical golden rule, which states, in its positive form, "Always treat others as you would like to be treated yourself". According to Sot'aesan, if one understands the original intention of a sage, then the intention of all other sages becomes clear, so there is no reason to leave one religion to convert to another. Additionally, Sot'aesan believed that pluralism was not relativism, but was about respecting the commitments of others and encouraging them to investigate the original intent of the founder of their own religion. As Bokin Kim explains, when Sot'aesan encountered other religious traditions, his goal was not to proselytize but to "embrace and integrate other teachings through dialogues." (Kim, 90) Sot'aesan used the term "single household" to indicate that different names simply occur due to differences in time and place.
The question remains: how to truly understand the intention of the sage?
Sot'aesan expressed his views on this in a conversation with a Christian minister:
The Christian minister said, “I have come to hear your good warnings about Dharma.
The Master Founder said, “So, have you been able to go beyond the limits of Christianity and see the vast heaven and earth?
The minister asked, “Where is this vast sky and this earth?
The Master Founder said, “You will find it once you open your mind and take a broad perspective. A person who does not adopt a broad outlook is always preoccupied with his own affairs, and familiarizing himself only with his own traditions, criticizes the affairs of others and rejects their traditions. In this way, each person cannot exceed their own norms and conventions, and will eventually fall into one-sidedness, producing gaps that become like mountains of silver and ramparts of iron. This is the reason for all the antagonisms and conflicts between countries, churches and individuals. Why should you separate the great house, which is originally perfect, and divide the great dharma, which is infinite, into pieces? We must close this gap now and interconnect all homes to develop a new full and energetic life. Then there will be nothing in this world that should be thrown away.
(Kim 2016, 334)
Sot'aesan told the Christian minister that to understand the sage's intention, you must "open your mind and take a broad perspective." By “open your mind,” he was referring to letting go of dualistic ways of thinking.
One of the reasons Sot'aesan was fascinated by Śākyamuni Buddha, and the Diamond Sutra in particular, is that they emphasize the doctrine of no-self and śūnyatā (empty). He expressed the experience of no-self in the following passage:
Once enlightened to the truth of this Wŏn-Sang (Circle Image), we shall know that the triple worlds in the ten directions are our own property; that all things in the universe are non-dual despite their different names; that this is the nature of all Buddhas, enlightened masters, ordinary humans and sentient beings; that the principle of birth, old age, sickness and death operate like spring, summer, autumn and winter; that the principle of retribution and cause and effect response operate as the alternating predominance of yin and yang; and that it is perfect and complete, totally impartial and disinterested.
(Kim 2016, 22)
The “non-duality of diversity” means engaging with religion in a way that takes into consideration our common humanity. Sot'aesan held that the true goal of religion is to see that the Absolute does not reside somewhere far away, but the Absolute (nature) already resides in the relative (all people and things) . In Wŏn Buddhist lexicon, this is expressed as “Everywhere an image of Buddha; each act an offering of Buddha. Sot'aesan said, "Regardless of time or place, we should never neglect to maintain a respectful mindset and pious attitude that we have towards the Venerable Buddha. We should also strive to make Buddha offerings directly to the myriads of things themselves and thereby create merit and happiness in a practical way. (Kim 2016, 128)
The same rule applies in the case of religious dialogue. Coming to the table to participate in a discussion with other religions requires a double commitment: to discern the differences between the traditions and to recognize that in general, all voices, no matter how strident, emanate from a common humanity. Such a commitment requires magnanimity, righteousness and research. The individual must first shine the light inward before pointing the finger outward.
Sot'aesan believed that religious leaders played a central role in helping people realize the non-duality of the diversity of all things. In the coming era, advocating for religious dialogue on the basis of “societal duty” will not be enough to convince people of the necessity and benefits of engaging in interfaith discussion. Sot'aesan believed that people had to awaken to the truth of non-duality, or no-self and act from that experience, otherwise it would be a mere obligation. Once we are certain that diversity is the other side of interdependence, social cohesion and dialogue between religious traditions become a responsibility and not a choice.