Conversations with my friend Gi Kwang, Chief Buddhist Monk of Korea

For my family and friends, I feel the need to preserve the history of my relationship with a man who represented a completely different view of spirituality than I have. In spite of this, I grew to love and respect him. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago, and I still miss him. As I reflect on our time together, it’s clear that I learned a good deal about Buddhism. But because his questions were so different from anything I had ever heard, I also learned much more about my own faith. Early in our relationship, we gave each other permission to ask any question about our respective faiths, but without the intent to convert one another. His questions were always challenging, and he said mine were as well. They caused me to rely on the Holy Spirit at a new level, and almost every time I answered his questions with something I had never thought about. It would be impossible to report the hours of dialogue we had, so this will be a series of mostly unconnected anecdotes with personal confidential information omitted.

After several years of developing relationships in South Korea, I had met a few pastors and church leaders, but the majority of my friends were businessmen or politicians. They represented the entire spectrum of religious persuasions. They included people from every major Christian denomination, a number of secularists plus numerous practicing and non-practicing Buddhists. Since so many were Buddhist, and I knew so little about Buddhism, I had some catching up to do. I read some books but mostly let the men I met with educate me about what they believed. I had some very profound discussions with CEO’s and legislators who were practicing Buddhists. They told me about the Eightfold Path, which is the Middle Path, consisting of Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Understanding, and Right Thoughts. The Middle Path is a righteous way of life for self-purification, and it depends on strict self-discipline.

Many of the men I meet with are very connected, and by that, I mean they seem to know everyone. One day I said to one of them that I would like to meet what I called at that time “The Buddhist Pope.” He explained to me that the person I was speaking about Gi Kwang Sunim, the Chief Buddhist Monk of Korea. Of course, he knew him, and even though this man was a Christian, he arranged an introduction. The rest of this paper will be a series of exchanges between us during our 12-year friendship. Except for the first or second meetings, I’m not certain about the chronological sequence of the conversations, but their content is quite fresh in my mind.

Our very first encounter was in the Chief Monk’s office, which is a five-story glass and stone building with two or three levels of parking underneath the building. It’s an office building with a temple on the middle floors. It was modestly furnished. His desk was similar to a coffee table, and he sat on the floor. He did have chairs for guests, but mostly I sat on the floor with him. It was easy to understand him because he spoke English quite well. I thanked him for accepting the request of a stranger to meet with him.

He said, “I respect your friend very much, so when he asked me for an appointment I immediately said yes because I knew his friend would be someone who would be worth meeting.” Early in that conservation, he asked, “Did you have a reason for wanting to meet me?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve been to Korea a number of times, and many of my friends are Buddhists. I felt it would be important for me to meet the man who leads the Buddhists in Korea. I am not here to become a Buddhist, nor am I here to convert you. Of course, I am open to any questions about my faith, but that is not why I came. I simply have a desire to learn more about what you believe.”

My friend had introduced me as a person who was very serious about following Jesus and that I represented the congressional committee that hosts the United States Presidential Prayer Breakfast. Assuming that I knew the President, he asked me to thank President Bush for sending a letter of congratulations regarding the anniversary of World Buddhism. I told him that I was not a personal friend of the President, but suggested that if he wrote a thank you letter and attended our national prayer breakfast, I would be able to arrange for him to hand deliver it. Unfortunately, his schedule made it impossible for him ever to accept that offer.

As I look back, I think this early exchange set the stage for our friendship because he asked questions about my involvement with the Presidential Prayer Breakfast and wanted to know its purpose. I gave him a bit of its history and explained that leaders from approximately 170 nations attend. I went on to say that, it has no political, business or religious agenda but simply meets in the spirit of Jesus. I spent another five minutes telling him what that means. It was not a monologue because he asked some very pointed questions that gave me a chance to share about my life in Jesus. After about 20 minutes, he asked me if it would be okay if he brought in some other monks to listen to our conversation.

I said, “Yes, please do.” He brought in three senior monks and spoke to them in Korean.

My friend interpreted it for me and said, “He is telling them that you are the first person who ever spoke to him about Jesus who didn’t make him feel like an enemy.” When he finished speaking with the monks, we continued our conversation. I told him that my friend had interpreted for me what he had said to the monks.

Then I added, “I’m sure glad you caught me on a good day.” I explained that when a person is excited about something he might speak of it so exuberantly that it could make another person feel as though what he has is a pile of dirt. I used the example of a person who owns a Lexus automobile extolling its virtues so strongly that it could make anyone with a Mercedes feel like what he has is inferior. I went on to say, “I am so devoted to Jesus that I must have made someone, somewhere feel like the enemy, but I am glad that you didn’t feel that from me.”

We continued talking for another 30 minutes about many things, much of it about him personally. Eventually, there was a lull in our conversation, and I said, “I would like to return to your earlier statement that I didn’t make you feel like the enemy. As I have listened to you, I’ve been thinking: ‘How do I feel about this new friend?’ I certainly do not think of you as an enemy, and from the comments you’ve made, I’ve concluded that you’re my brother.”

The friend who brought me was a Christian, and I’m sure he was shocked to hear me say that. I explained myself by saying, “Do you know there are many brotherhoods in the world? There is a brotherhood around Rotary, golf, fishing, fraternities in college, and many sports. There is also a brotherhood around Jesus, and our mutual friend and I are brothers in that family. However, the brotherhood I feel with you is different from all those. As I have listened to you, it seems like you’re a man who would not want to get to the end of your life and have it based on error; that’s the way I feel as well. So I think that you and I are brothers in that brotherhood of men who want to base their life on truth.”

He got up and walked two or three steps to shake my hand and said, “Okay, we’re brothers in that brotherhood.”

I said, “Gi Kwang, I think Buddha was one of our brothers. He was the son of the king in Nepal. However, even though he was a prince, he left his comfortable existence and went on a six and a half year search for truth and the meaning of life. It’s very unfortunate that he lived 600 years before Jesus, who said, ‘I am the truth.’ When I read the Golden Book, it’s obvious that he was searching for truth, and I believe that if he had been alive during the days of Jesus, he would’ve gone to listen to him. I don’t know if he would’ve become a disciple, but knowing what motivated him, I believe if someone had stood up near him and said. ‘I am the truth,’ he would’ve gone to listen and evaluate. Of course, I believe that Buddha would want you to do the same thing.

At our second meeting, I told him what I had been thinking about on my flight to Seoul. “I was trying to understand what is happening between Gi Kwang Sunim and Glenn Murray when we are so different. You’re Oriental; I’m Occidental. You’re from the East; I’m from the West. Your culture is 5000 years old, and mine is 200 years old. So I came up with a metaphor that helped me understand what’s happening between us. It’s as if we are from two countries separated by a river, and you and I have built a bridge over it. We can meet in the middle of the bridge and ask each other questions about the world we represent.”

He understood my metaphor immediately and said: “I’ll meet you in the middle of the bridge and I get the first question.” I was rather shocked by his first question because I thought it would be something theological. His question was, “Why are there so many divorces in your country?” I agreed with him that there are too many divorces in my country, and it has left many children and families devastated.

I said Jesus disapproves of divorce. Formerly his followers were not the ones who got divorces, but in this last generation, divorces are almost as common in the church as they are among people who are unbelievers. We spoke a little more about this subject, but then I said, “I get the next question.” You told me that you pray several times a day; my question is, “who do you pray too?”

“Buddha,” he replied.

“That leaves me a bit confused because I’ve read that you believe Buddha reached Nirvana, the life of a snuffed-out candle, the extinguished life or the life of nothingness. Are you saying that you pray to someone who doesn’t exist?”

He tilted his head to the side and said, “It’s kind of hard to understand, isn’t it?”

I said, “Yes” but didn’t press the point. In a later conversation about prayer, we pursued this concept in depth.

In another of our conversations, I told him, “I admire Buddha for many things, particularly his desire for truth, and his call for a life of purity, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, etc. I really liked his chapter in the Golden Book on fellowship and dying to self. Buddha taught you must die to self, but he didn’t know anything beyond that. Nirvana for him was death to self-desire. Jesus also taught that we need to die to self, but when we receive Him, He gives us eternal life. Buddha and Confucius saw the kind of morality that is correct but left to human resources; we’re not capable of living like that. Jesus comes into our life and gives us the power to do what is right.

He said, “Glenn, you know a lot about Buddhism, but I don’t think you know the deep things of Buddhism.”

I said, “I’m sure I don’t, is there something I should know?”

“Yes, in a book the monks read called Who I am, there is a statement that says, ‘If on your road to truth you encounter Buddha, kill Buddha.’ He explained that it was a metaphor that you should not let anything keep you from the truth. Go around him, push him out of the way, etc., but the metaphor is, kill Buddha. Then in one of my first encounters with his penetrating questions, he asked, “If you and I are going to be brothers in that brotherhood of men who base their life on truth, will you kill Jesus.”

I answered, “Wow! I’ve never faced a question like that, but given the context of your question my answer must be ‘Yes.’ If Jesus keeps me from knowing the truth, then my answer is a definite ‘Yes.’ However, my Bible and my own personal experience tell me that truth is not beyond Jesus; Jesus Himself is the Truth.” At that time, I didn’t know him well, so to make my point I asked a question that now seems silly. “Do you know what a birthday candle is?”

He quickly said, “Yes” and indicated how small they are.

I said, “If you light a birthday candle in a universe of darkness, the darkness cannot put it out because light always overcomes darkness. It may be a small area, but light always prevails. Gi Kwang, Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World,” If a universe of darkness cannot put out a candle, there is nothing that can extinguish the Light of the World. So the real answer to your question is that I couldn’t kill Jesus if I wanted to because I don’t know how to extinguish the Light of the World. He understood the metaphor and didn’t pursue it any further.

One day he commented, “Glenn, we’re becoming such good friends I should probably go to church with you someday.”

I told him, “I don’t have a specific church that I go to, but we can pick one and attend together.” As I thought about it later, attending church together would be a major mistake because a Buddhist monk walking into any church would cause a great disturbance.

He said, “If I go to church with you, will you go to the temple with me?”

He was quite surprised that I answered, “Yes,” because the Korean pastor of the largest church in the world had said that no believer should go inside a temple because it’s full of idols.

I told him, “I’m not sure that I should go in temples, but I’ve been in so many in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and other places that I would be willing to go with you to your temple.

Then he asked, “If I go to your church I will bow before I go in. Would you bow before you go in the Temple?”

I got the sense that his questions were leading to a point he wanted to make, so I thought for a moment and said, “Yes I probably would, but let me explain what I mean by that. I am not Roman Catholic, but I have many friends who are, and when I go to church with them, I kneel when they kneel and get up when they do. It’s not my way, but I do it to honor them. So if you bow before you go in the Temple, I would bow to honor you.”

I was certain we were going somewhere when next he asked, “If I go to church with you I will bow to Jesus before going in, would you bow to Buddha before you go in the Temple?”

I said, “Gi Kwang, where do you get these questions? This is like when you asked if I would I kill Jesus.” My first response was to ask him if I could I answer that on my next trip?” Then I said, “No you want an answer now, don’t you. I know that if you gave me six months to think about it, I would begin on the airplane going home. I would be thinking, ‘I wonder what he means by bow,’ so let me explore that with you right now. If I met a man on the road in the countryside and he was very old and had a long wispy beard, and someone told me he had 20 grandchildren, I would bow to him out of respect for his age because that is the custom. He could be the head of the local mafia. I wouldn’t know that, but I would bow to him just to defer to his age.

I added that if the leader of China went to the United States, he would shake hands with our President. It would not mean that he was in favor of capitalism, but he would shake hands because it’s the way to honor the person and the office. “So if you mean to bow to Buddha by way of showing respect, I would do that quickly. I do respect Buddha and really appreciate some of the things he said. But if on the other hand, you mean bow out of allegiance, submission, adoration, or worship, I could never bow my knee to anyone like that except Jesus Christ.”

He said, “Glenn that is a very wise answer.”

“If that seemed wise to you, my understanding is that it was given to me by the Holy Spirit to help you understand that I don’t disrespect Buddha, but my Lord is Jesus Christ, and I bow my knee only to him.”

Then he stunned me by saying, “Glenn the next time you are in Korea would you speak to the nation about Jesus on my national radio network?” I declined and told him the reason was that I keep my activities in Korea below the radar because I meet with so many powerful people of different political and religious persuasions.

“I do not want to develop a public presence in Korea, so I must decline but thank you for asking.

Then he asked, “Well, would you meet with the Council of 40 the next time you’re in Korea and talk to them about Jesus like we talk?” That’s the top 40 monks in Korea, so I accepted his offer and told him I was excited to do that on my next visit. When I was back in Seoul six months later, this is how the scenario developed. He picked me up in his chauffeur-driven limousine, and we went back to his office in the Temple. We had tea and conversation for about an hour, then he said, “It’s time to go.” We went down to the underground garage to his limousine and began to drive across town. I had no idea where we were going. Before long, I began to see three klieg lights dancing across the sky in the direction we were traveling. As we got closer, it was very clear that we were going to the location where those lights were. It turned out to be a large convention center.

As we pulled the car under the portico, I noticed three or four television cameras focused on our car. As we got out, the cameras focused on me and followed me into the building. As it turned out, there were 6,000 people already gathered, waiting for our arrival.

We went up a few stairs into what I would consider a loge area where the Council of 40 monks was sitting. Four visiting Tibetan monks joined us. The minute we sat down the lights went off, and a spotlight went on a microphone on the stage in front of the curtain. A man came out and began to speak in Korean; of course, I couldn’t understand him, but eventually, he said, Glenn Murray.

Gi, Kwang nudged me and told me to stand up. The crowd turned around, looked at me, and began to cheer. The first thought that came to me was, “God you have a powerful sense of humor; you gather six thousand Buddhists to honor one of your sons.” Then the show started. It was a magnificent production of operatic singers and folk dancers that lasted about two hours. At the intermission, I was introduced to the leader of the Council of 40, and Gi Kwang told him that I was a very close friend of his. They were extremely gracious to me, but I only had a chance to talk to one of them at any depth. Gi Kwang never explained why he arranged the evening, but given the things that were said, I have an opinion. He and I had become very close friends, but the monks, on the other hand, were likely suspicious of me. So I concluded that he was trying to honor me in their presence in order to give me some level of credibility with them.  I think it was his way of telling the monks that he respected me, and they should as well. I think it was an attempt to pave the way for me to speak to them at a later date. Unfortunately, he passed away before we did that. Of course, I can never know for sure, but this is what I believed was happening. 

One time I asked Gi Kwang to explain reincarnation to me; it turned out to be a three-hour session. He started by saying that everything is one, all life comes from space, and everything comes from the pure mind. It is the source of all energy; heaven is the highest star, and hell is a black hole. Then he started explaining reincarnation by telling me that he has had five lives, including the one he now has, and he knew the details of the last three. He said he could also tell about other people’s past lives. He began telling me about his three past lives and ended with the last one, in which he was Chinese. All of a sudden, he stopped short and said, “Oh my goodness! (or something like that) Glenn, you were also Chinese in your last life. That’s why I understand your metaphors so quickly; it’s why you love Asians and why you think like an Oriental. That’s why you and I have become such good friends.

I didn’t laugh or give any indication that I was disagreeing. I just said, “That’s a fascinating idea; tell me more about my Chinese life. Did you and I know each other, and if so were we friends or business partners?”

He didn’t have an answer but said, “I know you were Chinese in your last life.”

To show you the level of our honest exchange of ideas, at that point I said to him, “You know I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I have an alternative opinion of why you feel close to me. My thought is that you live in a world where anybody who loves Jesus considers you an enemy. You know I genuinely love you and since my love comes from Jesus, my alternative view of why you feel close to me is, I think you feel the love of Jesus.”

His response was, “It’s possible.” This was an implicit admittance that maybe it was not our former Chinese life that made us close, but rather the fact that he felt loved.

I added, “Not only do I love you, but Jesus loves you as well.” In all the conversations that had this kind of content, I never pressed for winning the point; I simply made the statement, and we moved on.

Gi Kwang told me, “The most influential pastor in Korea said that Buddhists are an evil influence on the culture and he has taught people to hate the Buddhist and most pastors have done the same.” I can’t vouch for the validity of this statement, but it is true that many church people in Korea think and speak negatively about Buddhists.

To illustrate this, I’ll share an experience I had while speaking to legislators at their Capitol which is called the National Assembly Building. The influential pastor he mentioned had 15 minutes, and I had 15 minutes. He spoke first and used almost the same words that Gi Kwang had told me.

He spoke about how the Buddhist have such a negative influence on the culture and are the enemy of the church. I changed what I had planned to talk about and said, “It’s possible that the Buddhists are the church’s enemy, but they are not the enemy of Jesus.” I went on to say that I considered Gi Kwang Sunim, a good friend, and of course, they all knew who he was. I said Jesus loves him as much as he loves the pastor and me. I was told later that my comments hadn’t alienated the pastor. At least it did not seem to cause a fracture in our relationship.

One day as we were talking about how unique our relationship was, he said that he had never had a friend that he felt closer to. I told him that we could say that we were intimate friends, and he loved the word intimate. From then on he said many times, “I feel so intimate with you.” That was proven over time because, in fact, he shared deeply personal things about himself and his personal history. He had been Chief Monk for some time when I met him at approximately sixty-five years of age. He told me his life story, and I will share a bit of that which is public knowledge.

After graduation from college, he was a twenty-two-year-old Buddhist newspaper reporter having some internal struggles. He was counseled to spend a month or two at a Buddhist monastery and retreat at the top of one of Korea’s mountains. He wound up staying six years, became a monk, and then left the monastery to move to Seoul. His leadership, entrepreneurial skills, and vision caused him to be noticed. Over time, he rose to lead the thousands of temples and multiplied thousands of monks. My evaluation is that he had exceptional organizational, fundraising and leadership abilities.

One time we were meeting in his office discussing a broad range of subjects. I think he read the Wall Street Journal each morning because he was very aware of what was happening around the world. After a few minutes, I believe I was prompted by the Holy Spirit to raise the issue of prayer again. I said, “Gi Kwang, we have become such good friends that I feel like I can ask you a very challenging question. I will tell you in advance that I love you so much that I will not do it without your permission, or if it will damage our friendship.”

He responded, “What kind of a question could do that, please proceed?

I reminded him that in one of our earliest meetings, I had asked who he prays to, and I still had questions. “Can I raise that again and pursue it more thoroughly?”

He said, “Of course you can.”

Let me start with a scenario of my staying in that apartment you prepared for me. I know that you pray several times a day, including at night, so to help me understand your idea about prayer, let me ask you some questions. The hour comes in the night that you’re supposed to pray; how do you do that? Do you lie in your bed and pray or do you get up and sit in a chair or do you dress and go down to the Temple?

He said, “I go down to the Temple.”

“Okay, let’s still assume that I’m staying in that apartment that you created for me, and I hear your door open and footsteps in the hall. Since we’re such good friends, I assume you wouldn’t mind if I followed you down to the temple. When you get there would you kneel and pray or lie down in a prone position and pray?”

He answered, “I would sit,” and he showed me that he would be sitting in a lotus position.

“Okay, do you pray silently or out loud?”

“I pray out loud.”

“What do you pray about?”

He said, “I pray for my monks and for the nation.” We had discussed many times the corruption of many of the Christian pastors as well as the corruption among his monks. Many of them have taken vows of poverty, but some are getting rich. If a Buddhist businessman is asked by a monk for a donation, he cannot refuse. So many monks are abusing this and getting rich.

“Now I want to ask again: who do you pray too?”

“To myself; I am the Buddha.”

By the way, he thinks I’m a Buddha also, a designation I think he assigns to anyone who is very spiritual or who have reached some level of enlightenment.

I continued to probe by asking, “If you are praying to yourself, then you are the one who hears your prayers. Do you have the power to answer your prayers?” I think he confronted something very deep and it was painful, so I stopped asking questions. My purpose was not to corner him and make him raise a white flag but rather to better understand what he believed.

This report does not end like some missionary letters, with his receiving Jesus and becoming a Baptist. The purpose of these thoughts has simply been to share what took place between a Buddhist monk and me. I have already stated that my goal from the beginning of our relationship was not to convert him, but rather to be Christ to him. His response was more than I could have imagined. He really liked to talk about Jesus but of course never saw him as the son of God or divine. His view of Jesus both when we began our friendship and even in the latter stages was that Jesus was a sage or a wise person like Buddha and Mohammed. They were wise figures of history and should be listened to. He said that he also loves Jesus, but that his early Christian instruction had probably kept him from thinking about Jesus as I do.

I am fully aware the following will seem self-aggrandizing, but I must be true to my purpose here and report his response to me. He said several times, “I sure do like how you talk about Jesus.” And another time, “Talking to you must be what it was like to talk to Jesus.” My understanding of that statement is that he was feeling loved, maybe for the very first time. I really did love him and remember fondly our times together. He made no confession of faith in Jesus to me, but he has heard the gospel. I do not know what was happening internally. I pray that like the thief on the cross he turned to Jesus before he died. Only Jesus knows whether or not that happened and Romans 2:16 says; “…on the day of judgment Jesus will judge the secrets of men’s hearts…”