Renovating Holiness: Wesleyan Sanctification Encountering Buddhist Enlightenment (Musung Jung)

Photo Credit: Beverly and Pack

Photo Credit: Beverly and Pack

This essay is part of theRenovating Holiness Project.  Musung Jung is Assistant Professor in the Department of Christian Studies at Korea Nazarene University.  He studied at Yonsei University, Northwest Nazarene University, Korea Nazarene University (B.Th.), Emory University (M.Div.) and Asbury Theological Seminary (Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies).  Due to the format of this blog, the footnotes of this essay have been removed.

I. The Korean Context

The two most dominant religions in Korea are Christianity and Buddhism. 

     According to the 2012 survey, 22.5% of the Korean population identified themselves as Christians whereas 22.1% confirmed themselves as Buddhists. This situation puts the Korean Church into an evangelistic challenge regarding how to effectively reach out to Buddhists.

     The fact of the matter is that the Korean church at large has engaged in aggressive evangelism to Buddhists with little concern and respect for their religious reality.  As a result, their antipathy to Christianity has increased, and their receptivity to the gospel has decreased. 

     To break out this vicious cycle, the Korean church needs a paradigm shift from triumphalist evangelism to dialogical one.  As Edinburgh 2010 rightly states, “witness does not preclude dialogue but invites it, and dialogue does not preclude witness but extends and deepens it.”  Such evangelistic dialogue with Buddhists requires that the Korean Church discover some meaningful points of contact between the two religious traditions.  In this regard the Korean denominations rooted in Wesleyanism can play an important role by exploring and presenting the correlation between Wesleyan sanctification and Dono-Jeomsu (a particular understanding of enlightenment within the Korean traditions of Buddhism).

II. Buddhist Dono-Jeomsu (Enlightenment)

Dono-Jeomsu was first proposed by the Buddhist monk Jinul

(知訥, 1158–1210), the forerunner of Korean Zen Buddhism as well as the founder of the Jogye Order (曹溪宗), the largest Buddhist denomination in Korea today.  Dono (頓悟) signifies “sudden enlightenment,” and Jeomsu (漸修) denotes “gradual cultivation.”  Combined together, Dono-Jeomsu involves the unified idea of “sudden enlightenment followed and supported by gradual cultivation” in search of the purest and highest state of one’s mind, namely nirvana (涅槃).

     According to Jinul, any human being is a prospective buddha with the indwelling buddhahood.  (“Buddha” literally means “the enlightened one.”)  He explained: “Everyone is originally a Buddha…[and] possesses the impeccable self-nature…The sublime essence of nirvana is complete in everyone. There is no need to search elsewhere; since time immemorial, it has been innate in everyone.”

     The problem is that one’s deluded ignorance and this-worldly attachment cloud and blind oneself to this noble truth. Furthermore, one’s mind (with such benightedness and preoccupation) fails to operate fully awake and keenly alert in accordance with one’s original buddha nature. 

     Jinul, thus, claimed that the first and foremost task for humans is to be ontologically enlightened into the supreme truth that a buddha is existentially within oneself.  This enlightenment in one’s whole being can occur instantaneously in the explorative process of the twofold practices of both meditation about the Buddha-Mind and the scriptural studies about the Buddha-Word. 

     Jinul, though, held that this cultivation prior to the sudden initial awakening is a far cry from being the full reality. In the wake of sudden enlightenment in a critical moment, the real practices of cultivation begin.  These ought to be constantly done all through one’s life for the purpose of the complete elimination of all false thoughts and habitual residues lingering in one’s mind and behavior.  This gradual cultivation can eventually sublimate initial enlightenment into ultimate enlightenment, the perfect pure state of one’s mind, in which one’s inherent buddhahood is not only fully activated inwardly but also wholly manifested outwardly.  As a result of this sudden-enlightenment-gradual-cultivation life, one becomes the embodiment of the Buddha-Mind and Buddha-Word, thereby challenging and inspiring other sentient beings to reach the same stage of nirvana in the here and now. 

III. Points of Contact

Inter-religious dialogue starts with the positive appreciation of God’s grace and trace in one’s counterpart.  

     This perspective is in line with the Wesleyan tradition postulating that other faiths are under the infinite orbit of God’s prevenient grace.  Rendering Buddhist Dono-Jeomsu a dialogical partner with Wesleyan sanctification is, therefore, natural and commendable in the Wesleyan tradition.

     When it comes to their conjunctive comparison, there are two approaches available: (1) the conversion-and-sanctification approach and (2) the entire sanctification approach.  Both approaches recognize human potentiality and attainability of the highest religious level but in different dual structures. 

     In the first approach, Dono and Jeomsu correspond to the conversion experience (or the initial sanctification moment) and the succeeding sanctification movement, respectively.  The instantaneous awakening into one’s buddha-like existence is never the final destination of Buddhist growth; rather, it must be followed by the gradual cultivation of one’s mind until the consummate point of nirvana.  Likewise, the conversion experience of the regenerative adoption as God’s child should be accompanied by the sanctification process of the continual evolvement into the whole measure of the “fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

     On the other hand, the second approach likens Dono and Jeomsu to the entire sanctification state and the ensuing gradual progression.  One’s steady progress to the sublime essence of nirvana via both meditation and the scriptural studies goes even after one’s sudden enlightenment.  Similarly, entire sanctification is not the end of the road in one’s Christian journey but the beginning of one’s “gradual progression in sanctification…extended beyond the boundaries of this life,” namely glorification.

     In spite of the aforementioned commonality, Wesleyan sanctification is fundamentally different from Buddhist Dono-Jeomsu.  The former is essentially theocentric, and the latter is primarily anthropocentric.  As is generally known, Wesleyan sanctification is divinely initiated and driven.  Both initial sanctification (i.e. conversion) and entire sanctification are definitely the gift of God in the divine mechanism of justifying grace and sanctifying grace.8  The Spirit of God from above is the driving force behind one’s holiness of heart and life. 

     On the contrary, Buddhist Dono-Jeomsu is humanly initiated and driven.  Both sudden enlightenment and gradual cultivation are contingent decisively upon one’s dual practices of meditation and the scriptural studies.9  The buddhahood from within is the prime mover behind one's pureness of mind and behavior.  This fundamental differentiation results from, and simultaneously leads to, Christianity as a religion of grace10 in stark contrast with Buddhism as a religion of works.

IV. Toward Evangelistic Dialogue

The effective evangelism to Buddhist believers is a formidable challenge but not impossible. 

When the Korean Church undertakes evangelistic dialogue, the Christian-Buddhist relation can be improved to the result of creating openness to the gospel.  

This method is actually how both Jesus and Paul engaged those with other living faiths (cf. John 4; Acts 17:16-34).11 

     Accordingly, comparative studies between Wesleyan sanctification and Buddhist Dono-Jeomsu are worthwhile and biblically faithful.12  The current research is just a preliminary attempt which reveals that their consonance converges in the dual structures of crisis/consummate moment and follow-up process in religious experience and their dissonance diverges in divine enablement from above versus human achievement from within.  With these points of contact (and others), Korean Wesleyan/Nazarene churches can enter into evangelistic dialogue in order to fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples of the Korean Buddhist people group.