Yonggi Cho's Speech: "My Life and Faith"
I am very glad to be here to speak to you. Actually, I was a bit hesitating with Dr. Han’s invitation because, as you know, I am not a professional executive or a trained scholar. As an ordinary pastor, I was not sure what I would have to say to the distinguished audience like you, but I made up my mind to come; I believe my speech would deepen our mutual understanding of different faiths. Often, debates aim at winning over the other party, but dialogue through a mutual recognition of differences serves as a good opportunity for a better understanding of each other. I believe that we can make a better society if we work together through reconciliation and cooperation among Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists.
A few days later, a friend of my sister's, a devoted Christian, visited my sick bed and asked me to have faith in Jesus Christ. With my father’s opposition to her visit, I received a Bible but did not feel good because I grew up with Buddhist way. Upon her request, I began to read the books of Matthew, Mark, and John and found that they were a very different kind of story books; until that time I read only Zen magazines for a long time that were published in Japan. In the Zen magazines, there is a vast amount of in-depth philosophy and logic - a level that defies our verbal expressions. I felt that this Bible seemed to lack philosophy, logic, and profundity of the story.
However, the Bible's story touched my soul and body. Because I was a dying person with no hope of finding a cure by the contemporary medical advancement. I was indeed a person whom doctors and my family gave up. I needed a miracle. I needed this story of miracles because I searched for a person who would make me alive now here on earth, not a person who will lead me to the other world of the spirits after death. In the story books of the Bible, I found such a figure Jesus who expelled demons, healed the sick, erected dead persons, fed the five thousand people with the miracle of two fishes and five loaves of bread, and who himself arose from the grave three days after his death. From the eyes of Buddhism with logical thoughts, the biblical stories seemed very foolish and unpractical, but for me, they were much-needed stories in my hopeless situation.
As a person of desperate hopelessness, I could not live by logic or theory but needed a supernatural miracle. My father’s teaching was a transcendence of the deadly situation; it is true that a living person dies; separation of life and death is evident. Nevertheless, in reality, I could not live with the transcendental spirit of Buddhism; rather, I was full of desires to live with. Such desires matched the Bible of Christ. Before this time, I never attended a church nor read the Bible. Then I thought to myself, “If Christ is alive today as in the Bible, I can live.” So I knelt down and prayed: “If you let me live, I would be a monk for you, Jesus. So let me live.” Fearing my father’s scolding or opposition, I prayed by myself without being noticed. I thought, my in-youn (Buddhist term, close to the meaning of karma or fate) was connected with Jesus. Before this prayer, fear and terror of death bombarded me like the spiraling whirlwind hitting my head, but after this prayer, peace of mind visited me. I got an unthinkable conviction that I can live; it is not a psychological peace.
Though I vomited blood with coughing and received the doctor’s declaration of impending death, I could get the stronger belief that I could live. The Bible was accepted deep in my heart even though seemingly nonsensical through the mind’s eye. With this conviction that I do not die, I told my family members that I won't die because of my faith in Jesus. Then all my family members wept, thinking that my last day came near. In other words, they thought that I became confused or schizophrenic. My mother prayed (to Buddha) that in the next incarnation I would be born into a rich family with a happy life because in this life I suffered a lot. But I said, “don’t say that. I will live.” I wanted to sing songs even though I did not know any Christian songs; I felt peace and joy in the midst of hopelessness. Then I got up and sang a song “O, Night of Shilla, Hear the Bell of the Bulguk Temple” (note: this song is a popular folk song in Korea). My loud singing shook my house.
Gradually, my fever and blood-vomiting disappeared. I began recovering taste of the food. In six months, my breathing became normal. Finally, I recovered completely in a year. What a great belief (conviction) – something that cannot be accomplished by humans – that changed me! A great peace came to me even when I could not see, hear and capture anything with my eyes, my ears, and with my hands, or when my way ahead was so dark like black. The heaven (the kingdom of God) came into my heart, as it is said in the Bible that the kingdom of God (or heaven) is in one’s heart, not here or there.
With my surprise, however, nobody came to my church. They did not listen to me and my efforts of evangelism failed. They were the people of the poorest, making a bare living day by day. With this absolute poverty, what abounds was alcoholics, the vulgarly or thieves. Then, a turning point came to my life. A couple with their nine sons moved from Bukcheong, North Korea. The husband had become an alcoholic for the past ten years, drinking from morning to evening. This father of nine sons would take out some money from his sons who brought it home by hard working at the shoe polishing shops and used to buy alcohols. The wife was very weak and had the heart and stomach diseases. I knocked on the door of this family. She asked, “Who are you?” I answered, “I am an evangelist working at a tent church up the village. Let us go to heaven by believing in Jesus.” Then, staring at me angrily, she said to me, “I won’t go to heaven. You all religionists are liars!” I answered, “I did not tell a lie.” The woman continued to say, “If at death such a beautiful heaven is given, why it is not possible to have a little bit of heaven here and now on earth? In our home heaven is not an expensive thing.” “Heaven at our home is like this: we need a piece of the blanket with which my kids can sleep; rice to eat day after day so that they might go to school; the cure of my husband from an alcoholic. How on heaven can God lie if he cannot make this kind of small things for us now? I do not need a beautiful heaven after death. You, religionists, are tricksters who make money by giving the poor a psychological relief.”
This woman was a well-educated person from North Korea. I was shocked and dumbfounded. It was not I but she who evangelized me. She said: “Right? If there is a heaven up there, the place we go after death, why can you not show a little bit of such heaven here and now, and save us out of this miserable situation?”
Nevertheless, I still insisted, “you go to hell if you don’t believe.” Then, this woman, laughingly answered, “the hell? Wake up, man! Here is the hell we live now. We, eleven family members, live in the small square-feet room, and we are worse off than dogs or pigs. For the past ten years, we never have eaten white rice but flour. With no shoes, clothing, or hospitals to go, we have here a living hell, hotter than any other thing, no matter what you say about the hell. I have pains in my neck because of my nine sons. What can your religion provide for us?” I returned to my tent church without saying further.
This woman’s saying sounded a bang to my ear: “If there is a heaven, we need a heaven now, not the one after death. Heaven now!” Then, my father’s Buddhist teaching also whispered to my ears: “Heart is thus a Buddha. Buddha is not only in the paradise but also in my heart.” Wherever Buddha is, there is a Christian heaven/paradise, or a Buddhist paradise. If one lives now the living hell and go to heaven only after death, can such a thing not be an actual lie? The heaven must come here as she insists. In fact, she lives now in hell. Then what should I say to her?
Therefore, the simple message is that whoever believes in him will receive the three-fold blessing: souls are well; all things go well; you can live a healthy life. That is why we call this holistic salvation, which is not just about the soul but also about the spirit (soul), the body (flesh) and the present life. Such a holistic message of salvation is central in our Christianity. Our Christianity sometimes teaches that we have to keep the commandments rather than to believe in Jesus. Though some churches incessantly teach that we have to keep the law and the commandments, I believe that by the simple faith and God’s grace we are forgiven from sin; being free from curses; receiving the blessings of God; healed from diseases; being saved.
Furthermore, a new house was built through the help of this church. This story appears to prove my preaching about the hopes. This woman, within three months of believing in Jesus, saw the manifestation of the Christian message such a way that “your soul is blessed with health, and everything works together.” I felt good about this message of great hope – the threefold blessing, and the holistic salvation. Through preaching about hopes, our church grew fast to the membership of 500 in three years since I worked in this village. With much enthusiasm of these newly hope-full members, through their prayers and dedication, our church grew faster and made another big move to Seodaemoon, Seoul in 1961. Many people laughed at me when I started a church there because there were already big established churches such as Independence Church, Ahyun Methodist Church, Jungdong Church, and Saemoonan Chruch in the region of our church. They had reasons to say that because I, a 26-year-old young person, entered that established region without fear.
They thought that I was crazy. But I knew one thing. In the 1960s, Korea began to take a process of modernization. President JungHee Park launched Saemaeul (New Village) Movement and ambitious economic development programs. As a result, many people from Jullado and Kyungsangdo came to Seoul to find a job and lived in the boarded house of the poor among the poor, on the top mountain of Ahyundong. They used charcoals for heating and cooking day and night, sometimes putting them inside a room. They were gassed. They were not allowed to take their lives in the midst of this suffering and miserable incidents. At times, the wind blew into the poor houses, with people half-killed. They survived only to suffer more.
I preached hopes to these people living on the margins. I did not teach the commandments or the law. I did not teach about religion. I did not preach about Christianity but about hopes through which one can get the holistic salvation in Jesus Christ. I continued to preach the message of hopes in spite of many accusations from every corner of other denominations and church leaders. However, in fact, so many people came to our church to find hopes and slept at our church to listen to the message of hopes.
Positive, creative thinking and attitude change their life. If one has a negative, hopeless, destructive and pessimistic attitude of life, it does harm to the self and the others as well. Norman Vincent Bill, a famous American, wrote a best seller book Positive Thinking. One day a shabby person, visited Dr. Bill and said, “Dr. Bill, I am broke, and I am nothing. Do I have any hope? If I don’t find hope after listening to you, I am going to die” Bill then asked this poor man to write on the blank sheets of paper, “write down what I asked you to write”: “First of all, do you have a wife? Yes, I have. Even though I am not good enough, she is still with me. Second, do you have children? Yes, I have. Though I do not educate them well, they are good.
Third, do you have friends? Yes, I have some good friends. Fourth, do you have tastes? Yes, I have. I can eat well if any. You can eat whatever you wish whereas a sick millionaire cannot eat at all. Fifth, do you have good sleep? Yes, I sleep well though I don’t make good money. You are blessed because famous persons have a hard time to sleep. And are you healthy now? Yes, I am.” Then this poor man read what he wrote: I have my wife, children, friends, tastes, good sleep, and health. Dr. Bill said, “Why did you tell a lie? Entering my office, you told me you don’t have anything with you. See how much you have. Why do you see what you don’t have without seeing what you have? This man nodded and said, “I didn’t know that I had this much. I thought I didn’t have anything when I came to you. But now I see I have many.” This man, changing his attitude for life, went out with confidence and got a job. I feel my job is to give hopes and dreams to the people who need them. If one has hopes and dreams, one can go anywhere. I have traveled the entire globe as much of 80 rounds of the earth and wherever I went, Africa, North America, Europe, and South America, I found a common want of people: they search for the hopes and the dreams. One and half million people gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I told them to find a hope and a dream in Christ.
We work throughout the world to give hopes and dreams. We founded Hansedae, Gukminilbo, Ellim (social agency) to train the unfortunate young, Bethesda College in the USA, and Good Samaritans and others in Africa and Asia and North Korea. For me what matters in life is to find hopes and dreams by believing in Jesus Christ. Buddhism, Christianity, and Muslim are equal as religion. I, as a pastor who grew up in a Buddhist home, find much commonness between Christianity and Zen Buddhism: “Buddha is in your heart” is similar to Jesus’ saying that the kingdom of heaven (or God) is not said to be here or there; Jesus is in your heart. “Buddhist paradise is accomplished here in your heart, not after death.” Likewise, Jesus’ teaching goes hand in hand with a Buddhist teaching; the kingdom of heaven must be here in your heart. Don’t look forward to the heaven after death. Law and commandments reveal your sins but faith in Jesus and salvific life automatically bring forth energy or capacity with which to keep the law or the commandments. That is why I like the thought of Wonhyo, a Buddhist monk, who emphasized simple salvation that can be available to all through reciting the four letters of na-moo-ami-tabul. Then people are able to keep the rules. All these parallel teachings show the common character of faith in both religions.
I like a Buddhist TV channel. I benefit from this channel, and feel the peace of my mind when I watch and listen to the lecture of this TV program; I feel at home with Buddhism. So I listened to the whole series of lecture by Professor Byungjo Jung. I find, however, others’ lectures hard to follow because of their complex, philosophical contents. I consumed his TV lecture series and books as well. I like him because his lecture is easy to understand. Why do I listen to Buddhist lectures often? Because of those lectures, I was able to deepen my faith of Christianity. In that respect, I realize the necessity of inter-religious dialogue.
Q: What is your hope now? Do not take it too seriously.
Cho: Religion is a foundation to intellectual, cultural life. As an understanding of Christianity is essential to know the West, so to know Korea it is also essential to understand about Buddhism and Confucianism. But now Korean situation is chaotic because there is no central, dominating religion to put order; Young people are very confused because of the existence of communists, pleasure-seeking practice.
Q: About twenty years ago, one student insisted that there is no salvation except through Jesus. I told him/her to check with his/her pastor and come back to me. However, he/she repeats the same answer.
Q: I know there is no other way of salvation except through Christ. Based on your sayings today, may I think that there are other ways of salvation than Christianity, Jesus or God?
Cho: There are differences with each other. Buddhism has its own message of salvation. Likewise, Christianity has its own message of salvation. No one religion can transcend the limit of each; that is why I suggested a mutual dialogue with the recognition of the mutual differences. We can not criticize what Buddhism says. We don’t have such rights to do so. We have to respect each religion as they are formulating salvation. My point is that we should live together with the common ground of religion, that is to say, with respect for the differences. Within my family side and relatives, there are still Buddhists, but I don’t feel any resistance from them because we recognize mutual differences. My brother is confident about his salvation through Buddhism and I acknowledge it. Though I am a Christian pastor, I cannot insist that only Christianity is true and that salvation is possible only through it. We cannot gain a principle of mutual living if one thinks, “I have to kill you and I would live.” That is not something that Buddha or Jesus wants. It is a violation of the principle of the mercy (of Buddha) or the love (of God).
Q: You are leading the biggest church in Korea. You said that the smallest unit of the Church is a 15-member church, in which sense you said, “I am a pastor of the smallest church.” What do you mean by it?
Cho: I once fainted during the sermon because of over-work in 1964. My doctor at the hospital recommended me to stop working as pastor of four or five thousand members’ church because my body and mind were so much ruined. I got stuck in my hospital bed for a while. So I could not continue to preach, counsel, or visit members and I realized this: Why should only pastor work in ministry? I could train lay persons, who can take a responsibility of five or ten homes for this each trained lay leader. They could counsel, visit with comfort; then I could save my burden. I, therefore, began to train lay persons. The five-homes-bound unit functioned like a church where they study the Bible, pray together, and evangelize people. As a result, the church membership grew to like the snowball. We have about 50,000 unit leaders now. By this unit organization, we certainly have an advantage that more genuine and comfortable fellowship is taking place in the homes where they meet. This way our total members of 700,000 are being cared of. I cannot take care of all these people. We also use the internet as an important tool for our ministry efficiency. 700,000 listen to my preaching every Sunday and 5000,000 people get access to the internet preaching of mine. These days’ young people do not attend the church services. They have internet service at home and send offerings via the internet too. Each cell leader or members send questions via the internet and I answer them through the internet. Now is a time of dialogue, and I cannot deliver sermon unilaterally. Sunday preaching must be careful because people ask preachers through online, which is a great contrast to the old way of preaching, one-way delivery. The church can make use of this internet for its benefits. In a cyberspace, people gather, pray, worship and send questions to me and I send back my own answers to them. This is how our church functions with 700,000 members.
Cho: A materialistic perspective poses human-centered dominance of nature, resulting in the destruction of the environment. Taking care of nature has nothing to do with its merciless destruction. From another angle, divinity resides in everything in the creation of God; God created all. Therefore, if there is divinity in all things, we should rule all things with God’s presence, not for our own selfish purposes. Like Buddhist teaching, one cannot kill even a small insect because Buddha is kind and merciful. God in Christianity care about all things and resides in all, and at the same time going beyond them. God resides in all creation and therefore in grass and insects as well. Therefore, we cannot do harm to nature. Ecology is important from God’s perspective.