As the spokesperson in Vienna for the Yun Hwa Sangha’s Young Sangha, I help organize practices and international Retreats for young people. I have practiced Buddhism for 7 years with Supreme Matriarch Ji Kwang Dae Poep Sa Nim, the founder of the Yun Hwa Sangha of World Social Buddhism. The title of “Dae Poep Sa Nim” means “Great Dharma Master.” In our Sangha, we believe Ji Kwang Dae Poep Sa Nim has reached the highest level of enlightenment.

When young people come to our center in Vienna, one of the aspects of our sangha that often determines whether people stay or leave is the fact that we have a master. If you cannot accept having a Master, World Social Buddhism is probably not for you, unless you reconsider your concepts.

Some of the questions that come up in these conversations are:

“How can we know that someone is enlightened? And, if enlightenment exists, how can it be verified?”

“Do you lose yourself when you place so much trust into a single person?”

“Are you not giving up all responsibility for yourself, when you follow the teachings of a single religious or spiritual leader with full commitment?”

These and similar questions are asked when people first join Yun Hwa practice.

While I’m fully dedicated to my Master Ji Kwang Dae Poep Sa Nim, I can understand the skepticism that some of the young people that visit us pose. In this article, I will try to explain, from my experience, how I went from a skeptic to a very dedicated student and why I believe that practicing with a Master is the right path for myself and for many others.

Before I practiced Buddhism, I was critical of religions. From what I gathered in school and university, religions usually had to do with power. When paired with governmental power, these conditions often leading to oppression, discrimination of other groups in society, and wars. I could never see myself being part of any religious or spiritual organization.

For westerners, having a master is something that may seem antiquated. It is a concept we either associate with the past or that might bring up images from science fiction, fantasy or Kung Fu movies.

Society today is very individualistic, everyone seeking to find their own truth combining ideas from here and there. Thereby, the emphasis is often put on diversity rather than committing to a single source of truth. In particular, during this age of fake news and social media bubbles, completely trusting one source can be perceived as being extreme in itself.

The Buddhist tradition, however, has always had masters. Since Shakyamuni Buddha’s days 2600 years ago, masters like Bodhidharma, Hui Ke, Nagarjuna, Ma Tsu, Won Hyo or Uicheon, to name a few within the Social Buddhist lineage. But, what exactly is a master? Although we use the word in western culture, the definition or concept of a Master differs when compared to the Asian understanding.

A “master” in Asian culture is someone who receives great, almost unconditional, respect for his accomplishments and attainment. The concept of masterhood was integrated into Asian culture through Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. In most Asian cultures, you do not need to explain the concept of a master because it is innately understood. That kind of respect for a master, elders, or people in high positions is something that is foreign to most westerners.

To be simply admitted to learn from a master, for instance, is considered a great honor in itself. It is never taken for granted in Asian cultures. The master is more than a person; the master embodies the treasure of his or her attainment. In the context of Buddhist belief, it is a level of attainment that was developed over many lives.

When I started practicing, my girlfriend at the time and I had a crisis in our relationship and we were looking for something that might help us fix our relationship. Through her initiative, we started practicing together. Despite having studied Japanese culture and being a fan of Asian literature and movies in general, the first time I heard about Dae Poep Sa Nim, I was not sure what to think. It was not a far stretch for me that enlightenment existed. For some reason, I had always believed that humans could attain something that was greater. But how could I know if I had found the real thing?

Something we recommend to most people who come to our centers from the beginning, is that they simply try the practice for a couple of weeks and observe what it does for them. Why practice if you do not feel a positive change in your life? Buddhism is based on attainment and that can only be reached through practice. Hence you can only create a change in your life if you practice it. My girlfriend and I were open to this approach.

The Yun Hwa practice in its full form is quite challenging for newcomers. The practice you do at home for instance, consists of 108 prostrations, Ki Song body exercises, 15-30min sitting meditation in the morning, and another 15-30min of Meditation in the evening. In addition, we have a mantra assignment of counting 1000 mantras throughout the day. Very few people manage to do the whole practice right away.

My girlfriend and I started mostly with the mantra assignment. After a couple of weeks, we both reflected about our experience. We realized that since we had been doing the mantra, our arguments which had been very heated, became less dramatic. Doing the mantra made us more attentive of each other and less attached to our emotions. In the end, we still separated, but I kept practicing and intensified my practice when the relationship split.

After a couple of months, friends and family started telling me that they perceived a change in me. They felt that I had become calmer, that I dealt with them more respectfully and was more aware of their needs. Before that, the people closest to me often considered me to be moody and impatient. They had noticed that these characteristics began to change.

So, I had tried the Yun Hwa practice and it worked. It added to my life in positive way. At that point, I thought it was time to see the master. Without meeting the master, I could not fully commit to the Yun Hwa Sangha even if I noticed some positive effects. For that, I had to travel to Lotus Buddhist Monastery in Hawaii, the place where Dae Poep Sa Nim lives and teaches.

The first memory I have of Dae Poep Sa Nim is at a large dinner party, where all practitioners of the retreat were invited to dine together. Dae Poep Sa Nim was wearing a long dark blue dress and Dae Poep Sa Nim’s hair was styled up beautifully with a decorative hairpin. I sensed a very strong presence. For some reason, it was not easy for me to look at Dae Poep Sa Nim. I felt as though even the most hidden parts of myself were being revealed in that moment. It made me feel uncomfortable and it took a couple of years until that would change. When I reflect on it now, I feel that being in the presence of Dae Poep Sa Nim shows you where your mind is in that moment.

Meeting Dae Poep Sa Nim is something that is difficult to describe and, in reality, can only be experienced in person. From the people I have talked to, everyone experiences it differently, but there often is some sort of strong reaction or impact. I stayed at the retreat for 6 weeks and, like all practitioners, was seeing Dae Poep Sa Nim every day, having lunch, experiencing dharma speeches and having the great opportunity to have a personal interview with Dae Poep Sa Nim.

Although I felt uncomfortable at first, I decided to go along with it for the moment. I was also still dealing with my break-up at the time. One thing that comforted me and convinced me more and more over time were the many stories people told about how they came to the sangha, and how Dae Poep Sa Nim changed their lives.

Another observation I started to make in the first years of joining the Yun Hwa sangha was how the people closest to the master acted and treated people. One of Dae Poep Sa Nim’s most profound teachings, in my opinion, is to treat everyone like a Buddha. In that way, the master has equal respect for the student and students in turn should treat everyone with the same respect, from the master to the person working at the supermarket. The master’s attainment is revered and respected because a true master lives life completely for others, offering to the students continuously.

In the end, master or no master, as a student you decide what you do and how you act. You have full responsibility for your actions. A true master teaches you to master yourself and never demands following his teachings blindly. Like taking a driver’s license, the master can teach you how to drive, but you are the driver of your car. It is all on you, for better or for worse.

The mind alone creates this world; it can be hell or it can be paradise. Ji Kwang Dae Poep Sa Nim reaffirmed my belief in humanity and today I am part of the Yun Hwa Sangha with a feeling of purpose. Thanks to Dae Poep Sa Nim I have no doubt that this world, in its entirety, will one day experience peace.