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Awareness, the Beginning of Change

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, and social activist, to name a few. As a widely respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.

This column, shared by Jungto Society, presents a series of highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, public talks, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.

The following teaching was given in Dusseldorf on 2 September. This article is the second in a series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s tour of Europe and North America—his first overseas tour since the pandemic—titled “Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Come Talk about Life, Wisdom, and Happiness” from 1–22 September 2023, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*

How can I soothe the emptiness I feel living abroad? 

Q. I am a Korean woman currently living in the Netherlands. When I lived in Korea, I thought that some of the difficulties I faced would be resolved once I came to the Netherlands. However, I have come to realize that new concerns have emerged since coming here. Things that I didn’t worry about in Korea, such as not being able to easily find the food I want, or the fact that even if I live in the Netherlands for a long time, I will always be considered a foreigner, or the fact that I see how much my parents and grandparents have aged each time I return to Korea, or not being able to be with loved ones when they experience happy moments—all these things have started to trouble me. 

Occasionally, I feel overwhelmed by these concerns, which leads to feelings of depression, with days when I do nothing but lie around. Ive tried meditation in my own way, exercise, cleaning, donating unused items, sharing with people around me, and even participating in lectures by someone who practiced for three years in a Tibetan cave. In the end, I realized that since the source of my concerns lies within my own mind, the solution is also within my mind.

I understand the importance of emptiness, but I still can’t pass up a two-for-one sale, and I take it to heart when someone says something critical about me. I also feel a sense of unease when I see my friends getting married and leading happy lives. I often wonder what Im doing here now. How can I alleviate these concerns?

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If there is an illness, you should seek treatment. If there’s no illness, there’s no need for treatment. If what you are currently worrying about is worth worrying about, then you should find a way to resolve it. However, if it’s not something to worry about, then there’s nothing that needs to be done.

For example, let’s consider three different kinds of birds: pigeons, penguins, and ostriches. No matter how well penguins and pigeons run, they can’t run as well as an ostrich. Does this mean that pigeons and penguins are inferior? No matter how much penguins and ostriches try to fly, they cannot fly as well as a pigeon. Does this mean ostriches and penguins are inferior? No matter how well ostriches and pigeons try to swim, they can’t swim as well as a penguin. Does this mean ostriches and pigeons are inferior?

Q. No, it doesn’t mean they are inferior.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Then why should we feel inferior just because someone runs better than us, is better at math, or has a better memory? There is nothing that can be considered inferior or superior in our world. All existence simply exists. However, if you make comparisons based on swimming, the penguin will take first place, and the pigeon and ostrich will be in last place. If you base it on flying, then the penguin and ostrich will come in last place. And, if you compare running, the penguin and pigeon will be in last place. So how many different criteria should we set as a basis of comparison? Millions.

The problem with school education is that we take three or four subjects and make them the standard against which all students are compared and ranked. We have selected just three subjects—Korean, mathematics, and English—and we use these to divide students into those with good grades and those with poor grades. The reason why children with poor grades can end up doing well in society is because the standards are different. Of course, it’s also hard to set a clear standard as to what it means to do well in society.

In fact, there can be nothing that is inferior or superior. If you compare yourself to the universe, then your existence is but a speck of dust. If you compare yourself to atoms or molecules, then your existence is like the universe. But, you are neither a speck of dust nor a universe. You are simply you.

However you set the standard, biases will arise. If we take the universe as the standard and define ourselves as specks of dust, there will be a bias to think that we are insignificant beings. If we take atoms as the standard, there will be a bias to think that we are as great as the universe. Instead, we have to look at both sides together. This is why you can be the most precious being in the world, yet at the same time a mere speck of dust. Understanding these together is the Middle Way. When we only see one aspect, it is due to bias.

If your parents are growing older, it means that you are also growing older. Just as you grow older, your parents have no choice but to grow older too. If you notice more people around you are dying, does that mean God is punishing those around you? Is it because you committed a lot of sins in your previous life? Or is it because you are growing older?

Q. It’s because I’m growing older.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: As you grow older, more and more people that you know will die. The death of your parents’ generation, your older sibling’s generation, and some of your friends means that you are growing older. The reason that children don’t think much about death is because there aren’t many people they know who are dying. But when you grow older, there are many people around you who die. This has nothing to do with past lives and has nothing to do with punishment from the heavens. As I said earlier, this stems from the same way of thinking where an ostrich feels inferior because it can’t swim as well, or a penguin feels inferior because it can’t run as fast.

It’s natural for parents to grow old. If they need help from you, then you can go and help. Caring for children is about the preservation of one’s species and a natural phenomenon. However, caring for aging parents is an option, not an obligation. Take a look at nature. Have you seen animals take care of their aging mother? Adults must take care of their own lives and, when the time comes, they must die. Meanwhile, the young need care early in life, or they will die and that will be the end of the line.

It’s natural for parents to take care of their children, but for children to take care of their parents is a choice that humans make. So if you think that you need to take care of your parents, you can go and take care of them. If your work is important and you are unable to take care of your parents, you can attend the funeral when you hear that they have passed away. There’s no need to feel guilty thinking that this is contrary to filial piety. It’s easy to make arbitrary interpretations about filial piety. Something that can be called unfilial is taking away what your parents have or harming your parents’ lives. This behavior does not exist in nature.

Just as a non-Korean becomes a foreigner when they go to live in Korea, a Korean becomes a foreigner when they go to live in Germany. When a Korean goes to live in Germany or when a German goes to live in Korea, they are called an immigrant. Immigrants are a minority so they may be marginalized. That’s why they are called foreigners, but there is no such thing that is inherently foreign.

Doesn’t the fact that you came to Germany mean that you came to become a foreigner? So if you ask me why you are a foreigner here, I think it’s a really funny question. You came here because you wanted to live in Germany. You could say that you came here because you wanted to become a foreigner. So it makes no sense at all to ask, “Why am I still a foreigner no matter how long I’ve lived here?”

In the past, immigrants were a minority and they became a symbol of those living in poverty and alienation. However, in the future, immigrants will form the mainstream and indigenous populations will become the minority instead. Immigrants make up the mainstream in Seoul. There’s little advantage to being a native of Seoul, born and raised there. In the United States, the vast majority of the population either come from immigrant ancestors or are recent immigrants, and the concept of indigenous people only applies to a very small native population who face discrimination as a particular minority. Being an immigrant or foreigner is not something that is automatically problematic.

If you look a little deeper into the issues you have, there is really no issue. It’s as if you’re being chased by robbers in your sleep. As you run away, you scream for help, but as far as I see it, if you open your eyes there will be no more problem! Open your eyes and say, “It was a dream!” Then that will be that. You don’t even have to solve it, because the problem was created in your mind. Waking up from a dream is called enlightenment. So wake up from your dream right now! (Laughter)

Of course, as you listen to me now, you understand what I mean by waking up from a dream. But when you go home, your eyes will close again and you’ll start dreaming again. At such times, it’s important to have the self-realization that you are dreaming. 

If you want to be part of mainstream society, you can go back to Korea. Don’t keep thinking of becoming mainstream in Germany. If you want to speak Korean, you can go to Korea. However, the fact that the number of Koreans living here continues to increase means that Koreans are no longer a very small minority. It means that the numbers will increase, little by little, into the future. As the Korean Wave continues, Koreans may gradually move toward being part of the mainstream.

The nurses who emigrated to Germany from Korea 50 years ago were really lonely. But now, living in Germany, if you tell them you’re lonely, they would laugh at you and say, “You’re talking nonsense.” So have a little more confidence. Okay?

Q. Thank you.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Awareness, the beginning of change

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In Christianity, there’s a saying: “God’s voice is heard in suffering.” If you are unable to transcend pain, it becomes trauma. But if you transcend pain, it can become the path to enlightenment. If you try to avoid disaster, it becomes a great evil. But if you accept disaster willingly, it can become a blessing. Because of the suffering you experience, you can understand others much more deeply and you can see the world through a wider lens.

I’ve been tortured, suffered injustices, and been bullied—all sorts of experiences. Although I’m 70 years old, I don’t have any certifications other than my Korean national ID. Even within the monastic community, people bullied and discriminated against me for 30 years. But I don’t feel as though I was bullied. I consider myself a person who is charting a new path. If you do not have a positive mindset, you will always feel like a victim. We are all born into a free world, so why should any of us live with a sense of victimization? After renouncing the secular world and leaving my family, why should I have to heed what others think of me? Why should monks who have left home to seek truth feel bound by systems and qualifications, and why do they need to feel acknowledged by vested interests within society? We can live confidently even amid suffering by having this kind of positive mindset.

Just because you come to Germany, it doesn’t mean you’ll feel free and happy. Just as green beans brought over from Korea won’t suddenly turn into red beans when planted in Germany, your karma remains the same. That’s why you have to change your karma in order to be free and happy. In other words, you need to have self-realizations:

“Oh, this is something that has left a scar in me.”

“Oh, this is a habit I have.”

“Oh, this is going to be a loss for me.”

Only with this kind of self-realization can change begin. Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days in the wilderness and realized, “I am the Son of God.” His fear left him because he realized that he was the son of God. So whether he went to the temple or wherever he went, he spoke the truth without fear. The Buddha realized that he was a buddha after six years of asceticism. You too must realize that you are a son or a daughter of God. You too must realize that you are a buddha. If you are a buddha, who can hurt you?

People live in fear and feel like a victim, hoping that someone will come and take good care of them. Or they pay too much attention to what others think. I hope that you all shed this mentality of being a victim. Please do not live as a slave to classist and sexist ideologies formed in the past.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

If you cannot escape the victim mentality you will be unable to escape suffering, no matter how much education you receive, no matter how much knowledge you accumulate, and no matter how many new skills you acquire. Self-realization is the only way. Becoming aware of yourself, such as: “Oh, I have this problem!” is the only way to attain liberation. Nobody else can help you. If you have received help from Pomnyun Sunim today, it is not from Pomnyun Sunim. In the process of talking with Sunim, you became aware of something about yourself—a self-realization. You saw for yourself, “Hey, it’s not a big deal!” which is why change can happen in you. If in our conversation, you do not realize anything about yourself, then you won’t experience any change going forward.

Even if I wanted to, I can’t give you freedom. Nor can I take away your freedom. It’s simply my role to create an environment in which awareness and realization can arise for you. I’m not the one who teaches, I’m the one who guides the way. It’s up to you to decide whether to go that way or not. I’m just here to guide you if needed.

I hope that all of you can live each day with confidence, as masters of your own life and contributors to the world.

* Dharma Sharing: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to Give First In-Person Teachings in Europe and North America since the Pandemic (BDG)

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