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Be Free from Suffering

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 teachings were given at Harvard University in Boston on 15 September 2023. This article is the 15th in a special series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Dharma 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” the Dharma tour ran from 1–22 September 2023, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*

Harvard University

Professor Susan Hayward of Harvard University warmly welcomed Ven. Pomnyun Sunim ahead of his public teaching. Prof. Hayward serves as the chairperson of the Niwano Peace Prize Selection Committee and became acquainted with Sunim when he won the Niwano Peace Prize in 2020.**

She introduced Prof. Mike, who lectures at Harvard on the social practice of religion, to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. The two professors sat down with Sunim to talk about various topics of interest.

Prof. Mike: What’s your overall budget for all your international work? And where do you do your fundraising?”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: [Our humanitarian relief organization] JTS does not receive support from companies or governments. It relies solely on individual donations. This is because JTS does not want any political influence or interference. Also, we also do not ask people to donate money. That’s the principle on which JTS operates. We first help people in need, and then we show people what JTS has done. Then people voluntarily make donations. So there is no set budget. Once the project is decided, then the fundraising comes in.

Prof. Mike: How many employees do you have?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Currently, we have no paid staff. JTS is run by volunteers. We may lack professional expertise, but we have plenty of volunteers. The volunteers required for a particular activity quit their jobs, go abroad to work, and then return to their home countries. A few individuals who have renounced worldly life and live within the community are engaged in full-time activities. The rest are all volunteers. Therefore, when helping people in need there are no labor costs involved.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Prof. Hayward: Can I ask a question about the Buddhist understanding of dana [Skt. generosity]? In Buddhist history, my understanding is that dana was often understood to mean giving financial resources to support the sangha, the monastic community, so that Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and the nuns can survive and practice by meditating and studying, and that one can receive good karma from their practice. But it seems that there’s a bit of a shift here in that people are giving charity, giving dana to Jungto Society to do humanitarian work rather than the work of study and meditation practice. Is the idea that this kind of giving provides the same kind of karmic benefit for the one who gives the donation? Or maybe I’m wrong, and this is the same as in the past? I’m curious.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In Jungto Society, we do not seek rewards or blessings in the next life, such as going to a better place or receiving a better life after death through alms-giving or Buddhist practice.

Materials do not belong to anyone. They are meant to be used by those in need. That’s why food should be eaten by the hungry, medicine should be taken by the sick, and all children should receive a basic education.

This is the way of life that Jungto Society pursues, and we believe it is what we should rightfully do. For this reason, Jungto Society does not ask people for money. Instead, we inform them about what is happening in certain places, what people in distress need, what we are doing to help such individuals, and what additional support is required. We simply share these facts, and then people voluntarily offer their support after learning about them.

Most people who give alms are people whose lives have become happier after encountering Buddhism. Because they are happy without receiving any compensation or blessings, they feel like they want to participate in something good. If Jungto Society engages in wholesome and positive work, people will voluntarily join in. Furthermore, the more we demonstrate that the donated money is being used very efficiently, the more they will donate. There are many people who see what we are doing and say, “It only costs this much money to do something like this?” and they give donations. So we spend our money very frugally!”

Prof. Hayward: Has the fundraising been successful so far?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Yes. However, if we find that our partners with whom we work together in the field are not transparent in the use of funds, overspend money, or use it for personal purposes, we stop the activity. We also stop our activities when there are no volunteers available onsite. This does pose some challenges. Organizations collaborating onsite sometimes raise the question: “We need office maintenance and labor costs. What if you only provide material support?” In response, I say, “We are not an organization that supports, but an organization that works together. Don’t you think you should also contribute something?” (Laughter)

Prof. Hayward: Do you think there is hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula right now?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The current situation is not hopeful, but we must make an effort. Practitioners must continue to work hard until they become successful because North Korean citizens have endured severe suffering for too long. However, even if we want to provide humanitarian aid now, we cannot. Humanitarian aid is only possible when tensions on the Korean Peninsula are eased. That’s why I’m trying to come to the United States and meet people.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim made his way to the auditorium, where he was greeted by loud applause. All the seats were full, and people were sitting in the aisles to join the event.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Why do we suffer?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The core teaching of Buddhism is “Why do we suffer?” It’s not about where we go after death, nor is it about being reborn into a better life in the next one. The essence of the Buddhist teachings lies in examining why we suffer. And by eliminating the causes everyone can live without suffering. Among all of you, there may be rich and poor individuals, young and old, men and women, and various religious backgrounds. Regardless of where you belong, are you living without suffering right now?

If there is suffering, I believe it’s not because of any other cause but because each person lacks self-exploration. So today, I’d like to talk to you on the topic of why we suffer. You can talk about anything, whether it’s environmental or political issues that give you a headache, or the stress you experience because of your spouse. The key question is, “Why do we suffer?” Let’s listen to your stories.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Accepting the reality of being discriminated against as a woman

Q: You’ve said essentially that if we can realize what’s causing our suffering, then we can be free of it. Although I am aware of my suffering coming from this discrepancy, it is difficult for me to abandon the ideal and come down to reality. My question is: how can I change my perspective so that I can better accept reality as it is and lower or reduce the suffering I am encountering, but at the same time contribute to the world in a positive way.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: All you have to do is put both feet on the ground, look into the distance, and walk, one step at a time. Looking into the distance with your eyes means having an ideal. Putting both feet on the ground and walking, step by step, means accepting reality. There is no contradiction between ideal and reality. The difference between the ideal and reality does not cause suffering. Suffering is caused by looking into the distance and not walking, or by standing still with your eyes closed. Your suffering may not be caused by the gap between ideals and reality, but rather by your desire to get results without putting in any effort. I hope you look at yourself a little more directly.

Let me ask you a more specific question. What specifically are the ideals and realities that you mentioned?

Q: So, to be more specific, for example, I’m a graduate student in the science field and I’m experiencing for the first time discrimination between women and men. So what I mean by the ideal is that women and men should be treated equally, which is how I feel. And the reality that I’m encountering is that although my professor is a woman scientist, maybe that person mistreats women as well. That is a reality that sometimes I encounter.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: How do you think you can overcome that problem? Are you asking because you really do not know? (Audience laughter)

I believe that you should first show that there is nothing to discriminate against. Using this as an opportunity, you should study harder and show the professor that your abilities are superior. Showing that women do not lack scientific ability will solve this problem immediately. Instead of feeling discouraged by such discrimination, why not take it as an opportunity to be even more active?

The older generations often rely on their own experiences to navigate life. In the past, societal conditions led to women receiving less education than men. Discrimination was prevalent, and there were very few cases in which women were able to demonstrate their abilities. Additionally, many women would interrupt their studies if they married while pursuing education. Your professor may have such experiences and think that it is better to teach men than women. No amount of talking about principles is of any use to a person who lives based on his or her own experiences. 

Achieving an equal society requires the efforts of many individuals striving to overcome discrimination. Instead of merely hoping for the benefits of an equal society, why not make an effort to overcome current discrimination yourself? I would suggest sharing these thoughts and I encourage you to adopt a more proactive attitude. Have I been too harsh in my response? (Audience laughter)

Q: No. it’s okay. I think you gave a very good solution.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Being free from suffering

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When you’re feeling uneasy or suffering, you should confront that feeling directly, much like pointing at it with your finger. For example, let’s say you need to wake up at five in the morning. The alarm rings. When you can’t get up, what do you say to yourself? You might say, “I want to get up, but my body isn’t cooperating.” However, what has your body done wrong? To be more precise, you should say, “I think I need to get up, but I don’t want to.” Let’s say the phrase “I need to get up” three times out loud:

“I need to get up, I need to get up, I need to get up . . .”

What does this phrase mean? It means you don’t want to get up. Instead, if you simply spring out of bed, you don’t need to say, “I need to get up.” Many times in life, we think, “I have to do this!” or “I have to do that!” but we don’t actually do it. If you think you need to wake up at five in the morning, just get up. Then the worry disappears. Instead of just thinking, “I need to let go,” just let go. Instead of just thinking, “I need to do it,” just do it.

Just do it. Just let go. 

In Buddhism, this is called “bang ha chak” (放下着), which means releasing the attachments.

Don’t force yourself to do something you don’t like. It’s perfectly fine not to do it. If you think you should do it, just do it. You should adopt this perspective to reduce your stress. If you don’t feel like studying, you can stop. The reason you are suffering is because you don’t want to study, but you want to earn a degree. The same goes for writing a thesis. Just write whatever comes to your mind. After you’ve written it all down, read it again and make the necessary revisions. This will make it much easier to complete your thesis.

You should do as much as your abilities allow. Trying to do better than you’re capable of doing actually makes you perform worse. If you take the approach I describe, studying becomes fun. Let’s say you’re studying astronomy. Instead of pursuing a degree, you should have a curious and wonder-filled mind about the universe. Research itself should be fun, then you won’t need a separate time for play.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

If you’re in a relationship, it’s perfectly fine to study together with your partner. You don’t necessarily have to drink alcohol to spend time together. You can date while studying and researching together. Dating and studying do not contradict each other. In Seon Buddhism, this is expressed as “Da Seon Il Che (茶禪一體)” or “Seon Nong Il Chi” (禪農一致i); in other words, practicing Seon (禪) and drinking tea, or practicing Seon and working are not separate, but interconnected activities.

We should apply the Buddha’s teachings to our lives. The Buddha’s teachings should become our way of life. Merely thinking with our minds is not truly studying Buddhism. Thoughts that arise in the mind are all delusions and worries. Do things as they come to mind. If it’s wrong, fix it. If you made a mistake, apologize. If you don’t know, ask.

Suffering arises if you pretend to know when you don’t know, when you pretend not to be wrong when you are wrong, or when you insist that you did right when you did wrong. 

Live your life freely. If there’s a problem, fix it. Then, even in an imperfect state, you can live freely.

I hope you can live happily.

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

** Buddhist Monk Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Awarded the 37th Niwano Peace Prize (BDG)

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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