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Begin Life Now

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 Seattle on 7 September. This article is the seventh in a 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” from 1–22 September 2023, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*

I’ve met many people on dating apps, but finding a genuine connection is challenging

Q: As I turned 40 this year, I realized that I’m still single. Despite the abundance of dating apps available today, I find it difficult to establish deeper relationships through them. While these apps make it easy to meet potential partners, they also lead to casual encounters. Although I don’t dislike these individuals, I’m hesitant to pursue something more serious. The ease of meeting multiple people has made it challenging for me to commit to one person, and I find myself constantly comparing the people I meet. I’m worried that I may end up without a long-lasting relationship. What could I do to meet a good person who will be my partner for life?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What qualities or characteristics make a person a good person for you?

Q: A person whose personality is compatible with mine.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: As long as the personality is compatible, does age matter? What about a partner 20 years older?

Q: I prefer a partner younger than me as I want to have children.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So as long as the person is younger than you, you should be open to anyone regardless of their race, appearance, or disabilities, such as scars on their face or being visually impaired?

Q: Race doesn’t matter, but I do care about appearance . . .

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So you would be okay, for example, with someone about 130 centimeters tall?

Q: I don’t think I would like that, either.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You mentioned that you were open to anyone without any specific preferences, but if you input all of your desired criteria into the computer and filter out potential matches, there may not be a single person who meets all of your conditions.

Q: I’m looking for someone who is just average.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The “average” you think isn’t really an average if you examine it closely. You told me earlier that your potential partner shouldn’t be 20 years older.

Q: I think your example is extreme.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Then how about a person who is 20 years younger? Do you find it acceptable?

Q: I’d say it’s still extreme, but I’m likely to accept that case more than the other example.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The French president’s wife is 25 years his senior. They tied the knot because he found her attractive when he visited his friend’s house during his school days. This eventually led to her divorce and their subsequent marriage. After he became president, his wife served successfully as the first lady. While a 25-year age difference is not an issue here, why does a 20-year age gap become problematic to you?

Q: I’m okay with that age gap as long as I’m the older one in the relationship.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Your stringent criteria are the reason why it is difficult to find a genuine relationship. Focusing only on the partner’s qualities without considering your own makes it hard to lead to a committed relationship. As you have already pointed out, dating may be possible this way, but marriage seems highly unlikely. Additionally, if you were to marry, there’s a good chance you’d end up with someone with a terrible temperament and unusual characteristics. The more selective you are in choosing a partner, the more likely you will make the wrong choice.

Q: Why is that so?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Let me put it this way. When fishing for snappers, do you use bait they like or dislike?

Q: Of course, I’d use bait that they like.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: And when you’re setting out rat poison, do you put it in something that rats like or dislike?

Q: Of course, something that rats like.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Just like snappers and rats are attracted to the most appealing food, even if it contains a hook or poison, if you find someone who seems perfect compared to all other options, they’re likely to be dangerous to you in the same way that rat poison is dangerous to a rat. 

This is a basic principle of human psychology. The more selective someone is, the more likely they are to choose the “rat poison.” If you want to meet someone who is a good person, you’re more likely to do so if you’re open-minded and willing to meet anyone, regardless of age or other criteria. The more selective you are, the more likely you are to end up single forever or with someone who is bad for you.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Q: I am currently seeing three women. We agree that we can date other people if we want, and we are getting to know each other. However, there are both pros and cons to this arrangement. One of the biggest drawbacks is that it can be challenging to choose between the three women.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You’re counting the chicken before they hatch. You don’t know if any of these women think of you as a potential partner. Try proposing to one of these women, and you will face immediate rejection.

Q: You’re right.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Sometimes, approaching someone with the sole purpose of dating can be burdensome for the other person. Approach people as friends first, have conversations, make connections, and see where it goes. Dating should be a mutual feeling, not one-sided.

In the past, people thought that the relentless pursuit of someone you love, even if it was not reciprocated, could lead to success. However, this is no longer the case and it can be considered stalking.

When it comes to dating, age, race, or occupation are not barriers. However, marriage is different as it involves merging two families, and there are many expectations to meet from other people, including both parties’ parents. Marriage is about sharing your life together and it requires mutual adjustments to form a new family. That’s why marriage is more difficult than dating.

In addition, approaching someone with the mindset of “I want to marry you” is also not ideal as it makes the other person the object of your desires. Your age is not a problem, and no one would marry you just because you are over the marital age.

Instead of focusing on age, whether the other person is 50 or 60, get to know them as friends first. Meet different people. Then if there’s a mutual emotional connection, then you can consider dating. Some among them may agree to marriage and that’s how it happens. In this day and age, if both individuals agree, half the journey toward marriage is completed. Of course, family relationships need to be considered and there’s more to the process. However, you shouldn’t approach it with too much purpose right away. Especially young people today don’t appreciate being approached with such a purpose-driven mindset.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Q: Should I allow the relationship to develop naturally?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It’s best to take things slow and get to know people without any pressure or expectations. When we make friends, age or other factors don’t matter. And a friendly relationship may potentially lead to a romantic one. In these circumstances, age gap or other conditions, such as having kids, are not a barrier as long as there’s a strong emotional connection. Setting too many conditions in advance might prevent you from meeting the right person. Therefore, don’t judge someone based on their age or anything else; just focus on building a meaningful friendship. If you feel a mutual emotional connection, you can consider dating. If you feel that the person is someone you can share your life with, you can think about taking the next step and getting married.

Another approach is to go cold turkey and start dating someone without knowing anything, not even their face. For example, meeting people through the internet, without exchanging any pictures. In Korea’s Joseon era, people used to marry without even seeing each other’s faces. They had to marry if both families agreed to the match. Back then, the chances of a successful marriage were highly uncertain, and once married divorce was not an option, meaning couples had to live together for a lifetime. This is why Eastern horoscope compatibility was popular. Although it is debatable whether it’s effective, when horoscope compatibility came out as favorable, it gave a sense of psychological relief.

While horoscope compatibility was the only way to find the right partner in the past, now we have the luxury of dating or living with our partners before marriage. Interestingly, despite these advances, divorce rates are still high. In the past, although people married without knowing anything about their future spouse, they often stayed together until death. This is because there were no expectations to be met. The concept of “love at first sight” essentially means that one has enormous expectations for the other, which are often not met, ultimately leading to a breakup.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Q: I believe that the women who meet me do so because they find me interesting and attractive.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: But can you really know their true intentions? Whether they are approaching you because they genuinely like you, just want to have some fun, want your money, or have some ulterior motive, it’s impossible to know. If you think you know, it’s inaccurate. The human mind is as fickle as the wind. You shouldn’t be overly suspicious of the other person, but you also shouldn’t delude yourself; that kind of thinking paves way to a romantic scammer.

Let’s say a young woman in her 30s approaches me and says she likes me, offering to buy me a car and a house. There’s a high probability that she is a scammer or has some mental issues. If she’s in her right mind, she wouldn’t be confessing love to an ordained monk. This is why when somebody says something like that, I tell them to go see a doctor. (audience laughter)

Just like that, rushing into things can lead to hasty and wrong decisions. It’s better to approach finding the right partner with patience and a relaxed mindset. Nowadays, 40 is not considered old, so there’s no need for you to feel a sense of urgency. Forget about age and be open to meeting different types of people.

Have you considered taking an approach where you help women in need, perhaps someone with a disability, someone who has faced racial discrimination, or someone who is facing other difficulties in life? Who knows, the universe may reward you with a great match. As I mentioned earlier, if you remain too picky in choosing a partner, it’s more likely that you’ll end up choosing “rat poison.”

Q: Thank you, Sunim.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Shall I ask the audience? How many of you have taken the “rat poison”? I know there are plenty of you out there. Please raise your hand if you’re one of them. (audience laughter).

It appears to me that you all tend to take life too seriously. As for me, I have a more relaxed outlook on life. I believe that life is as simple as a squirrel being born in the mountains and eventually passing away, or a single blade of grass growing by the roadside and withering. My guiding principle is “I begin now,” which means that yesterday was only practice and today is the real deal. When you practice, various things are bound to happen, so I don’t dwell on the past.

It’s not enough to just say “I should smile!” to make your face light up. Your face naturally relaxes when you’re not stressed. But most importantly, it’s important to know how to be grateful. Imagine waking up in the morning and thinking, “I’m alive today!” That feeling of joy is priceless. Perhaps we should all try to approach life with a bit more lightness.

We set out to find attractive partners. When we actually do find them, we often realize that the relationship with them is not as easy as it seemed. This is because there are likely to be other people who are also interested in attractive partners. However, if you’re with someone who isn’t the center of attention, you don’t have to worry about other people being interested in your partner. So if you want to ensure that your partner is devoted to you, it’s best to find someone like that. On the other hand, if you’re already with a very attractive person, it’s better to be open to the possibility that others might take an interest in them. Instead of making a big deal out of it, take the self-confidence approach that your partner is someone who is worthy of attention, and that it’s only natural for others to be attracted to them too.

The truth is, however, that many of us want partners who are attractive while also wanting to control the relationship, as if we are entitled to all of them. Furthermore, if it is love at first sight, it is likely that the situation is like rat poison is to a rat, or a hook is to a fish. The truth is, no one can ever be exactly as we would like them to be.

Living together with a partner in a marriage requires adaptation, rather than fixating on who is right or wrong. It’s common to have complaints about your spouse, but it’s essential to listen to their point of view as well. If your partner is angry, it could be due to their temper, but it may also be something you said or did. We often believe that our own viewpoint is the only correct one, but it’s important to consider the other side of the story.

If you are not willing to adjust to your partner, then it might be better to live alone. The choice to live together comes with the responsibility of adjusting to your partner’s habits and preferences. No one else can take responsibility for the choices you make in life. Don’t make the mistake of hoping for a miracle where someone else takes responsibility for you. Such thoughts will only lead to tiredness.

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

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