The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, social activist, and podcaster to name a few. As an internationally respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged Buddhist, 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.
The following article is one of a series of essays shared by Jungto Society of notable highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s teachings and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.
Sometimes we feel that we are lagging behind while others live their lives to the fullest and pursue their dreams. Our inner conflict is amplified when we have dreams that we want to realize and things we want to do but we are forced to give them up because of our circumstances.
A man in his 30s complained that he had to give up his dreams in order to make a living and that he was very unhappy because of his reality. He explained: “If I had the means, I would like to resume my studies in design. However, since I am married and have a child, it’s getting harder to quit my job and pursue my dream. Is it alright to abandon my dream and just live like this?”
Often, we think that we would be happy if we had a job for which we had an aptitude. Aptitude matters for some jobs, but it doesn’t for others. It was my dream to become a scientist, and I thought that I had an aptitude for it. I had never even imagined becoming a Buddhist monk. So you can imagine how much torment and inner conflict I must have experienced to live as a monk rather than as a scientist.
Since leaving home at the age of 16 to live as a monk, I have tried to apply science in my life in a new way. As I had an interest in the sciences, I did not believe in groundless elements of religion, and I distanced myself from them. I thought hard about the question: “What do I need to do to help people understand the Buddha’s teaching more easily?” Therefore, in my talks, I try to deliver the Buddha’s teaching coherently and logically. In sum, no matter what kind of work you do, it is affected by your personal inclination.
You may say, “I have an aptitude for science, so I must have a job related to science.” This is a fixed notion.
You can’t be sure that your aptitude is right only for certain jobs. If you do your best in your work, you can manifest your talents and abilities in any job.
I often tell young people who are looking for work: “Do what you really want to do. Do what makes your heart beat faster.” They need to think carefully about the true meaning of these words. Young people should search for jobs that suit them rather than trying to become doctors, lawyers, or government officials in pursuit of money, position, or security. Also, if there are jobs that they think they will be good at and really want to get, they should pursue them even if they don’t get paid much initially, and they should not weigh whether or not they are so-called “good” jobs. Occupations that most people say are good are not necessarily good for everyone, so one should not blindly follow the path that the majority of people recommend.
However, you don’t need to torment yourself with questions like, “Why don’t I have a passion for anything?” or “Why don’t I have something to which I would like to devote my life?” There are people who have passion and there are those who don’t. Maybe it is better not to have a passion for any particular work. This is because if you can do whatever is given to you, you will be more free. Cooking when cooking needs to be done, doing laundry when laundry needs to be done, giving a lecture when a lecture needs to be given, and doing farm work when farm work needs to be done is how people on the highest level of enlightenment live.
One can become free by not insisting that “this is the only way for me.” Most people cannot attain such freedom, so they try to focus on at least one thing and try to do it well. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about not wanting to do anything or liking anything in particular right now.
Also, you shouldn’t despair about not being able to do what you want to do. Let’s say you want to study design but your current situation doesn’t allow it. Then you can try to incorporate design into your work instead of agonizing over not being able to study it further.
Let’s say this person becomes a monk. Wouldn’t he still have the opportunity to design? He could become interested in the design of monks’ robes, garden landscaping, or creative modernization of temple designs that preserve the traditional beauty of the structures. It’s not really important what specific kind of work you do or what kind of design you do. Working on the things that come your way, you will be able to find your aptitude and employ your talent.
Ignoring reality while searching for your dream and pursuing future happiness is like building a castle in the air. However, solely focusing on making a living in the present will leave you without hope in the future. Therefore, people always agonize over whether to pursue their ideals or focus on their present circumstances. Yet, the relationship between ideals and the present does not need to be a conflicting one. Your feet should be firmly planted in reality while your eyes look toward your ideals.
Thirty years ago, I opened a Dharma center with the aspiration to break away from the common practice of seeking good fortune and instead aiming to study the Buddha’s original teachings and attain enlightenment. Before opening the center, I tried to follow this aspiration in a Korean Buddhist temple, which led to a lot of conflict. This is because at the temple it was customary to pray for blessings and perform ancestral rites, but I refused to participate. Many people complained about me to the abbot of the temple, saying: “If he continues to do that, we will lose all our lay Buddhists.”
I had no choice but to leave the temple, open a small Dharma center, and start sharing the Buddha’s teaching directly. Did many people recognize my good intentions from the beginning and come to the center? No, they didn’t.
First, I handed out leaflets that read: “I have opened a Dharma center. Please come to study the Buddha’s teachings.” About 10 people came after reading the leaflets. After looking around the tiny center with disappointment, they never came back. However, I kept handing out leaflets without giving up.
Then, after preparing a three-month Buddhist lecture program, I invited a famous monk to the opening ceremony. Five people came that day, but after the first lecture, only one person remained. As it was a three-month education program, most teachers would have canceled. However, I conducted the lecture program for the one remaining person for the whole three months.
After the program ended, the person who had attended the lectures brought several acquaintances to the Dharma center. Also, after I again handed out leaflets, 10 more people came, five of whom stayed. I gave the three-month lecture program to those people. That’s how the Dharma center slowly grew to become what it is now.
I was penniless at the time, so how was I able to keep the Dharma center open? On the days that I didn’t give lectures, I worked part time as a math instructor at an academy to cover the expenses of running the center. I continued doing this for four years and only stopped when the Dharma center finally became financially independent.
If I had compromised because of the difficulty of the situation, I wouldn’t have been able to take the path that I wanted to follow. Even when we are sure of our dreams for the future, we sometimes feel doubtful and ask ourselves: “Am I on the right path?” At times like these, we need to work hard while thinking about how things will be in 10 years, and investigate ways to face the challenges of each day.
Simply waiting will not bring about a good future. We make our future dreams a reality by always investigating and overcoming difficulties.
Related features from BDG
Dharma Q+A with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Turning Old Wounds into Life Assets
Dharma Q+A with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Facing the Challenges of COVID-19 Lockdown
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Engaged Buddhism: Seon Master Pomnyun Sunim Pledges 10,000 Tons of Food Aid for Children in North Korea
Engaging with Suffering, Realizing Freedom: An Interview with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim
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