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Choice and Self-Contradiction

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, social activist, and podcaster, 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.

The following article is part of a series of essays shared by Jungto Society of notable highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe. 

During the course of our lives, we make choices that we think are best at the time. However, when we look back, we realize that the choices we may have considered to be good before did not have the best outcomes. For example, you get married to be happy, but your marriage may end up making you unhappy. You have a child and expect to become happier, but your child may end up making you so miserable that you envy people who don’t have children. You start a business to make money, but you may end up in debt. Consequently, we are often regretful and miserable because things don’t turn out the way we intended. Then, we wonder:

“Am I the master of my life? Or have I been swept here by the currents of the world?”

Indeed, are we living our lives as the masters of our lives?

Once, there was a man who left his home, his assets, his position, and loved ones to become a monk in order to attain enlightenment. After several years of practice at a temple, he came to believe that it would be impossible for him to attain enlightenment if he continued to live in a community of monks. He felt that he didn’t have enough time to practice as he had to do chores, cook meals, and perform various other tasks that were part of communal living.

He thought to himself: “It would be better for me to go alone deep into the mountains and practice to my heart’s content.”

So he went deep into the mountains, about 10 kilometers away from the nearest village. He first built a thatched cottage to take shelter from the elements and went down to the village regularly to get food. He had more work to do now than before. The cottage often needed repairs, and he had to walk 10 kilometers almost every day to get food from the village. Since he walked long distances, he needed to make straw shoes more frequently than before. Therefore, he didn’t have any time to practice.

To make matters worse, the monk became sick. He went to see a doctor who said his illness was caused by malnutrition and that he needed to drink a glass of milk every day. But how could he get milk in the mountains? So he went down to the village every day for a glass of milk. Since this was too time consuming, he bought a couple of goats and took them to his cottage.

Since he could now milk the goats, he was spared the trouble of making a trip to the village every day. However, he now had to do more chores than before. He had to tie the goats to posts to prevent them from escaping, feed them regularly, and cut enough grass to feed all of them. He was able to drink milk thanks to the goats, but he had less time to practice as he had to take care of them. In order to solve this problem, he hired a goat-keeper.

Now he needed to pay the goat-keeper. Before, he only needed enough food to feed himself from his alms round. Now he also had to find food and money to give to the goat-keeper, so his alms round took much longer. He couldn’t let this go on. The monk thought to himself: “It may be better to get married than go on like this.”

So the monk got married, and he was happy that he didn’t have to pay the goat-keeper or do any housework. He thought that he could finally concentrate on his practice. But alas, his wife became pregnant.

And so the man who left his home and family to become a monk and attain enlightenment got married, had children, and ended up scraping by to make a living just like any other layperson.

After hearing this man’s life story, you might think that he is very foolish, but most of us live like him. We think that we are always making good choices. However, when we look back, we can see that, tempted by the moment’s comfort and ease, we have forgotten our initial goal and purpose. If a man gets married, he should live accordingly, and if a man leaves home to become a monk, he should also live accordingly. If we have such a clear perspective on life, we will suffer less. However, we are so easily swayed that when things get tough, we say, “Maybe I should become a monk.” Then after becoming a monk, we envy a layman’s life and say, “Practice is so hard.”

Like the Buddhist monk in the story who lost track of his initial goal, we often do foolish things. At times like this, we have two options. One is to forget about our initial goals and live according to the situation in which we find ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that. The other is to return to our initial goal the moment we realize we have deviated from it.

People habitually say, “I will be happy when I have money,” or “I will be happy when I get married.” However, they are still not happy even after they make money or get married. When they don’t have children, they say, “I will be happy when I have a child.” When they have a child, they say, “I will be happy when the child goes to elementary school.” When the child goes to elementary school, they say, “I will be happy when the child goes to middle school.” When the child goes to middle school, they say, “I will be happy when the child goes to college.” When the child goes to college, they still postpone their happiness. They say that they will be happy “when the child gets a job,” “when the child gets married,” “when I have a grandchild,” and then “when the grandchild grows up.” Throughout their lives, people change the conditions that they think they need to be happy, and they end up dying without ever having tasted happiness.

Wealth, fame, family, and friends are neither the causes of our suffering nor the conditions for happiness. Sometimes, we think these things will make us happy, and at other times we think that they make us suffer. If we go back and forth between these two extremes, we will never be free from suffering.

If you are married, instead of being dissatisfied and worrying about things, try to think, “I have a wife/husband, a house, and a job. There is nothing in the world to envy. My life is the best.”

If we accept our lives as they are, we will become free and happy. If we have a goal that we want to achieve, we have to stop the habit of blindly running forward toward that goal. Rather than resolving to change our behavior starting tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we have to learn to be happy here and now.

There is no right answer in life. We are free to live as we choose. We hesitate when making choices because we don’t want to be responsible for the consequences.

We can’t say for certain that life is good or bad. There are only choices and the responsibilities that come with the choices we make. Taking responsibility for the choices we make is to willingly accept the consequences of our choices. If we readily accept the consequences of our actions, we won’t be miserable or resentful, no matter what happens.

See more

Pomnyun
Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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