Jungto Society, the international Buddhist community founded by the revered Korean Dharma master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님), this month hosted an intensive eight-day study trip in South Korea for young leaders and activists affiliated with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). From 13–20 June, 19 Buddhists from nine countries and territories in Asia—Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—gathered in a warm and welcoming atmosphere of kalyana-mitrata* to practice, to learn, and to connect; to exchange ideas, to inspire, and to be inspired.
Buddhistdoor Global was privileged to join this unique assembly of monastic and lay practitioners, leaders and activists, to share a Dharmic journey that combined elements of study, experiential workshops, and field trips, with the discipline and commitment of a traditional Buddhist retreat.
Led by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and hosted by the committed and tireless volunteers who make up Jungto Society, the exhaustive itinerary included visits to Buddhist monasteries and temples across South Korea, group presentations and discussions, Dharma talks and Buddhist practice. All of this was aimed at providing an opportunity for the participants to meet and connect, and to present and exchange ideas for expressing and practicing engaged Buddhism in today’s increasingly polarized world.
Jungto Society is a volunteer-run community that aspires to embody the Buddhist teachings through social engagement, and by promoting a simple lifestyle centered on sustainable living. The community seeks to address the crises of modern society, such as greed, poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation, by applying a Buddhist worldview of interconnectedness and living in line with the principle that everyone can find happiness through Buddhist practice and active participation in social movements.
Each day of the study trip began with pre-dawn chanting and prostration in the Dharma hall, before the participants broke their fast with a traditional formal vegetarian temple meal known as balwoogongyang (발우공양), a ritualized evocation of the traditional alms round conducted by monastics during the time of the historical Buddha, and which is still practiced by some monastic sanghas in the present day—especially in the Theravada tradition. Unique to Korean Buddhist monasteries, balwoogongyang is typically served on ceremonial occasions and during intensive retreats—although the resident communty of Jungto Society practice balwoogongyang every morning—and is regarded as a type of meditation practice centered on gratitude and compassion.
“What are the teachings of the Buddha?” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim enquired of the assembled participants after they had eaten.
“Originally, I had dreamed of becoming a scientist. However, through a fateful encounter with a teacher at a temple next to my high school, I ended up entering the temple. At that time, I considered religion—whether Buddhism or Christianity—to be merely irrational and empty talk. But as I studied the Buddhadharma, I came to understand that these teachings are remarkably rational. Our modern civilization is centered on science and technology, where science is the study and exploration of the principles and the composition of matter and how we engaged with it. Similarly, I recognized that the Buddhadharma is an exploration of the principles behind the functioning of the human mind and consciousness, making it very similar to science. That’s why I gave up on becoming a scientist and instead became a Buddhist monk.
“However, after living in the temple for several years, I noticed that the monks there were primarily focused on giving blessings for laypeople. Moreover, I was disappointed to see them talking about the unrealistic notion that praying would lead to a more favorable rebirth. In traditional Indian religions, karma signifies predetermined destiny. It is believed that being born as a woman or having disabilities is the result of sins committed in past lives, while being born into a higher social class or into wealth indicates having accumulated blessings. However, I began to see these interpretations of karma as mere justifications for the inequalities and discrimination in society. I began questioning whether the Buddhism that rationalizes inequality and discrimination in the world is worth believing in, or if I should leave the Buddhist community. During that time, South Korea in particular was undergoing an active democratization movement and the people were experiencing various forms of suffering. I was disappointed by the ties of some of the Buddhist clergy at that time with the authorities, and I was deeply moved by the suffering of the people.”
“So what is the Buddha’s teaching?
“With these growing doubts, I collected all the scriptures I could and started studying the materials related to the life of the Buddha. As I re-examined the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings, I discovered that the Buddhism that many of us are taught is completely different from the Buddha’s original teaching, and is, in fact, closer to the traditional Indian religion of Hinduism. This led me to contemplate establishing a new way of teaching the Buddhadharma. The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is that our suffering is not caused by sins from our past lives, punishments imposed by some higher power, or astrological factors, but rather by our own ignorance. If we can awaken ourselves from this ignorance, we can free ourselves from suffering. This is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha.
“In the Buddha’s teaching, ‘karma’ does not refer to predetermined destiny but rather to the formation of habits. Since it is something that has been formed, it can also be extinguished. Karma is considered a habitual pattern that repeats itself, but because it is formed it can be undone. Thereby, we can liberate ourselves from all suffering and attain enlightenment. The Buddha’s teaching is aimed at enabling us to awakening within ourselves, to reach a state without suffering, which is nirvana. It has nothing to do with seeking blessings or attaining a better rebirth. It is far removed from what people commonly refer to as religion.”
Each year, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) selects a group of promising leaders and engaged Buddhist activists to travel to South Korea, where they are hosted by Jungto Society with the objective of learning from the activities of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and Jungto Society in practicing the Buddhadharma within the context of modern society: studying the ways in which Korean monastics and Jungto Society volunteers practice and conduct social engagement, with opportunities for monastic and lay Buddhists to share and exchange ideas for applying the Dharma in their respective societies. This annual program was suspended for three years during the COVID-19 pandemic, and resumed this year.
INEB is a global network of individuals and organizations who are committed to promoting and working toward social justice, environmental sustainability, and world peace. INEB was formed in 1989 by the noted Buddhist scholar and activist Prof. Sulak Sivaraksa and a group of Buddhist leaders and scholars who were seeking to apply the Buddhist teachings and principles to contemporary social and political issues. Headquartered in Bangkok, INEB has established a wide range of social programs and outreach projects across Asia aimed at overcoming suffering and empowering vulnerable communities, including education and training, community development, advocacy and lobbying efforts, and interfaith dialogue.
The INEB-Jungto study program for this year, which ran from 13–20 June, was divided between the Jungto Education and Training Center, Mungyeong Retreat Center, and Dubuk Jungto Retreat Center in South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province, and the Jungto Center headquarters in downtown Seoul.
The eight-day schedule included an examination of the humanitarian, social, and environmental organizations and projects founded by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, including: Jungto Society and the Jungto Dharma and retreat centers, which offer settings for groups and individuals to study and engage in personal Buddhist practice; the Peace Foundation, focused on conflict-resolution and working toward the reunification of the Korean Peninsula; EcoBuddha, which promotes simple living, sustainability, and environmental protection; Good Friends, a center for peace, human rights, and assisting refugees from North Korea; and Join Together Society (JTS), an international humanitarian relief organization.
The delegates and guests also participated in a series of intensive Dharma talks, group discussions, and sharing sessions centered on key aspects of internal and external Buddhist practice—from understanding Buddhist philosophy and personal Buddhist practice and conduct, to the bodhisattva aspiration to liberate all sentient beings, as embodied in the philosophy and practice of engaged Buddhism.
Topics addressed ranged the profound subtleties of the concept of no-self, to sustainable living and organic farming, humanitarian relief and empowering oppressed communities, and support for bhikshuni ordination in all Buddhist traditions.
In-depth panel discussions were also organized with Buddhist media representatives, Korean NGOs, and with workers from ethnic minorities in Korea, who offered first-hand accounts of the struggles and challenges of life in contemporary Korean society.
The perspectives and learning takeaways from these study opportunities were then reviewed in the contexts and circumstances of each of the study trip delegates, to examine how they could be applied to help the activists become agents of change in their own communities, working with compassionate wisdom to effectively relieve suffering.
This study portion of the program was fortified by real-world examples of Korean Buddhism in life and practice. Field visits were arranged to centers of monastic study and practice: a pilgrimage to Bongam-sa, a ninth-century Buddhist monastery and monastic retreat center founded in the mountains of central Korea; a visit to Bulguk-sa, a Buddhist monastery originally founded in the sixth century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to seven national treasures; a pilgrimage to Unmun-sa, the largest monastery in the country for female monastics and home to the largest Buddhist college, which has produced more than 1,250 bhikshunis; and Jogye-sa in downtown Seoul, the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country’s largest Buddhist order, where the program participants had an audience with Ven. Jinwoo, the executive director of the order.
The program delegates also paid a powerful and inspiring visit to Jungtoh Village Jajae Hospital, a hospice and palliative care facility for patients with advanced-stage cancer and other illnesses, founded in 2013 and led by the Korean bhikshuni Nungheung Sunim, a living exemplar of compassionate action for the relief of suffering.
“The one who experienced and lived a life free from suffering in a concrete manner is Gautama Buddha. Therefore, as Buddhists, we need to study the life of Gautama Buddha within the context of historical facts,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim explained to the practitioners. “The Buddha, too, experienced various forms of existential questioning in his own life and liberated himself from the anguish. That is why, through the teachings of the Buddha, we can also free ourselves from suffering.”
“As to why the Buddha renounced his kingship and royal inheritance, it is crucial that we understand this aspect of the Buddha’s life in order to fully grasp Buddhism. By clearly comprehending this, one can liberate oneself from the pursuit of consumerism and related desires.
“Learning about the life and teachings of the Buddha is not merely about studying history; it is about addressing our current sufferings and the climate crisis, and striving for a sustainable future. By practicing the Buddha’s teachings, we can become a beacon of hope in resolving the pressing issues facing humanity.
“The development of Buddhism, as many people talk about it today, should not be equated with pursuing consumerism. Building larger temples, receiving more offerings, and attaining higher positions to exert influence—can we truly consider these as the development of Buddhism? Instead, true development in Buddhism lies in relieving the sufferings of humanity.”
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, the guiding Dharma teacher of Jungto Society, is a widely respected author and social activist. He has founded numerous organizations, initiatives, and projects across the world. In October 2020, The Niwano Peace Foundation in Japan presented the 37th Niwano Peace Prize to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in recognition of the revered monk’s international humanitarian work, environmental and social activism, and his tireless efforts to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths and cultures, toward the goal of world peace.**
This feature will be followed by a series of articles based on the experiences and participants of the study trip summarized here.
* Kalyana-mitrata (Skt.), Kalyaṇa-mittata (Pali); the Buddhist concept of virtuous spiritual friendship.
Related features from BDG
Rebirth and Revolution – Engaged Buddhism in Japan: A Conversation with Jonathan Watts
In the Footsteps of the Buddha: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Leads 1,250 Jungto Practitioners on a Pilgrimage to India
Engaged Buddhism in a Divided World: Declaration for Peace at the Korean DMZ
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