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Engaged Buddhism in a Divided World: Declaration for Peace at the Korean DMZ

The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Images courtesy of Jungto Society

The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), jointly organized with Jungto Society, was held in South Korea from 24–30 October, under the theme “Buddhism in a Divided World: Peace Planet, Pandemic.” 

The forum, which was split between the autumnal mountain idyll of Mungyeong in the south of the Korean Peninsula and the 21st century metropolitan bustle of Seoul, brought together almost 100 speakers and attendees, members of INEB from around the world, led by the renowned social activist and INEB founder Sulak Sivaraksa and the revered monk and teacher Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, founder of Jungto Society and Patron to INEB. The speakers included distinguished teachers, scholars, and prominent engaged Buddhist activists, who presented, examined, and discussed an array of topics that broached core themes related to the roles and obligations of engaged Buddhists in today’s divided and troubled world.

The conference culminated with a peace tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the ragged, 250-kilometer scar that cleaves the Korean Peninsula in two. Here, the participants confronted a stark reminder of our divided world and the raison d’etre for the peace tour and for the conference theme: a 70-year-old manifestation of the hate-fueled divisions between nations, societies, and people that cause untold misery and suffering around the world.

The focal point for the peace tour was Imjingak, a memorial park on the bank of the Imjin River that stands as a tragic memorial to the pain and horror of the Korean War, which broke out on 25 June 1950 and has divided the nation physically and spiritually ever since.

Imjingak is home to numerous monuments and relics of armed conflict; silent witnesses to the wounds of a war that have yet to heal. Not least among them is the Freedom Bridge, which spans the Imjin River. Before the two Koreas were divided, a railway service operated across twin bridges, running onward to Sinuiju in the north of the Korean Peninsula. Both bridges were destroyed during the hostilities, severing a vital link with the North. Later, the west bridge was restored for the purpose of exchanging prisoners of war. In 1953, the bridge received its current name after more than 10,000 prisoners of war crossed over from North Korea and back to freedom.

“The Korean War caused more than five million people to flee from North Korea to South Korea,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim shared with those gathered. “There were also many people who fled from South Korea to North Korea. As a result of the conflict, more than 10 million people were separated from their families and loved ones. On national holidays, the thoughts of Koreans turn to their family members in North Korea, and they come here to look toward the North and bow.

“This site represents the reality of this divided Korean Peninsula. It is a place where mountains and water, the sky and the wind are connected without distinction. But one day, the people of this land became enemies and could no longer come and go freely. 

“There was so much killing on both sides during the war, and our hearts were filled with hate. The depth of this hatred was such that when we heard that North Koreans were starving to death from famine, the news was welcomed in the South. Although South Korea has provided humanitarian aid to Africa and other distant countries, many people still refused to offer help to North Korea. It shows just how frightening our hatred can be.

“Huge quantities of weapons have been placed on either side of the Demilitarized Zone, ready and waiting to kill. Outside of that, we have the great world powers—China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. If there is further military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, there is a very real risk that it could spread and become another global war.

“If we could only calm down and think clearly about our world, we would see that war leads to so much pain, suffering, and damage, yet it doesn’t benefit either side. Nevertheless, when it comes to resolving conflict through dialogue, many people are quick to criticize: ‘Why are you being so obsequious, as if we are weak?’ Yet the reasons for seeking a peaceful solution are not because we are servile; they are because we need to find a peaceful solution to protect the lives of so many people.

“Of course, conflicts like this are taking place all over the world. In order to effectively solve this problem, we need to have the clear view and understanding that people are more important than any ideology or belief. I hope that we can all have this clear view that life is the most precious gift of all. If we can quiet our minds and calm down a little before we become angry, we can all help to maintain peace in the world.

“Meditation alone does not bring peace, but meditation that calms the mind allows peace to take root. I hope we can pray for peace on the Korean Peninsula and for the rest of the world with you here in the DMZ.”

As the sadness behind these words hung heavy in the air, the participants approached the barbed-wire fence that marked the edge of the visitor’s area and looked toward the North. Each wrote a simple message or aspiration on a ribbon and secured it to the cold steel fence. Heartfelt prayers and wishes for peace fluttered like leaves in the autumn sunlight.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim then led the participants in a solemn ceremony: a prayer for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, and a declaration for peace and reunification for our divided world.

Peace Declaration

On this fine fall day, as we stand here today surrounded by nature’s beauty, let us bear witness to a horrific history of suffering. The Korean War began in 1950 and lasted for three years. It pitted fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, mothers against daughters, sisters against sisters. At the end of three years, three million people were killed, properties were destroyed, and the land was devastated. And the peninsula remains divided to this day.

This happened because different people had different ideas of what Korea should be and how people should live. Those differences became hatred and disdain that launched bombs, bullets, and knives against innocent people and caused untold suffering that continues to resonate today beneath our very feet on this symbolic ground.

Unfortunately, such suffering is not unique. Similar suffering is occurring throughout the world today and has occurred throughout the history of humankind. Let us recognize that the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance continue to create an institutionalized structure of violence that ever lead to injustice and suffering.

We are gathered here today as representatives of Engaged Buddhism because we recognize that Buddhism deals with everyday suffering of everyday people. Engaged also means to connect with one another intentionally and humanely in a camaraderie of honesty and truth to lessen suffering by dismantling structural violence wherever we encounter it.

On this day, surrounded by admirable friends and colleagues, we bear witness to one another and declare that we will always remain engaged to help the vulnerable, embrace the different, and protect the marginalized. Therefore, we declare we will:

Bear witness to the hungry and feed them.

Bear witness to the sick and treat them.

Bear witness to the children without access to schooling and educate them.

Bear witness to discrimination and protect human rights.

Bear witness to refugees and provide shelters for them.

Bear witness to violence and seek peaceful resolution.

May all living beings be happy and peaceful.

Sādhu! Sādhu! Sādhu!

The participants closed their eyes in silent meditation, praying for peace, and for a united, compassionate world for all beings. 

A bell rang out.

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was formed in 1989 by the prominent Thai academic, activist, and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa and a group of Buddhist and non-Buddhist thought leaders. Connecting socially engaged Buddhists around the world, INEB works promote understanding, cooperation, and networking among inter-Buddhist and inter-religious groups, and to actively address urgent global issues such as human rights, conflict resolution, and environmental crises. Headquartered in Bangkok, INEB has established a wide range of social projects and outreach programs aimed at overcoming suffering and empowering vulnerable communities through the practice of the Dharma and engaged Buddhism.

Jungto Society is a volunteer-run community and humanitarian organization that aspires to embody the Buddhist teachings through social engagement, and by promoting a simple lifestyle that is less centered on consumption than mainstream society. Jungto Society seeks to address the problems and crises of modern society, such as greed, poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation, by applying a Buddhist worldview of interconnectedness and in line with the principal that everyone can find happiness through Buddhist practice and active participation in social movements. Jungto Society connects communities of practitioners across South Korea and the world, each offering online Dharma instruction and other Dharma-based programs.

See more

2022 Public Symposium | Seoul, Korea (INEB)
The 20th Biennial INEB Conference in South Korea (INEB)
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
Jungto Society
Jungto Society International

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