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 Munich on 4 September. This article is the fourth in a series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s 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.*
Thanks to you, there is the Jungto Society of today
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: During this 2023 Overseas Dharma Talk Tour, I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunity to meet with those who were involved in the early days of Jungto Society and express my gratitude to them. I’ve been able to express my gratitude to current members in Jungto Society at the Closing Ceremony of Jungto’s 10,000-Day Practice, but I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to say thank you to those who couldn’t attend the ceremony due to their old age and poor health.
So during this overseas tour, I’m taking the time to greet them when I see them at Dharma talks so that I can convey my gratitude. For those who couldn’t attend the Dharma talks, we are expressing our gratitude over the phone. There was someone who refused to even answer the phone, so I reached out to her personally to say thank you. During our conversation she said, “Oh, Sunim, you know about the hard times I had?” To which I replied, “Of course, I know. How could I not know that you worked through many challenges during the initial days of Jungto Society?”
The early members living abroad who met Jungto Society were often coping with the loneliness that comes from being away from home. They were primarily drawn to Jungto Society because of their longing for Buddhism as a religion. This meant that there was much fervor and enthusiasm but also many who felt disappointed by the focus in Jungto Society on Buddhist practice and their feeling that it was rather indifferent. Nonetheless, for Jungto Society to be what it is today, there were numerous people who dedicated their efforts to establishing the community overseas. So that’s what we’re doing now: expressing our gratitude to them. I hope all of you will also continue to appreciate the dedicated work of these veteran bodhisattvas who put in tremendous effort to bring Jungto Society to where it is today.
What are your thoughts on the sense of guilt?
After arriving in Munich, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim met with Jeannette Fischer, a Freudian psychoanalyst from Zurich. Fischer mentioned that a symposium is scheduled to take place there in 2024 on the theme of “guilt,” and that she wanted to invite Sunim to participate and share his wisdom with the Swiss people.
Jeannette Fischer: Buddhism and psychology share many commonalities. Your teaching and counseling methods are quite unique, Sunim, and I would like to introduce you to the Swiss people. I would like to engage in a dialogue where I offer a solution from the perspective of psychoanalysis, and you provide a solution from a Buddhist standpoint.
During my three decades of providing psychotherapy to patients, I have discovered the profound influence of guilt. The sense of guilt, when at play, creates a divide between the perpetrator and the victim, empowering the victim and inhibiting a sense of equality to the extent that sometimes the victim becomes the perpetrator. How can this kind of relationship that is entwined with guilt be untangled?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You appear to have a fairly accurate perspective. I agree with the notion that being harmed can sometimes give individuals the idea that they can harm others in return.
Jeannette Fischer: What are your thoughts on the sense of sinning or guilt?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I believe that there is no such thing as sin. The notion of sin has been formed, so I think we should approach the subject by asking why was the notion of sin formed?
Jeannette Fischer: So why do you think the notion of sin was formed?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If the notion that you shouldn’t harm others hasn’t been formed in your mind, then you won’t develop a sense of guilt even if you harm others. However, if you have it set in your mind that hitting others is unacceptable, you will experience guilt when you do so. Based on the standard one sets, it’s wrong or an evil deed if it goes against the standard, and it’s right or a good deed if it is in line with the standard. But there is nothing that can be inherently good or evil. In nature, animals do not hold such standards delineating good and evil like humans do, so they do not feel a sense of guilt after certain actions. Therefore, when treating the psychology of a victim, it is crucial to make them aware that the set standards are not absolute, in order to help them break free from their suffering.
Jeannette Fischer: Who do you think established these set standards?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It is usually those in power who establish the standards—for example, men or the upper classes, historically. So we need to first gain the perspective that originally, standards didn’t exist. It’s that standards can be established as needed, for a given time. The issue arises because people keep holding these standards as something absolute and set in stone, which leads to suffering. It’s crucial that we understand that standards will vary among individuals, religions, and countries. The concept of sin exists, but there is no tangible essence to it. Sin only emerges from a misguided heart. Once foolishness vanishes, so does sin.
Fisher was deeply touched by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s answer. She inquired about Sunim’s activities and the Dharma talks. When she learned that Sunim delivers teachings without charging any fees, she expressed surprise. After further conversing with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim on Buddhism and psychology, Fisher once again invited Sunim to come to Switzerland next year to attend symposium.
The day’s Dharma talk took place at the Eine Welt Haus in Munich.
I want to stay in Germany longer, but my girlfriend wants to return to Korea
Q1: I’ve been in Germany for five years and am happily with my girlfriend, whom I met on my third day here. Recently, we’ve been experiencing conflict. I struggled to find a job for a year and a half after getting my work visa, and only just started working at a new job. On the other hand, my girlfriend recently graduated from school and wants to return to Korea. As I’m just beginning my career and trying to establish myself here, I’d like to stay in Germany for longer and gain more experience here. While I prefer to stay in Germany, I’m torn between supporting my girlfriend’s happiness by going to Korea together and insisting on staying in Germany for my own happiness. What would be the right choice?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: That must really be a dilemma for you.
Q1: Up until now, I’ve made many decisions where I give up what I want. Moving to Munich was a decision I made because my girlfriend ended up coming here, and I gave up a lot to come be with her. My girlfriend goes to Catholic Church, and if we decide to marry in the future, I think I’ll also need to get baptized.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Listening to what you’ve said, I think your girlfriend is holding the reins. I think you’re the one who likes her more. When you’re more into the other person than they are into you, you can lose your say in matters. If your girlfriend liked you more, you could hold the reins and have more say. But it seems you’ve already given up the reins to your girlfriend. How about you stop trying to think your way out and just go back to Korea with your girlfriend? What do you think? You’ll probably continue to let her make the decisions for the rest of your life. (Audience laughs)
As the saying goes, you didn’t button the top button correctly so now the rest of the buttons are misaligned. So now you have two options: either break up or just accept it as fate and live with it. If you keep insisting on what you want in this situation, love becomes a source of conflict.
Will your girlfriend be able to find a job in her field of study when she returns to Korea?
Q1: I think it might be challenging because her major is philosophy.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In situations where the man is the primary earner and the woman takes care of household duties, the woman often loses decision-making power to the man. In such cases, the man should take full financial responsibility. However, in your relationship, it’s your girlfriend who currently holds more power. So even if you have a hard time finding a good job in Korea, your girlfriend needs to take on financial responsibility:
“It’s okay. I’ll earn the money to support you. You can take care of the baby at home and work part-time as needed. I’ll take on the responsibility of earning money for us.”
If your girlfriend has this kind of mindset, your conflict will go away. Is your girlfriend’s family relatively well-off? What I mean is, if you go back to Korea with her, will you be able to get by? Let’s have your girlfriend sitting next to you answer this question.
Q2: He is much more capable financially than I am.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Then you should be the one to stick by his side. (Audience laughs)
How can you take your boyfriend away from Germany when he’s just getting his career started, while you yourself don’t even have the means to support you both financially? I think a wiser decision is called for. I suggest the two of you talk to each other more on this.
Nowadays, there is more flexibility on who does what in a relationship. When considering the earning capacity among the two of you, if your boyfriend is more capable, then you can accept that you won’t get your way and decide to stay where your boyfriend settles down.
However, if your stance is: “There’s no way I can stay here. I have to return to Korea. If you won’t come with me, then let’s break up. If you do come back to Korea with me, I’ll take care of everything.” Then the two of you should return to Korea together.
Another way is for you to settle down in Korea, while your boyfriend settles down in Germany, and you have a long-distance relationship. And if there is a change of heart while apart, then you may break up. But this is still an option, to each settle down where you choose. The choice is between these three options.
Q2: My boyfriend has received a job offer in Korea, and I think he is fully capable of relocating to Korea. Since he could work in Germany or Korea, I want him to return to Korea with me and live there.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So what you’re saying is you want to satisfy your desire to return to Korea and also keep your very capable boyfriend with you in Korea. That kind of mindset is selfish and unkind. You’re set on getting everything you want.
This is why the two of you need to talk this through fully. Your thinking is: “For him, it doesn’t matter whether we’re here or there, but for me, I have to return to Korea.” But for your boyfriend, his thinking is: “Yes, we could return to Korea, but I’d rather stay here and gain more experience. I’m just starting to get settled into my career here so let’s reevaluate in a few years.”
Of course, if your boyfriend agrees with you, then there’s no problem. But if he doesn’t agree, then what he’s proposing should be considered an option as well. You can also each put down roots wherever you choose to and reunite later. One stays in Germany, while the other returns to Korea. Once you discuss and reach an agreement, it will be okay no matter if you both stay in Germany or both return to Korea or live apart. It’s just that if you can’t reach an agreement, it’s time to part ways.”
Q2: I don’t want to part ways so I’ll try to reach an agreement with him.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I think the girlfriend has also given up the reins a bit. (Audience laughs)
In a situation like this, if your boyfriend insists that he wants to stay in Germany, it may be better to follow his decision. Whether it unfolds one way or another, it’s not a big deal. When one person has stronger feelings for the other, they might end up yielding the final say in decisions. If, despite wanting to pursue your own interests, you find it too hard to accept breaking up, then you have to let the other person take the reins. It’s not a bad thing to let the other person take the lead. Isn’t this why we say there’s a bit of a friendly tug of war in relationships? Give it a try. (Audience laughs)
The important thing is to come to an agreement. There’s more than one decision to be made here. There’s this thing to decide, that thing to decide, you could decide to split up, or you could each plan your futures separately from each other. I suggest you take it all into account while reaching an agreement.
In my view, whatever you two decide to do together will be a good decision. I can’t see that there is a bad decision or a good decision to be made. Any decision you make will be fine, and you can even change your decision midway. In a world where people get married and have three children only to end up divorced, this is not a big problem.
Q2: Okay, I understand.
After all the day’s questioners had spoken speak with Sunim, he shared his closing words.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Was this fun?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Having fun means you’re enjoying the moment. Regardless of how interesting the story is, if it lacks fun, it becomes dull.
Was it beneficial?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: No matter how fun something is, if it isn’t educational, it’ll just feel like you saw a funny comedy show. When you look back later, you’ll feel like you wasted your time. This is why it needs to be both fun and beneficial. Put another way, it should be good now and also good later. Moralists sacrifice too much of the present for the sake of the future, while hedonists sacrifice too much of the future for the sake of the present. Both end up regretting it. We need to not give up on the present or the future. It should be good now and in the future.
The four qualities of truth
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It also won’t last long if something benefits me but doesn’t benefit the other. For instance, like the couple who just asked their question, if one side wants to return to Korea but the other doesn’t and feels like they’re losing out, they may tolerate it at first, but it won’t last long. Eventually, the relationship will deteriorate. On the other hand, if it benefits the other person but not me, that relationship won’t last long either. After a while, at some point, you’ll think: “Why am I living like this?” So it needs to be beneficial for you and the other person in order for it to be sustainable.
First, it should be good now; second, it should be good in the future; third, it should be good for me; fourth, it should also be good for you. If it has these four qualities, it can be called truth.
Today’s Dharma talk wasn’t only beneficial for all of you but also for me. It’s not like I sacrificed anything for your sake. I had a fun time having conversations with you. It’s not just you who learned something but I also learned a lot. I was able to gain new information through our conversations, for example: “I see, people with sensitive personalities have these kinds of concerns,” and “I see, parents of children have these kinds of concerns.” I’m not married, so how else could I obtain such information if not for an opportunity like this? (Audience laughs)
Data will become increasingly crucial in the future. Through these Dharma talks, I’m amassing substantial volumes of data. These talks allow me to gather all sorts of information about life. It would be hard to find someone who has as much information as I do about the worries people have in life. People ask me all kinds of questions—from politicians to celebrities, and from everyday individuals, including the disenfranchised, I’ve listened to people from all over the world. This kind of experience is both fun and beneficial, both for you and for me.
If you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, who does it benefit? Me. Why is that? Because it gives me an opportunity to learn something new. If you hadn’t asked me the question, I would never know that I didn’t know. On the other hand, if you ask me a question and I provide a good answer, who benefits from that? You. And by benefiting you, I accumulate merit. So these conversations are by no means a losing proposition. This is why I don’t charge any fee for my lectures or Dharma talks.
Everyone has the right to be happy
No matter how your child is or how your parents are, you have the right to be happy and can be happy. Parents with children who have disabilities also have the right to be happy and can be happy. When parents obsess over their children with disabilities needing to become “normal” rather than accepting them as they are, they end up feeling burdened for life and their children develop a lifelong sense of inferiority.
All of you need to know that helping or loving others can inadvertently cause significant harm to the other person. You shouldn’t think: “It’s fine as long as my intentions are not malicious.” In practice, what’s most important isn’t whether your intentions were good or bad, but whether you were foolish or wise. In a broader light, evil actions can be seen as foolish actions because, in the long run, you only end up bringing harm to yourself by doing evil actions. This is why in Buddhism there’s no concept of good and evil. But this doesn’t mean you can act recklessly. More fundamental than good and evil is foolishness. Since foolishness is the root cause of all suffering, breaking free from foolishness is what we call enlightenment.
These Dharma talks aren’t about providing a logical explanation using this principle. Rather, they involve “self-healing” through our dialogue on real-life problems. The conclusion you reach should be: “Hey, it’s not that big a deal!” Just like the couple who asked the question earlier, that kind of conflict between a boyfriend and girlfriend is insignificant when you take a step back and look. Whether they reside in Germany or in Korea is of little consequence in the bigger picture. There’s nothing in life that is particularly problematic.
However, among things that may seem insignificant, unexpected events can arise, depending on the circumstances. Philosophically, this is referred to as “form.” Coming to realize that something isn’t as significant as it seems is referred to as “emptiness.” Within what may appear insignificant, there can be something unexpected, and within what may seem significant, close examination may reveal nothing as such. This is the phrase, “Form is nothing other than emptiness.” If you can understand how this works, you can live life a bit more freely.
Praying for blessings is Buddhism as a religion. In Buddhism as a practice, our main focus is: “How can I live without suffering?” What religion you choose is a matter of personal freedom. Whether you are Christian or Buddhist or don’t have any religion has no bearing on what we’re doing in this Dharma talk. Regardless of religion, clothing, or skin color, all of you can feel unburdened and happy.
Related videos from BDG
Related features from BDG
Related news reports from BDG
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Joins Religious Leaders in Interfaith Peace Declaration on 70th Anniversary of Armistice on the Korean Peninsula
Pathways to Peace: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Delivers Talk on Rising Tensions on the Korean Peninsula
Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Joins JTS Korea Volunteers for Humanitarian Relief Work in Türkiye
Engaged Buddhism: JTS Korea Distributes Humanitarian Aid in Pakistan
Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and JTS Volunteers Visit Sujata Academy Project in India
Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and JTS Volunteers Bring 100,000 Gas Stoves to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh
Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Shares the Fruits of Compassion to Mark the Birth of the Buddha
Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Delivers Compassion to the Vulnerable in Korea
Engaged Buddhism: Jungto Society Delivers Compassion for the Vulnerable in Korea
Engaged Buddhism: JTS Korea Distributes Emergency Flood Relief in Cambodia