Free Will and Freedom from Suffering

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, 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 Seattle on 9 September. This article is the ninth in a special series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Dharma 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” the Dharma tour ran from 1–22 September 2023, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*

After morning prayer and meditation at Seattle’s Jungto Meditation Center, Ven Pomnyun Sunim was visited by Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu, who founded the Clear Mountain Monastery in Seattle to spread Buddhism among Americans. His goal is to embody the spirit of the Buddha’s early disciples in modern times. He personally undertakes alms rounds in downtown Seattle as a means to achieve this.

Sunim greeted Nisabho Bhikkhu warmly and personally served him tea. Originally from the US, Nisabho Bhikkhu received ordination in Thailand. He expressed joy at meeting Sunim in person since he has had limited opportunities to meet senior monks. Nisabho Bhikkhu also showed a keen interest in Seon Buddhism and the Mahayana tradition, and asked several questions about Korean Seon.

Sunim provided a brief overview of the origins and history of Seon Buddhism.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Mahayana Buddhism, also known as Great Vehicle Buddhism, gained significant ground after its introduction into China, but its development was primarily focused on philosophy. However, overcoming suffering cannot be done through contemplation and intellectual pursuits alone. To be free from suffering, one should strive toward cessation of thought. It is from this perspective that Seon Buddhism emerged. Historically, Bodhidharma from India brought Seon Buddhism to China with the intention of returning to the original teachings of the Buddha. Initially, the teaching was simple, popular, and practical, but over time it became more institutionalized and philosophical, and today it has lost much of its vitality. One reason for this is the emphasis on rituals and formalism, but another reason is the increased intellectual aspects rather than practicing mindfulness in everyday life. Consequently, it has transformed from something that is practiced in our daily lives into a form that a few experts lead.

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: What’s the Korean word for mindfulness?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: 알아차림 (alacharim).

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: That’s very long.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In Chinese, it is 自覺 (ja-gak), which means self-realization. The core of the Buddha’s teachings is sati (Skt., Pali).

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: We have an interesting opposite problem in the US in that what came over has been very practical, and people love the teachings on meditation. And that was what for the last 50 years has been the most prominent in secular Buddhist groups. What people are really hungry for now is people talking about transcendent awakening and to have some ceremony and faith, so it’s been very interesting. 

The secular groups tend to get much older people, 50 years old and up, and you know, we came with the robes and the ceremony, and you’d think that the secular young people would be less interested in us, but actually, they are far more interested. So it seems that there is a deep hunger in the culture right now for something beyond the practical. It is still practical, but some measure of ritual and transcendence and monastics, so we’re getting many young people.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When cultural elements are too dominant, the aspects of enlightenment can become overly formalized. On the other hand, if you only have the elements of enlightenment, you may lack cultural and emotional approaches. Therefore, it is crucial that the two complement each other. When we drink tea, it’s essential to focus on the tea itself. However, without the cup we cannot drink it. Both the cup and the tea are necessary components of the experience.

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: Yes, that’s a really beautiful metaphor.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If the teacup is overly decorative but the tea itself is not of good quality, it may come across as too formal or focused on aesthetics rather than the taste. On the other hand, if you don’t pay enough attention to the teacup and only focus on the tea, you may fail to appeal to many people who appreciate the overall experience of enjoying tea.

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: We hope our cup is big enough for Venerable Sunim’s tea, I think this will be the biggest gathering we’ve ever had here.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The Buddha delivered his teachings under a tree. Compared to that, we have a much better place. Buddhism’s primary purpose is to help people to be free from suffering, and it’s important to stay true to its original purpose. Building temples, shrines, or any such spaces is important. However, taking the building of such places as the primary goal would make Buddhism no different from other religions. It’s true that we need spaces to practice the Dharma, and so we establish them. But it’s important to remind ourselves that the Buddha spent his entire life imparting the Dharma under trees. Temples were built later.

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: Focus on bringing the tea. Ill keep that in mind.

After meditating together, Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu introduced Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to the audience for his Dharma talk.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Why should I let myself go when we need free will to live?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Hello everyone, today I would like to have a casual conversation with all of you about life. Regardless of our differences in gender, nationality, religion, or ethnicity, I want to talk about how to live life. There is no predefined path or rulebook on how to live life, and it is up to us to decide how we want to live it. However, sometimes we may experience suffering despite living life on our own terms, which can leave us feeling confused. Life is full of contradictions and questions. Today, we can engage in meaningful conversations to find answers and insights. So let’s discuss and share our thoughts on this topic.

Q: I have a question about our interior life. I’m kind of new to the Dharma. We talk about separating, about letting go of myself and recognizing that I’m one with everybody, even those with whom I may contend. I have difficulty doing that. Recently, I heard mention of the idea that if I don’t recognize my own agency, my free will, I might let go of myself more easily, but I don’t find this helpful. I’m wondering what your experience is. How do you let go of yourself? How do you thoroughly recognize your unity with everyone? What is that like for you inside?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The issue isn’t about letting go of free will, but rather whether or not it leads to suffering. If it causes suffering, then it’s best to let it go. On the other hand, if it doesn’t cause any suffering, then there’s no need to let it go. If free will isn’t causing any suffering, then you can leave it be. 

Let me share my experience.

I was arrested by the police when I was a young man and subjected to torture. They demanded that I confess to a crime that I didn’t commit, but I refused. They began with physical violence and later they resorted to waterboarding. The torture was excruciating, but I endured it as long as I could. But there are limits to what a person can endure. I couldn’t breathe and I was on the verge of losing consciousness. At that moment, I saw a white screen before my eyes. On that screen, I saw a frog being beaten to death with a stick, its legs stretched out as it died. That image was exactly like my situation.

When I was a child, I caught many frogs and killed them with a stick to feed to chickens. I had no sense of guilt at the time. Although I later learned in Buddhism that it is wrong to take life, I never deeply reflected on the fact that I had killed frogs.

Facing death like a frog myself, I realized the terror that the frog must have felt, and I recognized the preciousness of life. Self-reproach and thoughts such as “someone like me should die” flooded my mind, and my resistance to the torture vanished. After a while, the torture stopped. When I stopped resisting, the suffering vanished.

I endured torture like this several times, which was incredibly difficult for both me and the torturers. That’s why they would take breaks from time to time. During one break, I overheard them talking among themselves: “My daughter is preparing for the university entrance exam, and if she doesn’t do well, she may have to attend a local college. I’m worried because local colleges are expensive.”

Overhearing this very ordinary conversation, I thought to myself: “They are not demons; they are ordinary citizens around me. When they go home, they are loving husbands to their wives, fathers to their children, sons to their elderly parents, and when they go to work they are just ordinary employees.”

In that moment, all the hatred and resentment I had harbored against them disappeared. I recalled the words of Jesus Christ when he was crucified, saying toward those who had crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As a child, I had read these words in the Bible but didn’t fully understand them. It was only during the torture, and by overhearing the torturers’ ordinary conversations, that I finally grasped the meaning of the verse. Through these experiences, I was able to resolve my questions. Knowing something intellectually doesn’t necessarily help in life. It’s through experiences that we truly understand and grow.

“I need to do more” and “I need to let go of more.” Holding onto such thoughts about what you want to do is less important than taking action. When you take action, you will experience freedom from the suffering that has been surrounding you.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

At the end of the Dharma talk, Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu requested that Sunim deliver the closing remarks.

Ajahn Nisabho Bhikkhu: What’s one piece of advice or teaching you would leave us with as a new community of practitioners and all of our practice?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It is advisable to avoid setting too many high expectations. According to the Buddha’s teachings, one should let go of desires in order to attain freedom from suffering. Even if that desire is related to spreading the Buddha’s teachings, holding onto it can lead to suffering. The number of hours you work is irrelevant to greed. However, if that creates suffering, it may be a sign that you are motivated by greed.

In this world, nothing is worth doing if it causes suffering. Persisting in doing something while you’re suffering puts you in a state of mental captivity. If you find yourself having to do something, just do it. Why suffer through it needlessly? Helping those who are suffering should not lead to your own suffering. Assisting others should be done with a joyful heart. If you make others happy but suffer yourself, it’s a contradiction, isn’t it?

Helping others is often viewed as an act of selflessness, but in reality it can bring greater self-satisfaction and benefit you in the end. It’s important to understand that it’s something you do for yourself and not just for others. By approaching tasks with the perspective of “I am doing this for myself,” you won’t expect anything in return. So instead of feeling like you have to do something, try having the mindset of “there is nothing else I have to do.” This mindset will help you avoid suffering in any situation.

Choosing a path, whether it be religion or practice, is acceptable as long as it leads us to a place where we are free from suffering. However, if it causes us to suffer, we must let it go, no matter what it is. We should not sacrifice our well-being for the sake of others. The true path is to find our own happiness and freedom while also helping others.

Lastly, in this era of climate crisis, it is wise to consume less. Exposing oneself to excessive competition in pursuit of excessive consumption leads to stress and ultimately harms both individuals and contributes to the climate crisis. Consumption addiction is even more potent than drug addiction. Therefore, it is my hope that each one of us can take a step toward freeing ourselves from consumption addiction.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

After the event, the earlier questioner approached Sunim, explaining that Sunim’s answer had led him to reflect on his life, which had been consumed by anger after his experiences as a war veteran in the US military.

Q: I’d like to express my gratitude for your speech. I appreciate that you continued speaking after I returned to my seat. Your answer was exactly what I needed to hear. During my time serving in the military, I was responsible for taking the lives of many individuals, and I also lost many comrades. 

While listening to you today, I realized that they were just the same people as me. I had forgotten, but your Dharma talk helped me to remember that. I have repented, and I feel a sense of relief in my heart. Thank you very much for your words today.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Now it’s time to let go of any guilt or regret, and focus on moving forward. Our goal is to prevent war and preserve peace.

The questioner, overwhelmed with emotion, let out a deep sigh and tears streamed down his face. Sunim embraced him warmly.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

* Dharma Sharing: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to Give First In-Person Teachings in Europe and North America since the Pandemic (BDG)

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