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Give Peace a Chance

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. All images 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 Virginia on 21 September 2023. This article is the 21st 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.**

Why US policy toward North Korea must change

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim visited the headquarters of The Washington Times newspaper for a discussion on the topic of peace on the Korean Peninsula before today’s Dharma talk. Arriving at the entrance, Sunim was welcomed by the secretary general of The Washington Times along with a US State Department official who had previously served as special envoy to the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear issue.

Washington Times officials expressed concern about escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and asked how Sunim viewed this situation.

Sunim emphasized that the power structure surrounding the Korean Peninsula had recently changed significantly, and talked about how US policy toward North Korea could also change.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: “Twenty-eight years have passed since I traveled to the United States to resolve the suffering of North Korean people. Looking back on these years, it seemed like war was imminent, but dialogue resumed and it seemed like reunification could happen soon. Then the confrontation became more severe again, and this situation has repeated several times. That’s why you shouldn’t be too optimistic even when talks are going well, and you shouldn’t be too despairing when the relationship deteriorates. We can see that the distance between the concerned parties has lessened as conversations and conflicts have repeated.

But things seem to have changed now, and I think that the distance between North and South Korea will widen. The reason is not because of inter-Korea relations, but because the conflict between the powerful countries surrounding North and South Korea is escalating. A power structure similar to when North and South Korea were first divided is being recreated around the Korean Peninsula. So, because the heightened tensions are at high risk of escalating into war, we must actively manage them to maintain peace. This is a time when protecting peace is more necessary than reunification. We must first strive to bring peace and then pursue reunification afterward.

With regard to the suffering of North Korean people, my biggest concerns are twofold: 

First is the suffering of North Korean residents. Under the current situation, North Korean residents are experiencing extreme hardship. They have difficulty even surviving due to a lack of food and medicine. Political oppression and controls are becoming more severe. This suffering has persisted for the past 30 years and, in a broader sense, for 100 years since the era of Japanese colonization. Will we continue to ignore their suffering? This perspective must be clear: can we just ignore the suffering of 25 million North Koreans?

Second is the issue of peace on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia. North Korea has already developed nuclear weapons and is on the verge of proliferating them. Nuclear weapon technology is spreading rapidly, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Are you going to just ignore this situation? Currently, the US is unable to come up with any countermeasures. Deploying strategic assets to South Korea by strengthening the ROK-US military alliance is merely a defensive response. It will do nothing to prevent North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. Rather, it is accelerating the proliferation of nuclear weapons. So I believe that measures should be taken quickly to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program.

So what measures can be taken to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program? Recently, there have been signs of military cooperation between North Korea and Russia. If this situation is unattended, Russian military technology will easily be transferred to North Korea, both formally and informally. North Korea will soon overcome the technical limitations it experienced in the process of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. And there is a possibility that nuclear-powered submarine technology—the technology that North Korea needs most—will also be transferred. If such technology were transferred from Russia to North Korea, it would create a very dangerous situation and pose a major threat to the security of not only the Korean Peninsula but all of East Asia.”

A realistic way to prevent the proliferation of North Korean nuclear weapons

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: “If the US neglects this situation, military cooperation between North Korea and Russia, and economic cooperation between North Korea and China will further strengthen. Even if China does not officially impose economic sanctions on North Korea or, for example, crack down on smuggling, economic cooperation between North Korea and China will increase. In particular, if the conflict between the US and China intensifies, Russia and China will start paying less attention to the US. North Korea’s actions have been a troubling issue for Russia and China. This is because protecting North Korea was met with criticism from the international community. However, it can now be seen that North Korea’s actions have become advantageous to Russia and China. From Russia’s perspective, attention focused on Ukraine can be diverted to North Korea. From China’s perspective, attention focused on Taiwan can be diverted to North Korea.

Considering all these circumstances, US policy toward North Korea must change now. Instead of focusing only on the abolition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which has become difficult in the current situation, there should be a shift toward achieving a nuclear freeze. Until now, the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program and the normalization of North Korea-US relations have been set as the final stage of nuclear negotiations, but now I think it is necessary to set the normalization of North Korea-US relations as the entrance and take measures to bring about a nuclear freeze in North Korea—recognizing that freezing North Korea’s nuclear program is the most urgent task.

I hope that the US takes a more proactive approach to the North Korea issue from a humanitarian perspective, which calls for resolving the suffering of the North Korean people, and from a peace perspective, which calls for alleviating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and bringing peace to East Asia. I would like to earnestly ask the US to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people even a little.”

The US State Department official noted that he expected the North Korean nuclear problem to worsen and gave an analysis of the reasons why talks were bound to fail. Upon hearing this, Sunim once again emphasized the perspective of problem-solving.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: “I’m not an academic, so my perspective is a little different from yours. Scholars analyze results. Because the issue has not been resolved so far, scholars have been analyzing the reasons for the lack of resolution. However, my perspective is focused on resolving this issue. Once this problem is resolved, scholars will also want to analyze the reasons for its resolution. I believe we need the right perspective to solve this issue. The reason we analyze past mistakes is to find ways to resolve them.

We have to solve this issue for two main reasons: first, to alleviate the suffering of 25 million North Koreans; second, to prevent war from erupting in East Asia surrounding the Korean Peninsula. To achieve this, we must consider not only our own positions but also that of the other party involved. What North Korea is demanding is for the US to abandon its hostile policy stance. In other words, they want to normalize relations with the US. Normalizing North Korea-US relations is not difficult. It doesn’t cost any money. That’s why I believe that the US must take the first step toward normalizing relations with North Korea to bring about a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program.”

Sunim once again urged the officials to pay attention to the need for peace on the Korean Peninsula, before departing to give his Dharma talk in Annandale, northern Virginia.

Overcome by anxiety

Q: I’m the type of person who works hard at everything. I’m diligent in my studies and my job. I am working as a professor in South Korea and I came to the US for a sabbatical year. Although I’m fortunate to have come to a good school and I’ve met many accomplished scholars, I often feel like I’m lacking. I’m fine when I achieve good results and accomplishments, but I feel disheartened when my performance falls short of my expectations. In particular, I feel intimidated when I see great people doing research at good universities. Now that I’m in my mid-40s, I can feel my concentration and memory decreasing. I’m always anxious because I feel like my abilities are lacking. What kind of mindset should I have?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It would have been better if you’d gone to somewhere like Vietnam or Sri Lanka for your sabbatical year instead of coming to the US. It seems that you chose the wrong place to spend your sabbatical. A sabbatical is a time to take a little rest. However, because you came to the US, you probably experienced more stress than working in South Korea.

Q: On the one hand, I think it’s good because there’s a lot to learn. But on the other hand, I feel inadequate because I think I’m not doing better.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: That’s what I’m talking about. If you think you have something to learn, you are in the right place in the US. However, if you keep thinking that your skills are inadequate, then you’re in the wrong place and your stress will only increase. The cure for this problem is not to work hard, but to go and live in a place where there are people who are slightly less capable than you.

Q: What do you mean?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you gather only the top-ranked students from schools nationwide and form a class, will there be a student who ranks last in that class?

Q: Yes, there will.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you gather only the lowest-ranked students from schools nationwide and form a class, will there be a student who ranks first in that class?

Q: Yes, there will.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In the same way, is the way we evaluate someone as capable or incapable today an absolute evaluation or a relative one?

Q: It’s a relative evaluation.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So what can we do to build confidence in a child who ranks last in a school in Seoul? Should we have the child study harder to solve the problem? Should we transfer the child to a school in a rural area?

Q: Shouldn’t the decision be made based on the child’s abilities and tendencies?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When you gather children who have always ranked first in their schools nationwide and place them in a class, the child who ends up ranking last can develop a profound sense of inferiority. Why does this happen? It’s not because he is currently ranking last, but because he has always been a top achiever until now. No matter how hard he tries, when surrounded by students who excel academically, his grades may improve slightly but will eventually plateau. Does that mean this child is inferior? No, it doesn’t. But what happens if this child is transferred to a class filled with only the last ranked children in the country? He can win first place while playing. The latter is much better for healing the sense of inferiority of the mind.

However, most parents want to move their children to better schools. In doing so, while the parents may be satisfied, their children can develop a persistent sense of inferiority. The child constantly experiences stress and, no matter how hard he tries, his academic performance does not improve. Wise parents who understand this psychology should quietly transfer their child to a local school when the child starts to have a slight sense of inferiority. In this way, the child can achieve first place without much effort, which boosts their self-confidence. Anyone who tells their child to study hard is a foolish parent.

This is why I initially said that it would have been much better if you had gone to Southeast Asia for a sabbatical year. You lack nothing. However, when you enter a group where there are many people who are better than you, you can’t help but feel inadequate. This is not your fault. It’s not something that can be solved through more effort.

Let’s say I’m 70 years old this year. While watching TV, I see someone running 100 meters in 10 seconds at the Olympic Games and decide, “I should give it a try.” Will a year of practice be enough? Will three years of practice be enough? Just because I can’t run 100 meters in 10 seconds, does that make me an inferior person?

Q: No.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Right now, I can run 100 meters in exactly 25 seconds. What if I set a goal to practice and run it in 23 seconds after three months of effort? This kind of goal is achievable.

All feelings of inferiority are born from greed. No child in this world is inherently inferior. However, if you set the bar too high, even a capable child can become discouraged because they feel unable to achieve those objectives, no matter how hard they try.

If there’s anything to learn in the US, you simply learn it. You came to a prestigious university in the US that is known for gathering intelligent people from all over the world. However, if all of those people are inferior to you, you’ll have nothing to learn. Wouldn’t there be more to learn if there were more people smarter than you?

Q: When I go to the US, I feel inferior, and when I go to Southeast Asia, I have nothing to learn.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you hold on to that perspective, you can’t help but suffer.

When I go to the US, it’s nice to have something to learn, and when I go to Southeast Asia, it’s nice because I can teach them.

With this perspective, you can lead a consistently happy life. Life should be appreciated in all its forms. If there is something to do, it is good to have something to do, and if there is nothing to do, it is good to be free. However, some people loudly complain when they have too much to do and say they’re overwhelmed, and when they have nothing to do, they say they’re bored to death. This is the kind of life many of you are living.

Effort is not always a good thing. When a child reads comic books or plays games, we don’t say, “He’s working hard.” Instead, we might say, “He’s crazy about games,” or “He’s crazy about comic books.” When someone genuinely enjoys something and focuses on it, we describe it as being “crazy.” However, when it comes to studying or doing something they don’t like for the sake of their future, we say: “They’re working hard.” Approaching things in this way can lead to stress. This is why South Koreans have a low happiness index and experience a lot of stress; it’s because they work hard in this manner, starting from a young age.

The life of a person who works hard can be unhappy because it’s very stressful. I don’t work hard. I approach everything as a form of play. That’s why I can do one thing for a long time, and sometimes without even sleeping. Normally, playing can be enjoyable even if you stay up all night. So even if you can’t study all night, you can play all night.

When you approach things with a playful mindset, you don’t need to use the expression “hard work.” By adopting a playful mindset, you can understand other people by thinking, “This person does it this way,” or “That person is talented.” However, seeing others’ talents and trying to imitate them by thinking, “I should sing as well as that person,” or “I should excel in sports like that person” is driven by greed.

Giving in to greed can lead to feelings of inferiority, physical exhaustion, and mental stress. Sabbaticals are meant to provide time to rest and have fun. The US has a very beautiful natural environment. Visit Yosemite National Park, visit the Grand Canyon, visit Yellowstone, and visit Alaska. If you don’t have money, you can use public transportation to get around.

I think people who work hard while living in a place like the US are fools. If you want to live hard, why come all the way to the US when you could live in Korea? In a vast country like the US, there’s no need to strive for high status or earn a lot of money. The best way is to work moderately, live moderately, and have leisure time. In Korea, even if you want to live with leisure, you can’t because you can’t compete with the expectations of those around you. However, when you come to the US, nobody interferes in your life. Whether you wear jeans, go barefoot, or have messy hair, nobody cares. Americans don’t even look at you like a cow looks at a chicken. How free and wonderful it is! If you’ve come to the US, why not enjoy its advantages instead of struggling so hard?

If you worked hard in Korea, then take a break here. In the US, I think it would be a good idea to let go of your hard-working mind and learn to be more relaxed. However, many Koreans who come to the US continue to work diligently. As a result, they may achieve material success, but their mental happiness is often quite low. Having a big house and a nice car may seem appealing, but the high levels of stress and pressure can reduce your overall quality of life.

Q: Thank you.

The audience gave an enthusiastic round of applause.

Buddhist Monk Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Awarded the 37th Niwano Peace Prize (BDG)

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

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