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How to Live Life More Freely

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 Frankfurt on 1 September 2023. This is the first in a series of articles taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s tour of Europe and North America—his first in-person overseas teachings since the pandemic—titled “Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Come Talk about Life, Wisdom, and Happiness” from 1–22 September, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Today’s Dharma talk is not a place for life counseling. This is a place for learning about the truth. 

The truth is nothing special. When a person with suffering is freed from their suffering, it is called truth. The criterion of truth is that it enables people to rid themselves of their existing suffering or to prevent suffering from arising in the future. We can call this “words.” The reason that Christians refer to what Jesus taught as “the word of Jesus” is that people’s afflictions disappeared on hearing those words. The words we exchange in everyday conversation are different from these “words.”

When anyone asks a question about their troubles, afflictions, or problems, it serves as the subject matter that helps us to talk about truth. This is what we call a “Dharma Q&A.” I’m not giving a one-sided lecture on the various problems that arise in human relationships. Instead, when you ask a question, we will use that specific example to converse on ways to free ourselves from suffering; we are talking about the way to be free from suffering. Now, shall we begin?

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

In Korea I go to a Buddhist temple, in Germany I attend church. Is this okay?

Q. I am a young Korean man in my 20s. I have been living in Germany for about a year and three months. From a young age, I have attended a Buddhist temple, holding my grandmother’s hand. I served as a Buddhist chaplain in the Korean military. Now I live in Frankfurt. There are hardly any temples here. I tried going to a Chinese Buddhist temple to continue following my Buddhist faith, however, since December last year I began attending a church. Fortunately, I get along well with my fellow church members. However, I have been a Buddhist and attended a temple for close to 25 years, so after attending church here in Germany, I began to feel conflicted. When I’m in Korea, I go to the temple with my family, and when I’m in Germany, I attend church every Sunday. This situation is making me very confused. What is your view?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Why is attending a temple in Korea and attending a church in Germany a problem? I don’t quite understand what you are trying to say. According to your line of thinking, we should think it’s strange that people speak Korean in Korea and German in Germany. (Laughter)

Just as you speak Korean when you go to Korea and speak German when you come to Germany, you go to a temple in Korea and go to a church in Germany. Even if you are in Germany, if you were to live in Koreatown and only interact with other Koreans, you would only speak Korean. In this case, you can speak Korean in Korea as well as in Germany. But when you go out and meet German people, you have to speak German. Similarly, if there is a temple in Germany, you can attend a temple in Germany as well as in Korea. But since there are no temples in Germany, you can attend church. Is that a problem?

Germany has only a small population of Buddhists, so even if there were a temple, when a young man like yourself attends the temple you might be the only young man. So it would be difficult for you to make friends. But when you go to church, there are other young people. If you attend church, you can make friends, so why go to a temple?

Q. I have always believed that there are many things we can learn from Buddhism.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t keep your Buddhist faith! 

What is the problem with going to church while maintaining your Buddhist practice? If you continue to live in Germany and later marry a German woman, you might obtain German citizenship. If you become a German citizen, you would become a Korean-German, right? In the same vein, since you are a Buddhist who is now attending church, you could be called a “Buddhist Christian.” (Laughter)

Conversely, a person who used to be a Christian and has now became a Buddhist is called a “Christian Buddhist.” Currently, there are a great number of Christian Buddhists in the United States. There are many people with Christian backgrounds who have become Buddhists. There are many of them in Germany also.

Why do we have to choose one over the other? You can change your religion, keep both religions, or you can believe in one religion based on another religion. Even if you were born in Korea, you can gain Japanese or American citizenship. Why do you have to be a Christian just because you were born into a Christian family? And why can’t you become a Christian just because you were born into a Buddhist family? Times have changed, but despite being young you seem to have very outdated views! Just continue to attend church. (Laughter)

Q. Thank you.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Do you think that the compassionate Buddha will punish you for attending church after having attended a temple? Will the loving God punish you for attending a temple after having attended church? Will you be burned with fire and brimstone like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament? That is what people used to believe before the New Testament came out. The God after Jesus is not a punishing God, but a God of love. Jesus said: “Father, forgive them.” This is Christian love. The idea that you will be punished if you change your faith from Christianity to Buddhism is a threat that originated from sectarianism.

Let’s take another example. Let’s say that you used to shop in one store for a long time, but then a new store opened up nearby. If the new store has better products and better prices, then of course you will shop in the new store. Then the owner of the store you used to shop at might become upset, but we all have freedom of choice. You don’t have to be conscious of others; you can choose to do what you want. I think that way, but many sectarian shopkeepers may be offended. Do you understand?

Q. Yes, I understand.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

How to Live Life More Freely

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: After conversing with me, you might think, “You’re just stating the obvious.” That’s right; I’m stating the obvious. The problem is that when we listen to other people’s stories, the answer sounds obvious, but when we talk about our own stories, it doesn’t sound obvious. Should students who plan to take a college entrance exam study hard or pray hard to pass the exam?

Q. They should study hard.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: However, when you are a student preparing for a college entrance exam, you might think that you should pray to pass the exam. What about when it’s someone else’s situation? If a student, instead of studying, was only praying and performing bows, you would think, “That person is so foolish.” If people who did many bows were able to pass the exam, all they would need to do is bow and there would be no need to go to school. This is common sense. Likewise, truth is just common sense.

When your fixed notions are shattered, you will be able to see a completely different world from what you have seen so far. This is not mysticism. Mysticism is mostly based on desire. If you run a store, you have to do so with your own efforts. So why would you ask God or the Buddha for your store to be successful? If you can’t even run your own store properly and need to ask God or the Buddha to do it for you, what is your role? If you ask God or the Buddha to find you a spouse, what on earth will you be doing? (Laughter)

Jongyo” is the Korean word for religion. It means “the most important teaching.” Whether there is a God or not is not the point. In our modern society, religion is more necessary than ever. Perhaps, in today’s age of overt materialism, an insightful religion is more direly needed. However, don’t be constrained by established religions. You must love yourself more than anyone else in this world. Those who torment themselves are those who don’t love themselves. If you really love yourself, don’t justify your suffering with any reason or excuse by saying, “I can’t help but suffer because of my situation.”

All phenomena in this world are based on certain principles. A few days ago, the super blue moon made an appearance for the first time in 10 years. In the distant past, there would have been all kinds of wild talk about this phenomenon. For example, people might have said that it was a sign that a new king would ascend to the throne. However, in terms of the principles of the universe, it is just a phenomenon in which the Moon comes close to the Earth and then moves away again due to its elliptical orbit. In the same way, there are principles behind every phenomenon. So don’t get caught up in mysticism.

If you believe in Christianity, you must learn and follow the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus spoke of six criteria for being admitted into heaven. He asked: “Did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, give medicine to the sick, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, and visit those in prison?” These are the lowliest people in the world. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of the people in the world, you did it to me.” When you believe in, follow, and put into practice these teachings of Jesus, you can be considered an upright Christian person.

The principles taught by Jesus are the same as those taught by the Buddha. When Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” of those who hung him on the cross, his state of mind was that which in Buddhism we call “non-self.” Jesus could say that because he let go of the concept of “I.”

Therefore, it’s unimportant what religion you believe in. Your focus should be on “how can I live my life more freely?”

I don’t know if you came all the way to Germany in search of happiness, but just coming here won’t make you happy. When you observe yourself and become more aware of yourself, suffering will dissipate and happiness will grow. 

May you all become happier each day.

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

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