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If We Are Alive Now, We Are All Successful

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. 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 Minneapolis on 19 September 2023. This article is the 19th 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.**

A new model for sustainable development

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I believe that the Buddhadharma not only guides us on the path to practice for individual happiness, but also offers us the right direction to overcome the climate crisis. Before coming to the United States, I stopped in Bhutan, a country that has proposed to measure development in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which reflects quality of life and the happiness of its people, instead of Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures only material production as the standard for human well-being. I have proposed to Bhutan’s king that we create a new social model for sustainable development.

Sustainable development means creating regions where people lead relaxed lives amid the beauty of nature, with clean air and fresh water, even if their living conditions are somewhat modest. In Bhutan, we have selected the most underdeveloped and impoverished areas and aim to improve the resident’s lives in areas such as housing, agriculture, education, healthcare, and basic amenities, while avoiding excessive development. We are currently in talks with the Bhutanese government to create a new model where people learn the Buddhadharma and live modestly, yet have the highest level of happiness in the world.

After living here for a month, I’ve experienced some inconveniences in daily life, but it’s really nice to have clean air, fresh water, and a leisurely life.

In order to be competitive, anyone living in Bhutan for a month should be able to feel this way. However, if life becomes too uncomfortable, happiness decreases, so basic living conditions need to be further improved. Yet, once development begins, human desires continue to increase, so we must be able to stop them appropriately at some point. This is the biggest challenge. I hope that all of you will show interest in this project and provide good ideas, then we will actively reflect them.” (Laughter)

I love both my husband and my boyfriend

Q: I have distilled my question to a fear of the unknown. To shorten my very long, complicated, sad, horrible story, my husband was a drug addict and I ended up having an affair. He went through treatment and he’s better now. But I initiated a divorce and now I’m with another guy. I’m still in love with my husband, but I still love this dude, too. 

I don’t expect you to tell me who I should be with, but as I distilled down my decision, I was sort of like, okay, this is my husband of 12 years. We’ve been together since we were essentially children. He’s the father of my three children. I don’t want to go back to the life I had before; it could happen [again] or it could be happy. 

If I continue my life without him, potentially with this other man, then am I giving something up that could be beautiful on either end? So I’m trying to decide what I’m supposed to do with my life at this crossroads. I wish one of these dudes would just dump me but they haven’t. First-world problems? Hot-girl problems? Is that conceited? I don’t know!

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It sounds like a happy dilemma. I don’t even have one, but you have two! What good deeds did you do in your past life that led you to date two men? (Audience laughter)

There’s no problem because this is suffering caused by too much pleasure. After a while, one of you will leave on your own, so you don’t have to try too hard to choose one of them. Of course, if you can choose, then go ahead and do so. But if you can’t choose, just let it go. Soon one person will give up. If you’re lucky, one of them might leave by accident!

Q: Maybe that one will be me. Then everybody’s problems will be solved. No heartbreak!

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: There’s no problem if that happens. When you die, there’s no need to worry because there is no one to worry about.

Q: Right now, I feel like I’m just so scared of making the wrong choice. And this choice could determine the rest of my life along with the rest of my children’s lives. They are my deciding factor in everything I’ve done up until this point. I ended our marriage because my kids started to see that their dad was addicted to drugs. It needed to be done.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Do your children like their dad? Do they need to have a relationship with him?

Q: They love him. They adore him.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you truly understand your children’s feelings, you should choose your husband. There’s no need to ask. You mentioned that you value your children’s opinions the most.

Q: What if that relationship is not the type of relationship I would want my children to have? I would not want my sons to be that type of husband. I would not want my daughter to be in a relationship like that.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Your children have already learned everything. You don’t need to worry.

Q: What if I could show them differently? Would it change?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Ask your children. If they want that, it’s okay.”

Q: They don’t want that.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you believe that your own life is more important than your children’s, then it’s okay to get a divorce and choose your boyfriend. That’s the decision you should make first.

Q: Is that selfish?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It’s not like that.

Q: Please expand . . .

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: How old are your children?

Q: Eight . . . oh, no, he just turned nine . . . five and three.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In that case, as a mother, you should prioritize your children and take responsibility for raising them.

Q: I love that. My ears are very hot!

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If your children were over 15 years old, you could discuss this with them. If you ask for permission from your children and they agree, it’s okay. Marriage is a mutual agreement between adults and can be dissolved by agreement. However, as for children, you did not give birth to them with their consent; you gave birth to them unilaterally. Therefore, you must bear unlimited liability.

Q: What if he starts treating me like crap again, though?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If your husband abuses you, you should report him to the police. Anyone who abuses others will be punished.

Q: Right. And that’s my fear of the unknown: if I put my children’s needs first, reconcile with their father, my husband, five years from now we may be in the same place again. And I’ll be kicking myself because I was like “I was almost out! I had an awesome dude!”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You can’t have both. Let’s think of it like the weather being hot, however the coat I want to wear is very thick. It’s my choice whether to endure the heat and wear the coat I want, or wear something lighter because the weather is hot. Just wishing for colder weather it’s difficult to make it happen. Just as I can’t control the weather, I can’t have my husband or boyfriend exactly as I want. It’s a matter of personal choice, like our clothes, and it’s no one’s fault. You can’t have both. If you have one, you have to let go of the other.

Q: Cool. As my therapist says: “Put your paddle in the water, Cecile. Put your damn paddle in.” But I really like your first idea of just floating along, so I might just go with that.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: While taking care of your children, try waiting a little longer. Does your husband know that you have a boyfriend?

Q: Yeah, he found out a little bit ago. It wasn’t great.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Your husband, disappointed by that fact, may ask for a divorce first. Or your boyfriend may leave first after seeing your hesitation about divorce. The decision may be made on its own. Whether you decide now or wait a little longer, there’s no need to suffer either way.

Q: I like that. I’m just gonna put my feet up in my canoe and enjoy the ride and the sunshine!

If we are alive now, we are all successful

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Today, we were able to hear from people with heartbreaking stories, such as those who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault and those who are experiencing the sorrow of losing a child. Even the person who suffered from sexual assault shared her thoughts with a brighter expression.

Imagine we are hiking. First, you have to walk a long way through the valley. You have to cross the river, pass through dense forest trails, walk under the scorching sun without any shade from trees, and even climb steep slopes. Sometimes we want to give up, and we might regret coming out to hike. And we may even begin to resent the person who invited us to climb the mountain.

After going through all these processes and stages, we finally reach the top. How will you feel when you reach the top? What matters is that you get to the top. What happened along the way to the top doesn’t really matter. Although we went through many experiences, the fact that we’ve reached the top is important in itself—and the more difficulties we face, the richer the stories we can tell after hiking.

Being here now is like standing on the top of life. In our lives, we’ve gone through many processes and experiences, but we are alive and well at this moment. We are here without having given up halfway. What we experienced in the past doesn’t matter much. What’s important is that we are here now, having gone through those experiences.

Therefore, just by being alive, here and now, your are successful. In that sense, every morning when you open your eyes, shout out: “I’m alive today!” It can make your day much lighter—you can start your day with joy. I bless your lives, you who are alive now. No matter what situation you’re in, you have the right to live happily. So I hope that you do!

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)

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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