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 Berlin on 3 September. This article is the third 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.*
Personal action to mitigate the climate crisis
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The climate crisis is worsening by the day. In the context of the Earth’s history, there have been times when climate change was even more severe than it is now. Rapid climate change led to the extinction of the dominant species at that time and the emergence of new species. Therefore, from a global perspective, we cannot necessarily call the current climate change a crisis because the Earth won’t face a crisis even if all humans perish. It’s more accurate to say that humanity is facing a crisis.
Given prevailing climatic conditions, if rapid changes occur, the dominant species—that is, we humans—will likely suffer greatly. To avoid such suffering and to sustain human life, we need to reduce consumption levels. But how many of you can actually take action to reduce your consumption? First, you should stop using makeup and cosmetics. You should also avoid dyeing your hair. Buying new clothes should be avoided as well. We even need to reduce how much energy we use for cooking our food, since we need to minimize CO2 emissions to mitigate climate change.
I’ve heard that here in Germany, as of 1 May, you can buy an unlimited pass for public transportation for 49 euros. That’s about 70,000 Korean won to use public transportation as much as you want. Is this correct?
Audience: Yes, that’s correct.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: This energy policy to reduce the use of cars can also be considered part of Germany’s national policy for tackling climate change. This is an example of the types of ideas we need in the world to provide alternatives and overcome consumerism.
If you think about it, which individual was the most successful at overcoming consumerism? It’s none other than the Buddha. He gave up the luxurious life of the royal palace, and instead asked for food, wore what clothes he could find, and slept under trees. The Buddha not only lived a frugal and happy life, but also set an example for helping others. Even if we cannot emulate him to that extent, shouldn’t we find ways to reduce our consumption and live a sustainable life? Isn’t it time we put to rest the notion that producing more and consuming more is the key to living well?
I’m having a hard time at school after moving to Germany
Q. I went to elementary school and middle school in China and then moved to Germany as a high school student. I’m being dragged around by my mother when I really want to go back to Korea. Now I don’t want to go to school, I’m having a hard time adjusting, and I even have to learn a new language again. This situation is so stressful for me and I keep having nightmares where I’m being chased. It’s been really hard, so I wanted to ask you for advice. What should I do?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: How old are you now?
Q. I’m 17 years old.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: In Germany, when are you considered an adult?
Q. From the age of 18.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Then you just have one more year until you reach adulthood. So this year, do whatever your mom says without objecting, and then next year you can do whatever you want. From next year onward, you’ll be an adult, so there’s no problem for you to decide to do whatever you want. What do you think? Is even one more year too difficult to bear?”
Q. “. . .”
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you estimate that you’ll live until 90, you have the next 70 years to live as freely as you wish. So you just need to listen to what your mom says for one more year. If you feel like you can’t bear it for even one more year, then you should declare your independence from your mother right now and cut off all the support she provides you.
Q. Okay, thank you.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So what are you going to do? Will you declare independence in one year or right away?
Q. Well, actually, my concern isn’t so much about my relationship with my mother but more about the stress I feel with school.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What things are causing you stress in school?
Q. I can’t seem to adjust.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Why is it hard to adjust? Tell me more specifically what’s difficult.
Q. First of all, it’s the language.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You’re new to this country. How can you expect to speak the language well? It’s only natural that you’re not good at it.
Q. Yes, but my school doesn’t seem to understand my situation.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What if they don’t understand you?
Q. That’s why it’s difficult.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If the other person doesn’t understand you, it’s the other person who has a hard time, not you. What’s difficult for you when someone doesn’t understand you? You see how my front teeth stick out a little? I remember once, someone at my Dharma talk who must’ve not liked how it looked, said to me: “Sunim, why don’t you get braces?” Do you know what I said in response? “Why? For you?” (Laughter)
I don’t see my front teeth that often. Why should I get braces? It’s not important to me how my front teeth look. What’s important is whether I can chew food properly. If there’s no problem with chewing, then my front teeth do not pose an issue for me. But that person felt uncomfortable when they saw my teeth. So when I said, “If you don’t like it, then you should pay for the braces,” they agreed to pay. Then I asked how long it would take to straighten my front teeth, and they said it would require wearing these metal wires for a year. To me, that sounded very uncomfortable. So I asked to be compensated for enduring that discomfort, and they refused, so I never got braces. (Laughter)
Just like in that situation, if someone at school doesn’t understand you, it’s the other person who feels frustrated, not you. When you see them feel frustrated, take a moment to reflect. If you can’t understand the other person and think, “Why are they like that?” or “How can people be like that?” Who feels frustrated? You or them?”
Q. I feel frustrated.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Yes, you feel frustrated. If you can understand where they’re coming from and think, “Oh, I see why that person did that,” whose heart feels lighter?
Q. My heart feels lighter.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you can’t understand others, you feel frustrated, but when you do understand them, you feel good. I’m telling you to be understanding of others because it’s good for you. Who is benefiting from what I’m saying right now?
Q. Me. I’m benefiting.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It’s all advice with you in mind. Look, here’s a beautiful flower. If I say, “Wow, this flower is really beautiful,” then does it benefit the flower or me?
Q. The flower benefits.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Really? Let me ask you again. When you’re on the beach and you say, “Wow! The ocean is so beautiful,” does the sea benefit, or you?
Q. I benefit.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What about when you’re hiking and you say, “Wow! This mountain is really beautiful,” does the mountain benefit, or you?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you look at a flower and say, “Oh, the flower is so pretty,” which one benefits, the flower or you?
Q. I think then it’s the flower that benefits. (Audience laughter)
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Judging by your responses, I think it may be too early for you to live independently. (Audience laughter) How would the flower know that I’m saying it’s beautiful? Liking the flower makes me feel good. If I say “I love you,” who benefits, the other person or me?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When you applaud Pomnyun Sunim, who benefits? Sunim or all of you?
Q. We benefit from it.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Yes, it benefits all of you. When I have a loving heart, ultimately, it’s something that is good for me. For example, let’s say I hug someone while saying “I love you.” When you love someone, it’s good for you, but there’s no guarantee that the other person will feel good. If the other person doesn’t like me and I hug them without considering their feelings, it can actually be painful for them. That’s sexual harassment. Loving someone is good for me, but there’s no guarantee that it will be good for the other person. In fact, actions that don’t take the other person’s feelings into account often lead to pain.
Do you think that when Jesus said to love all people in the world, he meant it for the sake of people in the world? Or did he mean to live a good life for oneself? It means to live a good life for oneself. In order to live a good life for oneself, you have to love and understand people in the world. In order to live with a sense of calm inside, you have to understand people in the world; it’s not that people in the world have to understand you.
If teachers or friends at school don’t understand you, it’s their problem feeling frustrated and not your concern. Whether they feel frustrated to the point of distress or not is their business. All you need to do from your perspective is to understand them and think, “I must not be expressing myself well, which is why they’re reacting like this.” Their failure to understand you is not your problem.
For you to expect others to understand you is like having a slave mentality. It’s not that different from begging for the other person’s understanding. Whether you say, “Please give me money” or, “Can you please help me,” it all sounds like begging to the person hearing it. What are you lacking in life that you would go begging for? When you are the one giving love, offering help, and being generous and understanding, you are living as the master of your own life.
If it’s only been a year since you came to Germany, it’s entirely natural that you’re not yet fluent in German. So, it’s fine to speak as much German as you can and to be honest when you can’t or don’t know.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What else is the problem?
Q. Other than that, everything is fine. My worries have been resolved. Starting tomorrow, I’ll work hard.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Don’t work hard. When you’re focused on playing a video game, do the people around you say you’re working hard?
Q. No, they don’t say that.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It’s when you’re studying all day even though you don’t want to that people will say, “You’re working so hard!” If it’s something you want to do, it’s about focusing not working hard. So don’t work hard. We only say that when we’re doing something we don’t want to do but have to, which leads to stress.
The reason people find life difficult is because they’re trying too hard. The reason my life isn’t difficult like yours is that I don’t work hard. I treat everything I do as play. Even giving a Dharma talk is like playing for me, so I don’t find it difficult at all. Right now, I’m here playing with all of you.
The same goes for you. Go to school and play. When I say, “Go to school and play,” I don’t mean don’t study. I mean treat studying as play, treat exercise as play, and treat learning German as play. If you don’t know something, it’s okay to admit it. If someone criticizes you for not knowing something, you can respond with, “I’m new here, how would I know that? Were you good at everything from the beginning?”
Q. Okay, thank you.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So are you going to become independent now or in a year?
Q. I’ll become independent in a year.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Then for the next year, you shouldn’t argue with your mother. After a year, you’ll become an adult. And then it’ll be up to you whether or not you want to listen to your mother. After a year, you’ll enter into a contractual relationship. If you receive support from your mother, you’ll have to accept her interference in return for the support she gives you. It’s similar to when you get a job, you have to follow the company’s instructions in return for receiving a salary. It’s not because she’s your mother, it’s about fulfilling the obligations of a contract. Next year, it will be a contractual relationship between adults. So if you want to have food, a place to live, or receive financial support for education, you’ll have to listen to your mother’s instructions. It’s not a matter of having to listen to her because it’s your duty but because of the contractual relationship. If you want to receive support, you need to listen, and if you don’t want to listen, you can leave home and not receive any support. If I were to offer you a scholarship, would you still need to study and be mindful of my expectations or could you skip studying?
Q. I’d need to study.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: That’s right. This kind of relationship is called a contractual relationship. Right now, it’s the responsibility of your mother to take care of you as a minor and, in return, you have a duty to listen to your guardian’s words. However, after a year that relationship will come to an end and then it will be a contractual relationship between adults.
Just because you’ll become an adult next year doesn’t mean you should immediately do as you please. If you want to do things your way, you should achieve independence, meaning you should take care of your own food, clothing, and shelter. If you receive support from your mother, you should be willing to accept her interference at a level corresponding to the support you receive. If you want to do things your way, then you shouldn’t accept any form of support. People who provide support have their own expectations, so when you receive supportnyou should be prepared to listen to their input.
Q. I’ve got it. Thank you.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You lived in China when you were young and now you live in Germany, so you may not yet be fluent in German, but you speak at least three languages: Korean, Chinese, and German. Can a trilingual person speak German as well as someone who was born in Germany and only spoke German their whole life?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Can a trilingual person speak Chinese as well as someone who has spoken Chinese all their life?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: You’ll also be less proficient in Korean than your friends who have only spoken Korean all their lives. If you dig a single well, you can dig a little deeper. Instead, if you dig multiple wells, you have no choice but to dig them shallower than if you were digging a single well. This is the truth. So you shouldn’t think that you’re inferior because you don’t speak Korean as well as Koreans, don’t speak Chinese as well as the Chinese, and don’t speak German as well as Germans. Because you speak many languages, it is inevitable that your language skills will be weaker than someone who only speaks one language. You have to accept this as a fact.
So there’s no need to be ashamed of not being proficient in German. That’s completely natural. If you continue to live in Germany for 10 or 20 years, you’ll likely reach a level similar to native Germans. It just takes time. It’s like someone learning to ride a bicycle for the first time. How can they be good right away? Falling off is part of learning how to ride a bike. In the same way, what feels awkward now will become familiar over time. It’s through inexperience that you eventually become proficient. No one becomes proficient without first going through a phase where they’re inexperienced.
Q. This has been really helpful. Thank you.
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