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Suffering and the Significance of Insignificance

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 teachings were given in Los Angeles on 11 September. This article is the 11th 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.*

Living without suffering

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: How can we live our lives without suffering? This is our primary concern. The Buddha had an awareness of this problem more than 2,600 years ago. That’s why he sought a state without suffering—Nirvana.

Nowadays, many people are living as they want to live, yet people still suffer. Why does suffering arise even when I live as I want? The answer to this question cannot be found in books, nor by traveling to India or Myanmar. Instead, you must ask yourself: “Why am I suffering?” 

Through undertaking a deep internal investigation in this way, we can free ourselves from suffering.

There are no definitive answers in life. I’m not here to provide you with the answers. Today, we are here to engage in a conversation on the question “why am I suffering?” and together we’ll explore a life without suffering.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

I feel regret and distress every time I make a mistake

Q: My question is: as we get older, we look back on things that we regret—and you know that people talk about mental health and depression. I think that sometimes regret has something to do with this, so how can we work on that?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Can people make mistakes? Or do they always do the right thing?

Q: You know, we look at our past and we say, “If I could have another chance, I wouldn’t do that again.” And yet, we have to live with it?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Do you think you are a saint, like Jesus or the Buddha?”

Q: No.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Why do you regret something you might have done wrong? When you say you regret past actions, does that mean you did something wrong when you shouldn’t have? Are you a person who cannot make mistakes?

Q: Well, everybody makes mistakes, but you know sometimes mistakes . . . how would I say that . . . ?”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Are you someone who can make mistakes, or are you someone who cannot make mistakes?

Q: Well in life, we learn from our mistakes I guess, but some are hard to live with.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The reason why it can be difficult to live with mistakes is because you believe that you shouldn’t make mistakes.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Q: I dont think I’m a person who shouldn’t make any mistakes because we can learn from our mistakes. What I’m talking about is when sometimes we look back on our life we would have done things differently, and some mistakes can kind of derail you.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Don’t you have such thoughts only after it’s all over, and not before it happens?

Q: Well, sometimes life entangles us in that moment, so we don’t think so.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So I’m asking you, are you a saint?

Q: Well, my name is Saint. (Audience laughter)

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Everyone makes mistakes and fails in life. Based on these experiences, we should move forward and try to reduce the likelihood of making mistakes again. If you make a mistake again, then you can move toward by trying to reduce the probability of making further mistakes. While making mistakes, we should move toward reducing our chances of making more mistakes.

However, you are holding onto the past and continuing to feel regret. What has already happened cannot be undone. What good will happen in the future if you regret the past?

Q: What do you mean it doesn’t help in the future?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Reflecting on something I did wrong and working to reduce further mistakes will help me in the future. However, what good does it do for the future if I’m still crying over what I did wrong in the past?

Q: Okay, that’s good advice. Regret . . .

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: An ancient Zen master once said: “A person who falls, gets up by touching the ground.” If you’ve fallen, should you regret it or should you get up by touching the ground?

Q: Get up . . . but what about regret?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So why are you still sitting and crying?

Q: Okay, okay. (Laughs)

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Regret arises from the assumption that I am a person who shouldn’t make mistakes.

Q: Okay. I accept my mistakes.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So that’s why I asked if you were a saint. Regret is not the same as reflection. Regret arises from the belief that I am a person who cannot make mistakes. Regret occurs when you cannot forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made. 

You are a saint in name only, not a saint in terms of perfection. You are a person who can make mistakes. In order to reduce your mistakes, you should refer to your past failures and work to reduce them in the future.

Look at human history. Humanity has continued to progress through failure. The civilization we have today was built on countless experiences of failure. That’s why we have the saying “Failure is the mother of success.” The reason failure brings frustration is because of greed. You should be able to admit: “I am a person who can make mistakes,” in order to move beyond feelings of regret.

Q: Sounds good.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The moment you accept yourself, you can also improve yourself. 

Let me share an experience from my childhood. I was very good at marbles when I was young. I had a jar filled with marbles that I won from games with my friends. But now, 50 years later, I have no idea where all those marbles have gone.

If I’d had wisdom when I was young, and after playing marbles with my friends I had given those marbles I won back to my friends, how great would that have been? If that were the case, when someone went to my friends and asked, “What was Pomnyun Sunim like when he was young?” they would say, “Pomnyun Sunim was very compassionate from a young age. Even if he won marbles, he would give them back to us when we returned home.”

I could have done that. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case? But I didn’t do that. 

If someone were to ask my friends the same thing today, they would say, “Pomnyun Sunim took all our marbles when we were young!” 

I often look back on those days and ask myself now: “What are the marbles in what I am doing now?” Among the things that I think are important now, I think about what I would consider useless, like the marbles from my childhood, when I look back on them before I die.

So I suggest that you don’t dwell too much on past mistakes, but use them as experiences to reduce future errors.

Q: Okay. Thank you.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: And change your name to “No Saint!” (Audience laughter)

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Stress and anxiety

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: If you find that you have just one person you dislike in your relationships, then when you can accept that one person you will be free in all your relationships. That’s why making peace with that person becomes a practice. But if there are two people you dislike, then you need to examine whether there’s something wrong with you. And if there are three people you dislike, you should definitely go to the hospital! (Audience laughter)

Many people suffer from mental illness, but they may not realize that they’re sick. Just as you would go to the hospital for a physical ailment, when you have a mental illness you need treatment. Receiving treatment does not mean being completely cured. Many people misunderstand that treatment results in a complete cure. 

First, there are cases where a complete cure can be achieved. Second, there are cases where the condition is mitigated so that the disease does not worsen. Third, there are cases where the rate at which the disease worsens is slowed. All three cases constitute treatment. 

Mental illness in particular is an area that is not yet sufficiently understood. While there are many traditional treatments for mental illness, modern treatments can be considered more effective. So if you are not feeling well mentally, it’s essential to get checked out.

If you are not facing a mental problem that requires treatment, but still have a lot of suffering, you should seek to treat yourself through your own efforts. Treating yourself and moving to a state where you are free from suffering is what we call “practice.” However, for those who cannot control themselves even if they engage in practice, it will not be effective. Therefore, it’s a misconception to think that you can always solve mental issues through self-practice.

Walking a lot and prostrating can also be helpful in treating mental illnesses. Insomnia is a symptom of some mental disorders. Therefore, a good night’s sleep and moderate exercise are very helpful in achieving mental stability.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Dealing with Life’s difficulties

Q: When questioners shared their concerns today, Sunim provided precise and fitting answers. I thought that if they gained some level of insight and changed their attitudes and thoughts, they could alleviate their current suffering. However, on the other hand, I wonder what kind of attitude I should have in dealing with difficulties that may arise in the future.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Indeed, when a question is asked in detail, the answer also becomes detailed. However, when asked in a general manner, my answer tends to be general as well. There’s no predetermined answer as it depends on the specificity of the questions posed. But now you are generally asking how one should deal with future difficulties in life, right?

Basically, it’s best to treat life like it’s not a big deal. In life, nothing is really a big deal. Is getting older a big deal? Looking at the big picture, it’s not a big deal. Is getting sick a big deal? It’s not a big deal. Is breaking a leg in an accident a big deal? Looking at the big picture, it’s not a big deal. If you visit a hospital emergency room, you’ll routinely encounter people with broken legs and people with fingers severed by machines. For doctors, it’s not a big deal. It’s a common occurrence.

From a short-term perspective, it may seem like a big deal to you, but if you look back in the future or look at life as a whole, there’s nothing special in this world. Everything just unfolds according to our connections and circumstances. It’s like a log floating down a river: it might get caught on this side for a while, then flow again when the current picks up. And it may get caught on the other side for a bit before continuing with the flow. Similarly, the difficulties we encounter in life are no big deal.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

For example, let’s consider hiking on Mt. Seorak. When you get off at the bus stop and begin walking, the terrain is flat, but soon you’ll have to cross a stream. As you go further, you’ll have to climb steep slopes. Further along, you’ll reach ridges, and in some cases you’ll have to ascend very steep paths. Some parts are in the forest and others are under the scorching sun. But when you get to the top and look back on your progress, they’re just things that happened during the climb. There were flat paths, steep ones, stream crossings, shaded areas, and sunny stretches, each part of the hiking experience.

In the same way, as we live our lives, today we might lose money and tomorrow we might receive a windfall. Today we might meet good people and tomorrow we might encounter those who cause us harm. There are times when things go well and times when things go wrong. Each moment can vary significantly, but when we look back none of it really matters.

Please take a moment to reflect on your elementary school days. What significant events do you recall? They’re just days when a child went to school. However, if you were to examine each day it would feel like a huge deal with thoughts like, “Today my grades improved,” “Today my grades dropped,” “Today I was scolded by the teacher,” or “Today I had a fight with a friend.”

Each moment may seem significant to us individually, but when viewed from a broader or longer perspective, they’re not significant events. What is not significant is referred to as “emptiness” (Kr: 공; Ch: 空), and what is significant is referred to as “form” or “color” (Kr: 색; Ch: 色). Some things may appear significant, but when seen as a part of the whole they’re not. Conversely, some things may not seem significant, but when viewed differently they are. This concept is expressed in the Heart Sutra as “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” (Ch: 色卽是空, 空卽是色).

Looking at the big picture, it’s not a big deal. Among the people here today there may have been instances when your younger sibling passed away one day, and before that someone else did, and people around you keep dying like this, right? This is just a sign that you’re aging. As you grow older, more and more people related to you tend to pass away. When you’re a child, there’s hardly anyone close to you who dies, except perhaps your grandparents. But as you age, you may experience the loss of friends, siblings, and relatives. It’s not God’s punishment, and it’s not due to past-life sins. It’s simply what happens as you grow older.

When something happens in this moment it’s a big deal, but when you look back on it tomorrow, it’s not a big deal. If you recognize that it’s not a big deal now, you can adopt an attitude of simply resolving the issue at hand.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

I’ve been working as a farmer in the countryside for the past three years, and during this time I’ve been injured on several occasion. People around me have also been injured once or twice. In some cases I simply applied medication and bandages at home and endured it, and in other cases I went to the hospital for treatment. This is because handling farm machinery every day increases the likelihood of injury. It’s not a result of past-life sins, it’s simply that the probability of being hurt has increased. When you do weeding, you inevitably disturb bee nests, which raises the chance of being stung by a bee.

Indeed, life may seem like a big deal in the moment, but when we look back most things are not that significant. If something that happened to you 10 years ago still feels like a big deal, then it might be trauma. In the realm of the human mental world, it’s normal for most things to become insignificant when viewed in hindsight. If past events continue to linger in your mind and affect you, it could be an illness that requires treatment.

We live our lives doing special things everyday in a world where nothing special happens. Every day may seem eventful, but when we look back, nothing special happened. 

This is life.

So don’t lament too much about being old. Being born, aging, getting sick, and dying is the Buddha’s enlightenment. When we die we simply return to nature. The question of “Will I be born again?” is a matter of faith. However, in Buddhism it is said that through enlightenment and liberation one is not born again. How wonderful is that? Buddhists aim to not be born. When you aim to be born you might fear not being born, but when you aim to not be born there’s no need to worry! If you are born again, you can live again.

When you feel stressed or angry, just remember: this too shall pass, and it’s not a big deal. Keeping this in mind makes it much easier to navigate life.

I hope that all of you can live life a little more lightly.

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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