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The Path of Engaged Buddhism in a Divided World: An Interview with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim

The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), jointly organized with and hosted by Jungto Society, was held in South Korea from 24–30 October under the theme “Buddhism in a Divided World: Peace Planet, Pandemic.”

The forum, which was divided between the autumnal mountain idyll of Mungyeong in the south of the Korean Peninsula and the 21st century metropolitan bustle of Seoul, brought together almost 100 speakers and attendees, members of INEB from around the world, led by INEB founder and renowned social activist Sulak Sivaraksa and Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, the founder of Jungto Society and Patron to INEB. The speakers included distinguished teachers, scholars, and prominent engaged Buddhist activists, who presented, examined, and discussed a wide array of topics that broached the core themes of the roles and obligations of engaged Buddhists in today’s troubled world.

Ven. 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 Buddhist 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.

During the course of the dialogues, workshops, and other activities that made up the conference, BDG had the privilege of speaking with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to hear his views on engaged Buddhism and the path of practice for engaged Buddhists in our divided world. 

Buddhistdoor Global: The power of Jungto Society and the power of INEB lies in the people who make up these communities and in the power of combined and united action toward a common goal for the benefit of all beings. In your view, what is the best way for socially engaged Buddhists to manifest the aspirations of the path of engaged Buddhism?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: First and foremost, we need to ensure a correct understanding of the Buddhadharma. The purpose of the Buddhadharma is to empower people to relieve their own individual suffering. We call this nirvana. But instead of thinking of nirvana too much in the abstract, it can be more useful to define it as living in a state without suffering. In other words, a life that’s filled with happiness and free from suffering. 

And happiness here does not mean full of joy, necessarily. Happiness can be defined as a state in which there’s no suffering, just as good health can be defined as a state in which you’re not sick. And just as everybody can live their life healthily, everyone can also live happily.

If you fall sick, you can be diagnosed for the root cause of that sickness and seek treatment to restore your health. And it’s the same with happiness—if you’re suffering, diagnose the root cause of your suffering, treat it, and you can recover your state of happiness. 

If you’re sick, then you can’t help others, but you can ask others for their help. But in order to help others, you have to be healthy yourself. Just as a healthy person can help sick people become healthy again, a person who is not suffering can help others to relieve their own suffering.

That, in a way, is proselytizing or spreading the Buddhist teaching, and that’s how the Buddha lived his life. Proselytizing in this sense doesn’t mean trying to gain more converts or trying to expand the power or reach of an institution. It’s more akin to meeting others, helping those who are suffering, and trying to help them relieve themselves of their own suffering.

 Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, right, with INEB founder and renowned social activist Sulak Sivaraksa with. Photo by Craig C Lewis

Of course, this world does not consist only of our individual problems. We also face social problems, and problems at the national and global level. In the Buddha’s own time, there was the caste system. If you are born into a low caste, then structurally you’re bound to suffer more. That’s why the Buddha did not accept the caste system. It’s the same with gender discrimination. In a patriarchal world, women are bound to suffer more. 

During the time of the Buddha, however, we don’t hear too much about racial discrimination. That could be because discrimination of indigenous ethnic groups was folded, structurally, into the system of caste discrimination. On this point, we need to do everything we can to eradicate the various forms of discrimination we encounter and move toward a more equitable society. 

Even during the time of the Buddha there were many wars. And so the Buddha taught a lot about the futility of waging war. In particular, he gave teachings to the kings and emperors of the time, urging them to stop making war. By contrast, theses days, we can see many Buddhist leaders talking about peace and non-violence to the victims of violence but not to the aggressors. There’s a fundamental contradiction there.

By way of example, if nonviolence is truly one of the core principles of Buddhism, then the Buddhist monks in Myanmar should be talking about and teaching nonviolence to the military junta and their leaders. This doesn’t mean that I give a free pass to Myanmar’s opposition for resorting to violence in resisting the junta, however. What I’m saying is we should emphasize and teach the aggressors, those wielders of violence, about the path of nonviolence rather than the victims of their violence. 

The next step is helping the poor. The Buddha himself lived in poverty, so he didn’t engage in helping the poor per se. He was one of the people who needed the help of others. It was the same for the Buddhist monastic sangha, because they too didn’t have any possessions—they would sleep under trees, beg for alms, and wear whatever cloth or rags they could find. However, the Buddha’s disciples who were not ordained, such as the wealthy merchant Sudatta, actually helped the poor a lot. 

The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Photo by Craig C Lewis

These days, by contrast, those Buddhist temples and abbots and monks who do have the economic means should be engaged in helping the poor. In today’s world, the clergy happens to be one of the more privileged segments of society. Therefore they should help the poor. The Buddha urged the kings of his time to help the poor and comfort the lonely, and to love the people as if they were their own children. At that time, absolute monarchy was the norm, and rulers often considered the lives of the common people to be worth little more than the life of a fly. So it was to these kings that the Buddha taught that they should love the people like their own children. 

When the Buddha was about to enter parinirvana, Ananda asked him: after you pass, to whom shall we offer alms and look to receive blessings? And the Buddha replied: instead of offering alms to me, there are four things you can do that are equally meritorious: the first is feed the hungry; the second is to give medicine to the sick; third is to help the poor and comfort the lonely; and the fourth is to support other practitioners.

So it’s very clear from the Buddha’s teaching that we should help the poor. This is as meritorious as offering alms to the Buddha himself. 

Also—although this wasn’t an issue during the Buddha’s lifetime—these days we have to pay attention to the environment. Because society then was not yet industrialized, environmental degradation was much less of an issue. However, if you look at the Buddha’s teaching about dependent origination and his teaching about controlling and disciplining your desires, I think we can extrapolate that the Buddha would teach us to control our desire to consume and to work to protect the environment.

I think this is basically the essence of engaged Buddhism. And it’s the same within Jungto Society. And that’s why all the topics we have been discussing at the conference are very similar to what I’ve just spoken about.

BDG: We can see many small Buddhist groups and communities around the world who trying to be socially engaged, especially in Europe and the US. Do you think it’s possible that INEB and Jungto Society can find a way to act as an umbrella that could unite more of these groups so that their efforts could be more focused and impactful?

VPS: I think that INEB is already fulfilling that umbrella role in a small way, and we will continue to work together so that this umbrella role can be expanded. As far as Jungto Society is concerned, I think we’ll continue to participate alongside and as part of INEB, but of course if some connection is made in which we can participate as Jungto Society apart from INEB, then we’ll also welcome such opportunities. This wouldn’t necessarily only be Buddhist communities; we would also welcome suitable cooperation with other religious or civil organizations.

I consider myself one of the supporters of INEB, helping the network’s leaders and the people within INEB to pursue their goals as effectively and expediently as possible. I do so either by consulting with them on their strategic direction, or by supporting them in other ways. 

As far as the world’s environmental problems are concerned, we should do everything we can to cooperate with everybody else. And the same with peace-building, and of course we should work together with whomever we can to help the poor.

 Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, with 93-year-old Ven. Myeongseong Sunim at Unmun-sa, South Korea’s largest temple and training center for female Buddhist monastics. Photo by Craig C Lewis

BDG: As a journalist, I’ve attended a number of Buddhist conferences, some of which are not as focused in their aims and intentions as INEB’s biennial conferences. A common feature is that there can be a strong foundation of compassion and good will and a lot of meaningful discussion, but actually transforming these into action and manifesting progress is often challenging. Can you offer any advice on this point?

VPS: In a way, the contradiction is that in any alliance if you place too much focus on demanding some kind of organized action, then you risk breaking the alliance. That’s why I prefer to act as a supporter, because Jungto Society is an action-oriented organization. If we try to lead too much from the front, then it creates a burden for the organization as a whole. Therefore we’ll continue to act as a supporter from the back while Jungto Society continues to its work as an action-focused organization. 

Within Jungto Society, as one becomes a member, your orientation is all about becoming an activist. Therefore, in a way, our activity is much more focused. INEB’s members consist of many different people from different countries, contexts, and situations, so it’s not possible to push people too strongly toward a certain actionable focus because each situation is different. 

Just as an example, there are a number of monks from Southeast Asian countries who are attending this conference. For them to sit here and listen and to engage with issues that relate to gender equality and to the challenges for bhikkhunis and female monasticism, and to expose them to these topics, this is already a big step forward! The fact that they’re interested and they’re participating means that change is already taking place, albeit slowly. And this is significant. 

BDG: Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, thank you for sharing your time with us.

Image courtesy of INEB

See more

Jungto Society
Jungto Society International
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
2022 Public Symposium | Seoul, Korea (INEB)
The 20th Biennial INEB Conference in South Korea (INEB)

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