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Treasure the Present and Value Your Own Life

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 Buena Park, California, on 10 September. This article is the 10th 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.*

Q: I’ve been in the United States for about five years now. Initially, I struggled to find a job, but after a lot of effort I finally found employment. Through hard work and dedication, I earned recognition and I have now become a manager. However, while working as a manager, managing employees is very difficult. Among my team members, some people just pass the time, while others work very hard. As I look at the various employees, I see all kinds of emotions rising and falling within me. I especially feel very angry when I see people who are just wasting time or passing their work to others. There are times when I have to cover for them. On the other hand, when I see young and highly skilled colleagues, I can’t help but feel anxious, fearing that I might lose my position. I’m experiencing mood swings. I know I still have a lot to learn, but with what mindset can I solidify my position?”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Is this a company that you founded?

Q: No.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Is it someone else’s company?

Q: Yes.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Are you a salaried employee?

Q: Yes, thats right.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Then work only as much as your salary. (Audience applauds) What’s so difficult about that?

Q: I think it’s because I’m greedy and want to do well.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It’s not because you are greedy, but because you unconsciously believe that the company is yours. When employees are not performing their duties, it’s the responsibility of the president or leadership to address the issue. There’s no reason for the questioner, who’s just a manager, to feel bad about that. While it may feel burdensome to do more work, how about adding a little more work? Since you became a manager, you have to take on that responsibility. The position of manager was created to take responsibility for when someone does not work. If you don’t want to take on that responsibility, you can just go down and do what’s given to you.

And it’s true that having someone smarter beneath you could be viewed as a threat to your position. However, there’s nothing you can do. What should you do if the co-worker is smarter than you? Moreover, the co-worker cannot hide his or her skills in order to protect your position. (Audience laughter)

And when there are employees who are slacking off, it may require you to do a little more work, but having such individuals under your supervision allows you to maintain your position as a manager. At least they don’t pose a threat to your position as a manager.

Q: Yes, thats right.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: So there are positive aspects when you have a lazy co-worker. That’s why you have nothing to worry about. You just have a bit of a misconception. For example, you really admire Pomnyun Sunim, so when some people criticize Sunim, it feels like they’re criticizing you and you get angry and excited. Your mindset is somewhat similar to this. When you hold an important position in a company, it feels like the company is yours, and that’s why you feel angry when people don’t work. But there’s no need for that. It doesn’t mean you should just let employees slack off. You need to focus on doing your job faithfully. However, it’s the job of the company’s higher-ups to monitor whether their employees are performing their duties properly and to take action when necessary.

If you’re given the position and personal authority to check and supervise the workers, it becomes your job to do it because the company pays you a salary to do that job. It’s not because you dislike the person, but simply because you need to report the facts accurately. Even if you have concerns, such as: “Won’t this be disadvantageous to that person?” if he/she hasn’t done the work, you still need to report it truthfully. If you don’t feel inclined to do the task, you can suggest, “I don’t like evaluating others. I’ll just focus on my own work.” If you don’t like seeing people who don’t do their work, you can say, “I can’t be a manager because I don’t like seeing people who don’t do their work,” and resign from the manager position.

If you are receiving a salary higher than the value of your work, it becomes a debt. Even if there is no debt on paper, it becomes a debt in your life. Conversely, if you work more than your salary, you will be blessed. Think about it for a moment: do all employees wish to receive more than they work? Or do they wish to receive less?

Q: They want to receive more.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Do all employers want to pay their employees a bit less in salary? Or do they want to pay them more?

Q: They want to pay less.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: This is human psychology. It’s understandable. People selling something generally want to a bit more for it, and those buying something feel good when they buy it at below the market price, thinking, “I got it a little cheaper.” Those who understand this aspect of human psychology tend to give their employees slightly higher salaries than originally intended. From the employees’ perspective, this is a significant benefit so they are less likely to leave the company. Then who can have a dominant position? The employer can. However, if he pay low wages, employees will keep paying attention to other places, and even a slight criticism can lead them to think, “There are other places that pay that much,” and they may quit. That’s why giving employees slightly higher salaries can make them more loyal to the company and more attuned to the employer’s expectations.

On the other hand, what about from the perspective of employees? To be in the dominant position, he should receive a slightly lower salary. If he threatens to quit in response to even a small criticism from his employer, the employer will be surprised and stop his employee. Just because someone is a worker doesn’t mean he is always in a submissive position. Just because someone is the employer doesn’t mean he is always in a dominant position. You are in bondage because you are trying to get a large salary. Even workers can be in a dominant position if they receive low wages. For example, you can say after lunch, “I will leave work early today to attend a Dharma talk by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim,” without the boss being able to object. If the boss mishandles the situation and the worker leaves, it can lead to significant problems. That’s why some flexibility is shown in such cases.

Understanding these principles can lead to a wiser way of living. To sell something quickly, you need a price slightly below market value. If you want to sell for a higher price, you have to wait longer because no one will buy it at a high price. However, in this world there are occasionally people in a hurry. You have to wait until such a person appears. Because these principles work this way, there’s nothing difficult about it. However, because we are ignorant of this principle, we suffer, we become anxious, and we blame others. If you understand these principles, you can simply adjust your life accordingly.

If you enter a good company with inadequate skills, you’ll have to be cautious all the time. On the other hand, if you enter a company that’s slightly below your skill level, you can live with a bit more confidence because you can easily find such a job with your skills. If the employer says something and you threaten to quit, he will try to hold on to you.

The same goes for making friends. When you want to have a broad social circle you need to spend money to buy food or coffee. People want to have a broad social circles but are reluctant to spend money, and that’s what we call “greed.” Greed refers to something contradictory. When we say to abandon greed, it doesn’t mean to give up the desire to do something, but means to give up contradictory desires.

Q: Thank you.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Just work as much as your salary.

The questioner laughed heartily and the audience gave a big round of applause.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Like the conversation with me today, your life should be both fun and beneficial. It shouldn’t be just about having fun and it shouldn’t be solely about being beneficial. Working allows you to earn money, which is beneficial, but it may lack fun. On the other hand, playing can be fun, but if you keep spending money it may not be beneficial. In both cases, it’s a half-lived life.

How can we have an enjoyable and a meaningful work life? Treat your job like play. Try to have fun while working. When you’re running a store, approach it as a form of entertainment. When customers come, have fun talking to them about various issues. Experiment with different approaches, such as, “When I say this, products sell well, but when I say that, they don’t.” Analyzing in this way can make selling even one item enjoyable. Doing rewarding work for fun, it will be good now and later. Having fun, making money, and eating a pheasant and its eggs, this is a wise life.

We tend to listen too reverently to the words of Jesus or the Buddha, but there’s no need for that. When I read the Bible or Buddhist scriptures and interpret their contents, it all boils down to one thing: In order to live a life that is good for both you and me, enjoyable and meaningful, don’t seek to be loved, but love! Don’t strive to be understood, understand!

Image courtesy of Jungto Society

However, it seems that some of you are misinterpreting this and asking, “Why should I sacrifice for others?” So you grit your teeth and endure in order to go to heaven, but when you eventually get there, it will be hell. If you live in heaven now, you have a high chance of going to  heaven if you have a future life. If you have fun now, there is a high chance that you will have fun tomorrow too. If you’re not having fun now, there’s little chance you’ll have fun tomorrow.

When you read the Bible or Buddhist scriptures, even a little, you can clearly understand how we should live. People who are fixated on money often misinterpret it, but in reality the texts are all saying the same thing. I’m not saying you should believe in Buddhism, I’m saying we should strive toward truth and make our lives blessed. The Buddha couldn’t have told us to sacrifice. Jesus was even crucified for us, and the Buddha spent 45 years teaching for us. Don’t look elsewhere with empty eyes, treasure the present and value your own life. This is the path to the future and the path of benefiting others.

* 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
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International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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