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Walking a New Path

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. All 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 Maryland on 23 September 2023. This article is the 22nd and last in a special series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s 2023 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.**

Alleviating suffering in North Korea

Before his public Dharma Q&A, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim met with Frank Jannuzi, president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1983 to promote understanding and cooperation between Asia and the United States.

Jannuzi served as director of the East Asia and Pacific Policy Office for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and also held the position of Korean Peninsula Policy Team Leader in the Obama presidential campaign. He has served as an advisor in the areas of security, politics, economics, and human rights in East Asia to Joseph Biden and to former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairmen during the John Kerry administration.

After not meeting for the past four years, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and Jannuzi exchanged warm greetings and quickly began a conversation on the topic of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Why hasn’t there been any progress in North Korea-US relations and the Korean Peninsula issue since the Biden administration took office?

Frank Jannuzi: I am also frustrated because there’s no progress. The Biden administration is currently only seeking dialogue on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. We need to broaden our horizons.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The way to make progress is simple. You just need to take on the role of the person in charge. It will take someone like you—an expert on this issue—to take responsibility and find a solution. (Laughs)

I agree that from the perspective of the United States, the North Korean issue may seem relatively minor. With the ongoing Ukraine conflict and tensions between the US and China, it may be challenging to prioritize North Korea as a top concern. However, it appears that the Biden administration is currently placing too little emphasis on the North Korean problem. North Korea is home to 25 million people, who are living in extremely difficult conditions. It has been nearly 30 years since the famine. Yet without easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, even slightly, there’s no way to alleviate their suffering. I believe that the American values of putting people first should be greatly respected. From this standpoint, we should work together to find ways to alleviate the suffering of North Koreans.

First, the US tends to view North Korea’s leadership negatively while overlooking the North Korean people. I don’t think that’s a desirable attitude. Second, we should consider what the greatest threat is, currently, on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia: the unchecked proliferation of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. They are increasing their nuclear materials, progressing toward miniaturization for actual warhead use, developing long-range missile technology, and even working on nuclear-powered submarines as the final stage. Allowing this situation to continue is not an option. The US is, in fact, exacerbating the proliferation of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction by strengthening trilateral military cooperation with South Korea and Japan.

Therefore, I believe that the US should lead an agreement to freeze North Korea’s nuclear proliferation in the near future. What can the US offer to make North Korea stop its nuclear development? In the past, the normalization of North Korea-US relations was seen as the final step in denuclearization. However, the situation has changed significantly. It has become much more difficult to move North Korea with anything else. With the current US-Russia and US-China confrontations, it is as if North Korea has gained the upper hand. They may feel there is no reason to cling to dialogue with the United States. They may even consider that they can coexist without resolving the issue.

From this perspective, North Korea is unlikely to actively engage in dialogue with the US. Therefore, to prevent North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, the US needs to take a more proactive stance; they need to make a bigger proposal. The US should propose the normalization of North Korea-US relations as a condition for freezing the nuclear program. This would not be detrimental to either party. The US would incur no cost as they only need to engage in dialogue. North Korea wouldn’t have to worry about having nuclear weapons on its territory. We need to approach this not as “freeze your nuclear program, and we’ll normalize relations,” but as “we’ll normalize relations, so freeze your nuclear program.”

North Korea is currently reliant on Russia and China out of necessity, but from North Korea’s ideology, there is a contradiction in this. We should leverage this point. The US and Japan need to normalize relations with North Korea while preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This is how we should work to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

In the past, when North Korea took a tough stance, the South Korean government responded appropriately. However, now the South Korean government is also taking a tough stance. In the past, when North Korea took a tough stance, Russia and China would intervene, but now, there is a risk of North Korea being abandoned due to the confrontation between major powers. Given Russia’s current attitude, there is even a risk of technological support for North Korea’s nuclear development. As such, I see the risk of war as greater than ever.

Considering these issues, I hope the US government can look at the bigger picture. If the US government finds it difficult to take the lead, the Japanese government could step in as one option. Japan did not play a substantial role in the Six-Party Talks. Now is the best opportunity for Japan to play that role. There is still potential for underwater dialogue between North Korea and Japan. Furthermore, North Korea’s solidarity with Russia poses a significant threat to Japan’s security. So if the US finds it challenging to act, Japan could consider taking the initiative. I believe that if the US opens the door to dialogue, it can significantly ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Frank Jannuzi is the closest person I know to the Biden administration among Americans. That’s why I came here! (Laughs)

Frank Jannuzi: I’m grateful because I always learn a lot from you. Even in difficult situations, you do not give up and you continue to pursue justice. I’m always moved by that. However, even if the United States proposes a normalization of relations with North Korea, it’s highly likely that North Korea will not accept it.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Yes, I’m well aware that resolving the North Korean nuclear issue is extremely difficult. However, if we continue to neglect nuclear proliferation, as we are doing now, the risks will only increase. So far, the strategy has been to delay, predicting that the situation will become more favorable for the US and less favorable for North Korea, under the guise of “strategic patience.” But the global geopolitical landscape has shifted and it’s currently in North Korea’s favor.

As you just mentioned, I agree that there is a high likelihood that North Korea would not accept a proposal to normalize relations with the US, even if the US were to make such an offer. North Korea is lacking nothing at the moment. It is in a position where it can freely produce weapons of mass destruction. However, North Korea also has vulnerabilities. If the Ukraine war were to end quickly, Russia would no longer need North Korea’s assistance. Currently, Russia is short on ammunition for the Ukraine conflict, which could potentially draw North Korea into the conflict in exchange for providing military technology. If this war were to continue for another two years, North Korea could acquire most of the military technology it desires. Therefore, I believe that the US should promptly engage in negotiations with North Korea to achieve a nuclear freeze.

Additionally, if the US could disrupt North Korea’s relationship with Russia, it would also be advantageous in the Ukraine war. We cannot be sure whether North Korea would deploy troops to Russia, but the likelihood of sending workers is very high. In the end, Russian citizens would enlist in the military, and North Korean workers could fill those vacancies, essentially making it equivalent to deploying troops.

So I think the US policy of “strategic patience” is causing us to miss the right timing. The cost we will have to pay will only grow. What I am proposing is not disadvantageous to the US. It is also beneficial for countering China’s strategy, Japan’s security policy, and even for maintaining and stabilizing the US-South Korea-Japan cooperative relationship, even if the government in South Korea were to change. If we neglect such a good proposal, I believe it wouldn’t be the right security strategy.

If you, Mr. Jannuzi, could become a policymaker or persuade policymakers, wouldn’t that be the way to go? We have been working to resolve this issue for nearly 30 years. (Laughs)

Frank Jannuzi: Yes, I know. I’m trying too! I’m sorry it didn’t work out. It should have been resolved by now . . .

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: While the US claims to care for North Korean citizens, it seems that they are turning a blind eye to the suffering of these individuals. No matter how negatively we view the North Korean regime, we should alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people. They are enduring hardship due to a lack of food and medicine. We have the willingness and capacity to support them, but we are blocked from providing assistance. We might be able to do something if North Korea-US dialogue takes place first.

Frank Jannuzi: For the first nine years, I also played the role of an analytical scholar. Analysis was conducted even when all US policies toward North Korea had failed. I think I was exhausted after that too.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Rather than simply criticizing North Korea, we should research how to handle such a North Korea. We should aim to become problem solvers, not just analysts! (Laughs)

Sunim’s proactive proposals and insightful perspectice deeply moved Jannuzi, and he promised to do his best on the issue if it could be of any help.

Sunim then took his leave in order to attend his public Dharma talk in Rockville, Maryland. 

Living without suffering

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: People live their lives in a way they believe to be good, but suffering arises. For example, people celebrate when they marry, then they suffer in their married life. They are happy to get a job, but they struggle in their work life. They open a business with great joy, but they suffer while running it. Isn’t this contradictory? Can we really live without suffering?

2,600 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha said: “Humans can live without suffering.” 

He was born a prince but renounced his throne and lived a very austere life. However, he found greater freedom and happiness in his simple life as a monk than he did as a prince. He also provided guidance on how others could live similarly. We can all live happily. Today’s topic of conversation is “Can we live without suffering in any situation?” You can ask questions on any topic and share your opinions. Let’s get started . . .

Q: Hi, my wife is a big fan of yours. She listens to your lectures and when she shares them with me, I find that I almost always agree with your analysis of the human situation. My question for you: what in life is fun for you? Considering the life of a monk as as I understand it: no sex; no drinking; no smoking; no gambling; simple diet, no samgyeopsal (pork belly); and, according to my wife, not really interested in art, music, sports, or games. So what is fun in life?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Nothing is particularly interesting. Does it have to be fun? To put it accurately, there isn’t much that isn’t fun for me.

Q: Because otherwise life is just work. You work and work and work. You have to have fun.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I mean, there’s not much that I don’t find enjoyable, so I do whatever comes my way. Because there’s not much that I find particularly unenjoyable. There’s also nothing particularly interesting about it. You don’t have to do anything, so there is no big problem.

A smoker might think: ”If I don’t smoke, what’s the point of living?” A drinker might say: “If I don’t drink, what’s the point of living?” Someone who exercises might say: “If I don’t exercise, what’s the point of living?” But animals live well without doing any of those things. 

It’s all about habits. Once it becomes a habit, you have to do it; and if you don’t, you’ll feel bored or experience suffering. This is what we call karma. Living according to each person’s karma means finding enjoyment based on each person’s karma, which also leads to suffering. However, if you become free from karma, there’s nothing that’s particularly enjoyable or unenjoyable. 

However, even without doing such things, there are plenty of things to do in this world. Give it a try sometime. You don’t have to do everything the questioner mentioned right now, and it won’t be a problem.

Q: You’ve drawn comparisons to animals quite a few times. Are we just animals? Are we the same as animals?”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Some aspects make humans worse than animals, while there are also some slightly better aspects compared with animals. For example, birds build nests and live in them. They may build a new nest the next year, and it doesn’t matter if another bird comes along to live in the old nest. However, humans, even if they live in a new house, lock the door of their old house and prevent someone who is homeless from entering. That’s why we’re worse than animals. Additionally, birds build nests and live there, but they never agree if another bird suggests living together. Sometimes they feel a threat to their lives and escape, but they never compromise. However, humans sometimes go out of their way to provide shelter for those who are homeless.

If something is at a level lower than that of animals, it can be called “evil.” If you go a little higher than that, it can be called “good.” At the very least, we should not behave in a way that is worse than an animal, but it’s not a bad thing if you don’t do something better. Stopping bad behavior is a necessity, but engaging in good behavior is a choice. You may choose to engage in good behavior, but it’s not mandatory. Engaging in good behavior also earns you praise from others.

However, in today’s society, behaving worse than an animal is often rationalized. A lot of energy is devoted to such negative actions, leading to a more miserable life. We might say that someone is greedy as a pig, but pigs, when full, don’t intervene when other animals come to eat. Humans, on the other hand, do not share their food, even when they have plenty and others are starving. Such behavior is absent in the animal kingdom. These actions are ecologically and unnaturally harmful. We refer to such behavior as greed. Greed brings suffering.

However, humans can behave differently. Sometimes, even when we are hungry, we share our food with those who are even hungrier. Such actions are absent in the animal kingdom. Good and evil are not biological, but mental concepts.

Our mental processes have both positive and negative aspects. Much of the suffering and stress we experience is as a result of the negative aspects of our mental processes. Buddhist practice involves reducing the negative aspects and increasing the positive ones.

Q: Okay! I like that. Thank you!

After the Dharma Q&A, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim offered some concluding words.

The price of overconsumption

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Did you find the conversation interesting?

Q: Yes!

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Please do not overestimate life. Humans are not exceptionally precious beings. Nor are they inherently evil. They are simply a part of the natural world. At this time, they are the main shapers of the Earth’s ecosystems.

When the climate crisis intensifies, smaller life forms will perish, initially. However, as ecosystems begins to deteriorate, mainstream life will also face extinction. Such events have occurred multiple times in the history of our planet. Mammoths went extinct 100 million years ago. Similarly, climate change poses a significant existential threat to humanity. Our current climate crisis is not simply a natural occurrence; it has arisen due to excessive production and consumption driven by consumerism. Such consumerism is akin to drug addiction. Therefore, for humanity to engage in sustainable survival on Earth—just as one would quit smoking or give up drugs—they must overcome consumerism. We must find a path to happiness by consuming less and living modestly. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before humanity faces extinction.

Those of you living in the US, especially, consume excessively. Do you really know how much you consume and waste? When I visit restrooms in the US, I often see people pulling out several sheets of toilet paper without realizing that just one sheet is enough. People use disposable items everywhere: even in hamburger joints, people take multiple ketchup packets when only one or two are needed, discarding the rest.

In the era of climate crisis, such overconsumption should be classified as a criminal act. Excessive consumption should not be something to envy; it should be seen as a major offense. We must change our way of thinking. Without this change, overcoming the climate crisis will be difficult. Technological solutions may delay the onset of the crisis, but, fundamentally, the direction of our lives needs to change.

In times like these, the life and teachings of the Buddha offer us a new path. I hope that all of you will take a greater interest in the Buddha’s teachings—not necessarily changing your religion, but opening your eyes to the path of truth within your existing faith. By doing so, your personal happiness will grow, your relationships will improve, and you will contribute to the preservation of the natural environment. Not only for ourselves but also for our descendants, I hope that we can walk this path together!

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)

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