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What Is a Successful Life?

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님). Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, social activist, and podcaster, 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.

The following article, an extract from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s book Life Lessons, is part of a series of essays shared by Jungto Society of notable highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.

A child may think, “I will be happy when I’m all grown up.” Before college, a student may think, “I will be happy when get into a college.” Later, the college student waits for tomorrow thinking, “I will be happy when I graduate from college . . . when I get married . . . when I have a child.” We endure the difficulties of today hoping that we will be happy sometime in the future. As we get older, however, we question whether it is alright to live this way. One person asked me: “What is a successful and good life?” In his field of work, this person was perceived as successful, but he was unsure whether his life was indeed successful.

We first need to ask the question, what is “success”? Success can be broadly defined as achieving one’s goal. Many believe that making a lot of money is success. They may also think that gaining high status, power, or fame is success. However, everything is relative. A person with $100,000 is considered rich among those who only have $10,000. However, the same person is considered poor when he is among millionaires. Being “rich” or “poor” is relative and is dependent on the object of comparison. The same rule applies to a person’s status. In the military, a sergeant has a higher rank than a private, but he has a lower rank than a lieutenant.

These kinds of secular successes cannot last forever. Because everyone wants to succeed, even those who have failed will keep trying to achieve success, so it looks like people are playing a seesaw game. Going up and down, they alternate between success and failure. Can such unsustainable success be called true success?

Let’s talk about money. People think that they will be happy when they save the amount of money they aim for. Those without money think that people with money don’t have any worries. Is this true? On the contrary, the rich may have more to worry about than the poor. For example, they worry about protecting their wealth and want to increase it since they always feel lacking in money in comparison with those richer than they are. There is a saying that goes: “A person with 99 rice paddies demands that a person with one rice paddy hand over the land.” It means that a rich person, instead of being satisfied with what he has will want to keep on accumulating more wealth.

In terms of success in society, there is sometimes a discrepancy between the evaluation of others and that of oneself. For instance, a person who may be regarded as successful by others, may actually feel like a failure. Perhaps that is why there seem to be more elderly people who are regretful and feel they wasted their lives than those who feel that their lives were rewarding and that they would do the same work again if they were reborn.

What, then, is a truly successful or good life? When you feel satisfied with your life regardless of societal views of success, your life can be considered successful. Generally, people who have earned a lot of money and live in a big apartment in the city are viewed as successful. However, people who are running a farm in the countryside are also leading successful lives when they feel content and think, “I am happy to be able to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, eat organic produce, and enjoy freedom in my work.”

You are leading a good life if you are satisfied with your life today and are not postponing your happiness until tomorrow. You can be happy when you realize: “You can’t eat five or six meals a day nor wear dozens of clothes or drive several cars simultaneously. Living modestly and being free from worries is the best.”

It’s not really important what type of work you do. If there is something you want to do, you can just do it. It may be rewarding to research new farming techniques, or to run a small shop, or to work for the international community.

Doing what you want to do is enjoyable, even though it may be demanding and difficult. Climbing a mountain for a military exercise is just as physically taxing as climbing the same mountain for leisure. But climbing for a military exercise is agonizing while climbing for leisure is enjoyable. At times, I find it exhausting to travel around the country and around the world to give talks, but I am happy because spreading the teachings of the Buddha gives me great satisfaction.

Once I was late for a Dharma talk, so I took a cab. I noticed that the cab driver was driving very aggressively. Curious as to why the man was so angry and temperamental, I asked the driver, “Are you having a very bad day?” The driver let out a big sigh and replied, “My wife left me and my seven-year-old son.” Then, I asked him, “How much do you make an hour?” He responded, “About eight dollars per hour.” I told him that I would give him $40 for five hours of his time.

As I got out of the cab in front of the temple where I was giving the Dharma talk, I gave the cab driver $40 and told him to park the cab and come inside to listen to my Dharma talk. In driving so aggressively, the driver could have caused a horrific accident, injuring himself and others. Also, his constant anger would have been a very bad influence on his son. I wanted to give him an opportunity to calm down and reflect on his situation. Think about the benefits of his coming to terms with his situation so that he could be happy despite being without his wife—the possibility of his wife coming back may increase, while the chances of his getting into a car accident would decrease, thereby saving the lives of others as well as his own.

If I had just invited him to attend the Dharma talk, he would have refused. But since I paid him, he had no choice but to attend my Dharma talk. Come to think of it, I must say that I am happy that so many people come to listen to my Dharma talks even though I don’t pay them.

Failing to reach your goal should not necessarily lead to unhappiness. If you do your best and don’t obsess about the result, the process itself will make you happy. However, when you are not centered and rely on the evaluations of others to define your success, your life will seem futile when you fail to “succeed.”

Today, the majority of people tend to be pretentious and waste their lives pursuing futile desires. They torture themselves by constantly comparing themselves with others. Some lead apathetic lives, believing themselves to be “incompetent,” while others live in misery resenting others. They keep blaming others instead of looking inward and finding contentment. Since they laugh and cry according to the changing circumstances and conditions in their surroundings, they inevitably continue to lead unstable lives. Therefore, you must keep in mind that achieving success as dictated by society and satisfying your desires will not necessarily make you happy. On the contrary, the more you let go of your desires and lower your expectations, the happier and more satisfied you will be.

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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