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Why Does Suffering Occur?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. 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 Columbus, Ohio, on 20 September 2023. This article is the 20th 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.**

Why does suffering occur?

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Many people marry with everyone’s blessings, but why does married life sometimes become difficult? Everyone is happy when they get a job at a company, but why do people say that work life is tough? A new store opens with congratulations, and at first everyone says it’s good. But after a while, the owners say it’s challenging to run. Why do these things happen?

The answer to this is not found in the Bible or in the Buddhist scriptures. We have to explore it ourselves. At first, we started these things because we liked them, but why do they cause suffering? Today, I’m going to talk about this topic with you as if we were sitting in a cafe with friends and talking comfortably. 

There are no predetermined topics. Everything related to living life is the topic of today’s conversation. It doesn’t have to be a question; you can talk about whatever you want. So let’s begin our free-form conversation now.

I feel bad because I feel like people took advantage of me

Q: My question is about giving. Is there a line between giving of oneself and giving to the point where you are taken advantage of? I have a relationship with a family member to whom I give a lot of time and energy.  It feels imbalanced, and I start to feel resentful for all that I am giving. I am feeling bad about the issue.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When we show kindness to others, we often have certain expectations. Even if it is not necessarily a material thing, we have certain expectations, such as receiving praise or recognition for the favor we have done. When these expectations are not met, it can lead to disappointment and even conflict with the other person. Love becomes the seed of hate.

If you don’t want love to return as pain, you must let go of your expectations. If you do not let go of your expectations, you are bound to suffer. Suffering arises not because the other person did not recognize my favor, but because the other person’s reaction did not meet my expectations.

In other words, it can be said that this happens because people have different thoughts. I may think I have done 100 per cent, but the other person may think I have done 50 per cent. Sometimes the other person takes for granted what I give them, and other times they think what I gave them is not enough. There is nothing I can do about how the other person perceives it. But you only think about what you have given to others. You think that the other person will appreciate what you gave, but that’s an unrealistic expectation.

Giving is a good thing, because if I give I become the owner. Let me give you an example. Two people are working. One person is the business owner and the other is the worker. At first, you can’t tell who is the owner and who is the worker, but if you observe for a while, you can figure it out. The person who gives money after the work is done is the owner, and the person who receives the money is the worker. When you give what you have, a sense of ownership arises. It boosts your self-esteem. This act of giving gives me dignity. When I express gratitude to the other person, I become the owner.

Here is a flower. If I look at this flower and say, “It’s pretty,” is it good for the flower or for me?

Q: It’s good for you.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Just as loving flowers is good for you, loving your family is good for you. Hate does not arise because you love. Hate arises because you try to be loved.

“I’ve loved you this much, so you should love me this much too.”

When you have this kind of mindset, you start calculating the love the other person has given you and you become upset if you think it’s not enough. From this perspective, we basically meet people through back-and-forth transactions. If you meet someone expecting a benefit but suffer a loss, hatred arises. Now you are dealing hard with your family. Stop counting profit and loss and stop trading.

Q: Thank you.

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)

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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