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 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.
Q: In my understanding, from the Buddhist point of view, the purpose of our existence is enlightenment, oneness, nirvana. I want to ask why—why is that our purpose? Why is the universe constructed so that our meaning, the meaning of life is in enlightenment?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: What do you think is the goal that human beings pursue? For example, if I ask a student what is your greatest wish? He might say, “to work.” So what will you do with those grades? I want to go to a good university. Then after you enter a great university, what would you do? I want to get a good job. What do you want to do after? I want to earn a lot of money. What are you going to do with that money?
If we engage in this type of questioning exercise, ultimately the answer we all arrive to is freedom and happiness. I guess there are some people who don’t want this, but the vast majority would say that they want freedom and happiness. I think this is a unique natural aspect of how we are made as human beings.
So how do you attain freedom and happiness? Most people think that money will buy them freedom and happiness. They say that high status will bring them freedom and happiness. And they think that if you are more popular, then you are freer and happier. That’s why people seek money, status, and popularity. The question we have to ask is whether that is really the answer.
Many wealthy people consult me, but they don’t seem that happy to me. I also talk to many famous entertainers in Korea, and they too have a lot of issues. I talk to many politicians who have leadership positions, but they also have a lot of issues.
So it seems that money, high status, and popularity are really not efficient conditions for attaining freedom and happiness.
So how can we really attain happiness and freedom? This is the teaching of the Buddha. If people tell you that if you believe in the Buddha, pretty soon you will find success and you will earn more money, that is not Buddhism. The Buddha actually shows the way toward attaining freedom and happiness and that is why we follow the Buddha’s teachings.
We think that we define freedom as being able to do whatever we want when we want. But this world does not allow us to do that. So we swing back and forth between freedom and a sense of imprisonment. But if you manage to achieve freedom from your own ambitions and desires, then you will actually move closer to the true nature of lasting freedom.
Enlightenment, then, is a precondition to your sense of lasting freedom and happiness.
So what is enlightenment? Enlightenment is basically defined as the way for you to break free from your preconceptions or conditioned perceptions of what the road to freedom and happiness is. It’s not a way of understanding. To understand something, we always understand relative to the world view that we hold. But enlightenment is a matter of you breaking away from ingrained, conditioned perceptions. So the start of that process is for you to begin to question everything. Whatever it may be, you must not accept anything without first asking questions.
I hope you all attain happiness. Thank you.
International Network of Engaged Buddhists
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Dharma Q+A with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim
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