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 the modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.
The following article shared by Jungto Society is part of a series of highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.
When I ask people, “Are you happy?” in my talks, few people say yes. Each of them suffers due to personal worries and emotional wounds, relationship conflicts, frustration and stress about our irrational society, or anxiety about the future.
All kinds of things happen in our lives. Usually, things don’t turn out the way we want them to. We want to be loved but may get hurt instead, or people we cared about may backstab us. Nothing in this world, however, happens without a reason. Nevertheless, it is not because of God’s will, or a sin committed in a previous life, or pure chance. We simply don’t know the reason. Yet, if we can identify where our suffering comes from, we will be able to find the solution easily.
A large part of the reason we are unhappy lies in our inability to let go. Let’s say a man swore at us. It’s the same as him handing us a bag of trash. We hold onto the dirty bag tightly and rummage through the trash all our lives saying, “He swore at me,” or, “He slighted me.”
However, we can never enter the path to happiness while we cling to such negative feelings. If someone tries to give us a bag of trash, we shouldn’t take it. If we take it inadvertently, we should say, “Eww, it’s dirty,” and throw it away immediately. Unfortunately, we usually continue to hold on to it deep within our hearts, so it’s difficult for us to be happy no matter how hard we try.
If we as individuals suffer due to our negative mindset, we should change this habit. If we suffer due to a relationship that went sour, we should examine the cause of the conflict and find the solution. If we think that a social system is the problem, we should first try our best to adapt to the current system, and then, if we are sure that the system is the problem, we should try to improve it. Most of us, however, just complain without making any effort to change things. As a result, the world doesn’t change, and we continue to be miserable.
Anybody who is born into this world has a right to be happy. Until now, for those who do not exercise their right to be happy and are mired in suffering, I have mostly talked about how individuals should cultivate their minds in their practice. However, in my writing I also talk about social change, which is another wheel on the cart of happiness. In the end, our happiness will be whole only when the individual’s mental attitude (the seed) and social conditions (the field) are cultivated together.
Individual happiness and making a good society are not two different things. An individual’s effort alone doesn’t make the world a better place, nor do improved external conditions alone make an individual happy. Happiness and unhappiness are the results of a combination of the individual’s mental attitude and the surrounding environment.
So we need to reflect on ourselves before blaming others and, at the same time, take responsibility for the improvement of any irrational part of our present reality. In the end, it is all to our benefit. No matter how hard we try to lead a good life, we are bound to suffer if things go wrong in the world. Complacent thoughts like, “As long as it is not me, it’s all right,” or, “It can’t possibly happen to me,” will not protect us.
In order to enter the path to complete happiness, from now on we should live as the masters of our lives and of the world with the awareness that we ourselves create our own happiness. Each of us is an insignificant entity, like a speck of dust in space, but when we become the masters of our own lives, we can change ourselves as well as the world.
When we aspire to become vital to the world and well-used by the world, rather than trying to lead the good life and succeeding for only our own benefit, we will be happy and be helpful to the world at the same time. Then happiness will be a reality rather than a dream. This is also the way for us to exercise our right to be happy.
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