SEOUL, South Korea – The 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), jointly organized with Jungto Society, concluded in Seoul on Sunday—the first official in-person gathering since INEB’s previous international conference in 2019 due to the pandemic. The gathering, running from 24–30 October, was held under the theme “Buddhism in a Divided World: Peace Planet, Pandemic.”
The week-long forum, divided between the autumnal mountain idyll of Mungyeong in the south of the Korean Peninsula and the 21st century bustle of Seoul, brought together almost 100 speakers and attendees, members of INEB from around the world. These included distinguished teachers, scholars, and prominent engaged Buddhist activists, who presented, examined, and discussed a wide array of topics that broached the core themes of the roles and obligations of engaged Buddhists in today’s divided and troubled world. The guest of honor for the event was the renowned academic, social activist, and INEB founder, Sulak Sivaraksa.
Papers and presentations for the conference touched upon a wide range of important topics: the ongoing issues of female monastic ordination and empowerment; peace-building in an increasingly polarized and fractious world; climate and environmental protection and sustainability; pandemic management and humanitarian responses; gender identity, equality, and social inclusion; education and empowering young leaders; mental health and Buddhist chaplaincy; child protection in Buddhist institutions; and Buddhist practice and engaged Buddhism in a digital world.
These deep explorations shared through the program workshops were accompanied by a two-day meditation retreat, led by the revered Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, founder of Jungto Society and honorary adviser to INEB. The schedule was also complemented by a range of experiential learning opportunities in Korean cultural and spiritual arts—ranging from activities such as kimchi-making and ritual tea appreciation to making Buddhist prayer beads.
The 20th Biennial Conference was also aimed at developing INEB’s 10-Year Strategic Roadmap, launched in 2017, and expanding outreach to like-minded social movements. This will help INEB to more fully support initiatives in social justice, cultural and gender equality and identity, inclusivity and diversity, transformative learning, and harmonizing initiatives associated with ecology and economics, intra- and inter-faith dialogue.
The conference culminated with a visit by the participants to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas, where the members of INEB held a solemn and profound ceremony for peace and for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. This was followed by a public symposium “Roles of Spirituality & Faith in a Divided World,” live-streamed from Seoul and featuring addresses from an interfaith panel of socially engaged luminaries, including: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim; Harsha Navaratne, High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Canada and chair of INEB’s Executive Committee; Sulak Sivaraksa, cofounder of INEB and chair of INEB’s Advisory Committee; Dr Ahn Jae Woong, chair of the Korea Christian Democracy Foundation; Ven. Kaupahana Piyaratana, abbot-purana of Maha Viharaya Kebiliyapala, Sri Lanka; Pekka Metso, ambassador of Finland to South Korea; Shui-Meng Ng, a socially engaged activist working with development agencies in Laos; and Hua Boonyapisomparn, co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance and first coordinator of the Asia Pacific Transgender Network.**
“For the last five days at Mungyeong Training Center, we have discussed issues related to peace, the planet, and the pandemic,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim observed in his opening address for the final symposium. “The conference this year was especially honored by the attendance of Ajahn Sulak [Sivaraksa], the founder of INEB, who reached his 90th birthday during the conference. . . .
“The world is facing multiple crises, and we need to acknowledge and to be very aware that we are in the midst of a crisis. However, we tend to overlook that we are living with crises because we’re so busy with our everyday lives. Yet just because we may not see it doesn’t mean the crises don’t exist. . . . To that end, education is critical. We also have to understand the underlying causes of these crises. And if we look deep into these underlying causes, we can realize that it is only our own greed that is, in fact, the cause. We are addicted to this system of consumerism in which the narrative of a good life means consuming more . . . and the subsequent damage to societal health means damage to the health of the planet as well.
“I believe that the essence of the Buddha’s teaching is all about engaged Buddhism. Buddhism without social engagement, without social activism cannot solve today’s problems.”
INEB executive committee member and representative of the Malaysia Network of Engaged Buddhists Vidyananda (KV Soon), who compered the symposium, shared his own perspective on the fruits of the week-long conference: “This morning we took a trip to the demilitarized zone, the DMZ. It was the first time for me and I suppose it was the first time for many people. We saw for ourselves how difficult it is to attain peace even in just this one region. It was a clear message that the world is divided—very divided. And this thought has remained in my mind.
“However, reflecting on the conference of the last few days, I, as well as many of you here, agree that we all have been inspired—to make changes, to see that we can work in our own ways for peace and for our planet, to overcome the problems cause by the pandemic, to heal this divided world. We have heard from our teachers, such as Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, Ajahn Sulak [Sivaraksa], and other speakers during the conference . . . a clear reminder for us that action needs to happen.”
The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was formed in 1989 by the prominent Thai academic, activist, and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa and a group of Buddhist and non-Buddhist thought leaders. Connecting socially engaged Buddhists around the world, INEB works promote understanding, cooperation, and networking among inter-Buddhist and inter-religious groups, and to actively address urgent global issues such as human rights, conflict resolution, and environmental crises. Headquartered in Bangkok, INEB has established a wide range of social projects and outreach programs aimed at overcoming suffering and empowering vulnerable communities through the practice of the Dharma and engaged Buddhism.
Jungto Society is a volunteer-run community and humanitarian organization that aspires to embody the Buddhist teachings through social engagement, and by promoting a simple lifestyle that is less centered on consumption than mainstream society. Jungto Society seeks to address the problems and crises of modern society, such as greed, poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation, by applying a Buddhist worldview of interconnectedness and in line with the principal that everyone can find happiness through Buddhist practice and active participation in social movements. Jungto Society connects communities of practitioners across South Korea and the world, each offering online Dharma instruction and other Dharma-based programs.
This report will be followed by a series of in-depth articles on the 20th Biennial INEB Conference drawn from the speakers and their presentations.
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