Engaged Buddhism: Jungto Society Delivers Compassion for the Vulnerable in Korea
Jungto Society, a South Korea-based Buddhist humanitarian organization founded by the renowned Seon (Zen) master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim,* has continued its tradition of sharing Buddhist compassion with vulnerable communities in difficult times, as demonstrated in its recent humnaitarian activities over the Lunar New Year in February.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year, Jungto Society has donated relief supplies and food for vulnerable communities throughout South Korea, as well as distributing COVID-19 medical supplies worldwide. On the occasion of the Lunar New Year, Ven. Pomnun Sunim took part in the distribution of shipments of rice cakes—made from rice harvested from Jungto Society’s own organic farm—to communities that have been suffering under pandemic-related restrictions. Some 600 kilograms of harvested rice were turned into 580 kilograms of rice cakes, with three volunteers at Jungto Society’s Dubook Retreat Center laboring for a week to wrap and box the rice cakes into 200 two-kilogram boxes and nine boxes of 20 kilograms each.
“In celebrating the first day of the Lunar New Year, which this year was observed on 12 February, Koreans traditionally eat rice-cake soup (떡국) for breakfast with the whole family,” a Jungto Society volunteer explained. “These rice cakes are made with only rice and salt, so they are good for soup, unlike the sweet rice cakes made with many other ingredients that are popularly eaten as snacks.”
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 has numerous regional chapters across South Korea and more than 20 overseas chapters, including 12 in the United States, each offering gatherings for Buddhist communities, Dharma instruction, and other Dharma-based programs.
The first consignment of Lunar New Year rice cakes went to Jajae Palliative Care Hospital in the city of Ulsan, run by Buddhist nuns. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the hospital has faced dire straits due to a significant reduction in the donations and volunteer workers on which they rely for their work. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim delivered words of encouragement to the nuns along with the welcome food donation, urging them to do their best for the vulnerable people who depend on them, as well as for themselves in these difficult times.
Sunim’s next shipment was for Aegwangwon, a residential center for mentally handicapped people on Geoje Island in the south of the Korean peninsula. Although Aegwangwon is run by a Christian organization, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has maintained a working relationship with the center since 2003. Sunim’s intention was to quietly deliver the rice cakes then leave immediately, without attracting attention, however the Jungto team were quickly recognized and Aegwangwon officials persuaded them to take a short break.
In December, Jungto Society also donated US$5,000 each to Jajae Palliative Care Hospital and Aegwangwon to help them overcome their financial difficulties stemming from the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a second team of volunteers delivered 60 boxes of rice cakes to Ansan Multicultural Center, a social services center for low-income foreign workers, and another 40 boxes to the Sisters of Caritas Catholic convent, both on the outskirts of Seoul.
The final stop for Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s team was Aebin Church (“the church that loves the poor”) in the southern city of Busan, which provides a refuge for homeless people. Sunim, who also supports Aebin Church each Christmas with donations of rice, this time arrived with 70 boxes of rice cakes.
Sunim reminded the resident priest that the rice cakes should be frozen in order to keep them fresh, but the priest responded that since the church lacked adequate storage facilities, he would distribute all 70 boxes among the homeless the following day, observing: “This is a meaningful meeting between the Christian and Buddhist communities. I pledge to personally ensure that all of these rice cakes are shared with the homeless.”
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is a widely respected Dharma teacher, author, and social activist. He has founded numerous organizations, initiatives, and projects across the world. Among them, JTS Korea is active as an international aid organization working to eradicate poverty and hunger, while Jungto Society is a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also works closely with the Thailand-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
In October last year, The Niwano Peace Foundation in Japan presented the 37th Niwano Peace Prize to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in recognition of the revered monk’s international humanitarian work, environmental and social activism, and his tireless efforts to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths and cultures, toward the goal of world peace.**
* Sunim is a Korean title of respect for Buddhist monks.
** Buddhist Monk Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Awarded the 37th Niwano Peace Prize (Buddhistdoor Global)
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