Jungto Society, a South Korea-based Buddhist humanitarian organization founded by the renowned Seon (Zen) master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, has carved a new avenue for spreading Buddhist compassion among vulnerable communities in Korea this winter, thanks to the good will of a generous couple who, inspired by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s teachings on organic agriculture and sustainable living, have found a second career as farmers.
Gong Hee-jeong and Jo Jun-ho, from the city of Jecheon in North Chungcheong Province, made the transition to a more self-sufficient lifestyle in 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading around the world. Their trial harvest last year netted them some two tonnes of sweet potatoes, which they donated to Jungto Society in recognition of the inspiration they received from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim.
After sorting the sweet potatoes into batches of 20 kilograms secured in recycled boxes, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and Jungto volunteers distributed the offering between four main recipients: Aegwangwon, a residential facility for the mentally handicapped on Geoje Island in the south of the Korean peninsula; Jajae palliative care hospital in the city of Ulsan; Ansan Multicultural Center, a social services center for low-income foreign workers in Korea, and Unmun-sa, a sixth century Buddhist temple in the mountains of North Gyeongsang Province and now the largest training center for Buddhist nuns in South Korea.
As a gesture of thanks to the couple for their generous offering, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim offered to pay the couple for seeds to plant this year’s crop, but they declined vigorously: “No, thank you, Sunim,”* said Ms. Gong. “I am donating the sweet potatoes because I truly want to. I have learned a great deal about farming from you, reading your daily blogs in A Day in the Life of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. This is our gift to you.”
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 ceremonies, Dharma talks, and other Dharma-based programs.
Although the residential care facility Aegwangwon is run by a Christian organization, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has maintained a working relationship with the center since 2003, when the southern coast of Korea was devastated by Typhoon Maemi. Located on Geoje Island, Aegwangwon also suffered heavy damage that jeopardized the well-being of the residents, in particular the children.
Aegwangwon’s director, Kim Im-soon, recounts: “At the time, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was attending a meeting in Seoul where he heard about our situation. He left Seoul early the next morning, arriving on Geoje Island that afternoon. He brought with him 4,000 two-liter bottles of water as well as three truckloads of food and daily necessities.
“When I saw him getting out of a truck in his monk robes,” Kim recalls, “I said, ‘Sunim, this is a place for people who believe in Jesus not the Buddha.’ And, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim replied: ‘It doesn’t matter if you are Christians or Buddhists. We should help each other when times are tough.’”
Since then, Jungto Society volunteers have accompanied the children of Aegwangwon on social outings in spring and autumn every year.
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 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 senior Buddhist monks.