The Korean Seon (Zen) master and engaged Buddhist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, founder and chairman of the international relief organization Join Together Society (JTS), led a delegation of JTS volunteers to India in September to visit Sujata Academy, a community school established by JTS in Dungheswari, Bihar.
Although the respected monk usually makes annual visits to Dungheswari, to engage with the volunteers and villagers and to review the progress of development activities, this occasion was the first time he had been able to travel there in more than two years because of pandemic-related restrictions. During his week-long visit, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim spent time with the staff of JTS India, and discussed the needs and requests of the local residents and of the children of Sujata Academy.
“It has been 30 years since [Sujata Academy] opened,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim counseled the community leaders. “Some of the graduates of Sujata Academy are now in their 30s, and each village now has many educated young people. Therefore, it is time to start village development properly.”
Tuition at Sujata Academy is provided free of charge. Its principal goal is to equip every student with basic literacy skills. Classes are taught from kindergarten to secondary level, along with adult literacy classes and skills training. Students who wish to continue beyond elementary education and attend secondary school are required to teach kindergarteners or to help in the medical clinic in the mornings and attend classes in the afternoon, working in the spirit of giving back to the community. The academy also includes a warehouse, a dormitory, a kindergarten, a large playing field, and sports equipment for the children.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also took the opportunity during his visit to reflect on the achievements of the past 30 years, and to look toward aspirations for the next 30.
“The hospital and schools can be run by [JTS] staff, but village development should be carried out by the villagers,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim continued. “Something that I wanted to start 30 years ago but haven’t been able to yet is village development. Make plans and carry them out. Until now, the installation of hand pumps for water is the only thing that has been successful as a village development project, and we haven’t done any village development to speak of. Of course, we’ve eradicated tuberculosis and reduced the infant mortality rate to near zero through maternal and child healthcare. But you need to investigate and work together on projects like housing improvement and ways to increase income.”
JTS India began its work in Dungeshwari, some 12 kilometers northeast of the Buddhist pilgrimage designation of Bodh Gaya, in the early 1990s, aspiring to fulfill the mission: “The hungry should eat; the sick should be treated; children should be educated in time.”
The region is surrounded by the Pragbodhi Hills where the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is said to have spent six years in a cave as an ascetic. JTS India has been working to empower the villagers in Dungeshwari to live their lives free from hunger, illiteracy, and disease.*
The people of Dongheswari are primarily Dalits, who face systemic social and economic exclusion as a result of the conservative Hindu social hierarchy. “Dalit,” which translates as “broken” in Sanskrit, is a term for the very lowest castes, whom members of the so-called “higher” castes still to this day deem “untouchable,” despite the practice being prohibited in the Constitution of India. By working directly with disadvantaged communities, JTS aims to help them to mobilize their own capabilities and resources to create a more prosperous and sustainable future.
“First, consumer cooperatives should be established,” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim explained. “The products we buy are very expensive because middlemen take profit. So we need to establish consumer cooperatives. If we buy daily necessities at ex-factory prices and distribute them among ourselves, we can purchase them at a 30 per cent or more discount. It’s the same with cement, bricks, and other construction materials. If we purchase large quantities at a time, we can buy them at a much lower price.
“Second, producer cooperatives should be established. Whether we produce milk or agricultural produce, if each of us sells our produce individually, we can’t sell them at full price. But if we establish a producer cooperative and sell them together, we can see a bigger profit. Then we can buy products at lower prices and sell produce at higher prices.
“Third, village banks should be established. If you receive a loan from a private lender, the interest rate is high. When you create a village bank together, deposit money there, and lend money at a lower interest rate, it will be more profitable for all of you.”
JTS was established by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim as an expression of the compassion of engaged Buddhism and the belief that helping others is the best way to enrich one’s own life. Headquartered in Seoul, JTS operates four branch in South Korea and the United States, along with field offices in India and the Philippines. TS Korea and JTS America oversee fundraising, while JTS India and JTS Philippines conduct development projects in cooperation with local communities. The relief organization has also earned Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Charged with bringing hope, empowerment, and self-reliance to underprivileged communities in developing countries, JTS is run and manned by unpaid volunteers, who ensure that all donations benefit the marginalized communities with which the organization works. JTS carries out relief work in countries suffering from humanitarian disasters, with the aim of “solving the problems of poverty and pain in Asia by the efforts of Asian people,” and has engaged in humanitarian projects in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
During Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s latest visit to Dungeshwari, plans and preparations were also made for a pilgrimage by members of Jungto Society scheduled for this winter. January 2023 will mark 30 years since Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s first visit. To commemorate the occasion, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim will lead a pilgrimage of 1,250 Jungto Society members from Korea to Bodh Gaya and to Dungeshwari, where they will serve meals to 10,000 Dungeshwari villagers, marking the completion of Jungto Society’s 30-year practice.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is a widely revered 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 International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
In October 2020, 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.**
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