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Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Shares the Warmth of Compassion with Vulnerable Communities in Korea

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim greets the volunteers. Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim greets the volunteers. Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The revered Korean Dharma master and Buddhist activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) joined a special team of volunteers in Seoul earlier this month, who gathered to distribute charcoal briquettes to vulnerable households as South Korea settles in for another cold winter.

As recently as 30 years ago, charcoal briquettes were the main fuel for heating and cooking in Korean households, and are still relied upon by many underprivileged communities. JTS Korea, an international humanitarian aid organization founded By Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, has been running an annual program each winter to supply vulnerable communities with fuel for heating during the harsh winter season when temperatures often fall below –10ºC.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim joined JTS volunteers and a team of 140 people from the fields of television, film, theater, and the performing arts on 2 December in Seoul’s prosperous Gangnam District to deliver briquettes to the residents of Guryong Village, a shanty settlement that has been occupied since the city’s rapid development and modernization in the 1980s. 

The eager volunteers assembled in front of Guryong Village Hall—among them the well-known actors Zo In-sung, Han Ji-min, Lee Si-eon, Cho Hye-jung, and Lim Se-mi, the popular singer Maya, as well as screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung and talk-show host Kim Je-dong.

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

As the volunteers gathered, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, dressed in old work clothes, greeted them: “In this cold winter, there are many families around us who are still in need of fuel. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, sponsorship and donations have declined and volunteer work has halted. . . . JTS, which provides support in cases of such welfare shortfalls, has been providing fuel briquettes for the past four years. . . .

“These are the clothes I wear when I spread compost in the fields of my farm. No matter how much charcoal dust gets on our clothes, we can easily wash them afterward. So let’s bring warm fuel while thinking of these people who shiver through the bitter cold of winter. Let’s work hard together!”

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The Buddhist humanitarian relief organization Join Together Society (JTS) was established by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim as an expression of the compassion of engaged Buddhism, and based on the principle that helping others is the best way to enrich one’s own life. 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 marginalized communities. JTS carries out relief work in countries suffering from humanitarian disasters, and has engaged in humanitarian projects in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. The relief organization has also earned Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung, a JTS volunteer and representative for the new participants, offered some advice: “Although we may feel hungry, let’s be patient and focus on delivering briquettes. There are a lot of actors participating today, and sometimes fans may come and ask to take a photo, but please refrain and be careful to avoid any unpleasant incidents. It feels so warming and encouraging that so many of you could come here today.”

A total of 3,000 briquettes were to be delivered to 15 households that included people with disabilities and serious illnesses, or are otherwise particularly vulnerable. The volunteers formed long lines down the narrow alleyways of the village, passing briquettes from hand to hand to deliver 200 to each household.

As the fuel arrived at each home, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim took the lead in stacking the briquettes, demonstrating to the volunteers how to do so neatly and safely: “Now we just have to stack the briquettes on top like this. Please give it a try.”

The homeowner, who had been watching silently, beamed with happiness as the briquettes were delivered, gushing, “Thank you so much, Sunim!* Thanks to you, we spend the cold winter months warmly every year. We’ll never forget the support you have shown us.”

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

As soon as each house received its delivery, the volunteers quickly move onto the next home, working swiftly and efficiently. With so many participants, they were able to distribute all 3,000 briquettes in just two hours.

Although their bodies ached from the exertion, the volunteers expressed pride and satisfaction in the afternoon’s work as they gathered for a commemorative group photo, their hands and faces streaked with black soot. 

Actor Han Ji-min expressed thoughts that were shared by many of those who gathered to bring the warmth of compassion to the community in Guryong Village: “After working hard deliver so many briquettes, my heart feels warm. Let’s come here together next winter as well!”

Image courtesy of Jungto Society
Image courtesy of Jungto Society

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is a widely revered Korean Dharma teacher, author, and social activist. He has founded numerous organizations, initiatives, and projects across the world, among them: JTS Korea, an international humanitarian relief organization working to eradicate poverty and hunger; Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddha’s teachings and dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering; Ecobuddha, an organization focused on environmental ethics and sustainable living based on the teachings of the Buddha; and Good Friends, which promotes reconciliation and cooperation between the North and South Korea, and provides humanitarian aid to North Koreans. 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 his international humanitarian work, intensive 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 monastics.

** Buddhist Monk Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Awarded the 37th Niwano Peace Prize (BDG)

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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