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Special Report: Footsteps of the Buddha – Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Leads 500 Practitioners on the 33rd Jungto Pilgrimage across India and Nepal

All images courtesy of Jungto Society

Jungto Society, the international Buddhist community founded by the revered Korean Dharma master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님), has conducted its 33rd annual pilgrimage across India and to Nepal. Held under the theme “Following in the Footsteps of the Buddha,” the pilgrimage, which ran from 19 January to 2 February, was attended by more 500 practitioners.

The pilgrimage was particularly notable for two reasons: this year saw the participation, for the first time in the Jungto pilgrimage’s 33-year history, of non-Korean practitioners. It also celebrated the 30th anniversary of Sujata Academy, a remarkable community school established by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in Dungheswari, Bihar, that has transformed the lives of an entire community of people who have faced systemic social and economic exclusion as a result of India’s conservative Hindu caste hierarchy.1

Because of the unique significance of the Sujata Academy’s 30th anniversary, BDG will cover that event in more depth in a separate upcoming report and interview.

Jungto Society is a volunteer-run community of practitioners that aspires to embody the Buddhist teachings through social engagement, and by promoting a simple lifestyle centered on sustainable living. The community seeks to address the crises of modern society, such as greed, poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation, by applying a Buddhist worldview of interconnectedness and living in line with the principle that everyone can find happiness through Buddhist practice and active participation in social movements.

Although fewer in number than the 1,250 practitioners who attended Jungto Society’s 2023 pilgrimage,2 the 500-plus Korean Buddhist pilgrims who recently returned from India were accompanied nine practitioners from Italy, Japan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam—some of whom are members of the the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), including two bhikkhunis from Thailand, while others are graduates of Jungto Society’s English-language Dharma School.3

One such Dharma school graduate is Aeko, a 74-year-old Japanese American.

“When I first heard about the pilgrimage, I thought ‘what a great way to learn about the Buddha,’” Aeko shared of her experience. “And then, at the first pre-pilgrimage briefing, I found out that, oh! we need to bring a sleeping bag! And, oh! we have to bring our own food! There were so many things we needed to do to prepare and be ready for this journey that I almost didn’t come!

“But then it became a challenge that I decided that I was going to meet. And I’m really glad that I did! I used to say that I’d never come to India, because I’d heard about the extreme poverty and the number of beggars, but I’m really happy to have had this opportunity to see what India is really like, as well as to visit at least a little bit in Nepal. 

“It was also a great experience being on the same bus as Ven. Pomnyun Sunim because we didn’t miss any of his thoughts; we were there. I think that a lot of the important information about the pilgrimage, you know, we can get it from the books and the Dharma lessons, but to hear him tell the stories made it all so much more meaningful.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has returned to India many times since his first fateful pilgrimage in the early 1990s. Most frequently, his visits are centered on the work of the international Buddhist relief organization he founded, Join Together Society (JTS), and its Indian office JTS India, which endeavors to lift the lives of vulnerable people out of hunger, illiteracy, and disease by working directly with communities and teaching them to mobilize their own capabilities and resources.

The annual pilgrimages the monk leads enable pilgrims to trace the life and legacy of the historical Buddha, while the seeds of social outreach he has planted have led to the founding of a modern legacy of engaged Buddhism that has benefited thousands of underprivileged in several countries many times over.

This sacred undertaking is not for the faint of heart, nor for those unwilling to give up the comforts of modern life—at least for the duration of the pilgrimage. Pilgrims are expected to adopt the mindset of the an itinerant monastic, receiving temporary ordination during the pilgrimage, pledging to strictly observe five precepts.

In keeping with these observances, the circumstances of the pilgrimage are suitably humble yet rigorous: each day begins at around 4 a.m. or earlier, with a full schedule each day, bookended by formal Buddhist ceremonial practices. The pilgrims eat two meals a day, sleep in shared accommodation in Buddhist monasteries, or snatch much-needed naps on the fleet of 14 buses that enabled the 500 pilgrims and 50 support volunteers to cover in excess of 2,000 kilometers to visit 14 sacred Buddhist sites in India and Nepal, as well as spending time at Sujata Academy, which lies some 12 kilometers northeast of Bodh Gaya.

“This pilgrimage has provided a really special environment for me to practice the teachings of the Buddha, because we have traveled so much, encountering different circumstances and environments. Sometimes it has been challenging, both physically and emotionally, so it’s a great opportunity for practice,” said Vũ, a Buddhist social entrepreneur from Vietnam.

“In addition, we listen to Dharma talks every day from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. He’s given me new insights into my understanding of the Buddhist path, and a new perspective on my practice. Now I can look into my mind, and every day, at every moment, I can observe what is taking place within me, within my mind, from the time we get off the bus to visiting a stupa to the time that we eat.

“The other thing I’d like to mention, which I’ve found particularly valuable, is when we get into the original teachings of the Buddha, when we visit the historical sites and archaeological excavations, Sunim, through his explanations and analyses, helps us to thoroughly access the Buddha’s original teachings and overcome some of the more mysterious aspects of the sutras to understand the true Dharma.”

The pilgrims’ progress traced the significant stepping stones in the life the historical Buddha: his birthplace in Lumbini; the site of his enlightenment in Bodh Gaya; his first Dharma teaching at Sarnath; and the site of his mahaparinirvana in Kushinagar. 

The practitioners also paid their respects to the great teacher at Kapilavastu, where Siddhartha Gautama spent his childhood, and Pragbodhi Hill, where he practiced asceticism for six years. 

And stops were also made at Rajgir, Sravasti, Vaishali, and Sankasia, the scenes for significant events in the Buddha’s life, as well as Vaishalli, Ramagrama, and Piprahwa, home to stupas containing relics of the Buddha. The schedule also allowed for visits to the ancient Buddhist monastic university of Nalanda and Delhi Museum, whose extensive collection includes recovered sacred relics of the Buddha.

Jinsook Kim was one of the tireless and dedicated team leaders who helped to organize and guide the international pilgrims through the tight schedule. “This has been such an amazing experience—so much more than I had expected! It has also been something of an adventure for me as it’s the first time I’ve traveled anywhere without my family,” she explained.

“During this pilgrimage, I was so impressed to be able to visit these ancient Buddhist sites in person, and to relive chapters from the Buddha’s life. When I studied the life of the Buddha in Korea, it felt a little unreal—almost like a storybook somehow, because it all took place 2,600 years ago. But coming here, I’ve gained a very real sense of the Buddha as a human being, and all the stories of his life have become much more real for me. I feel as though I’ve truly been touched by his life.”

At the conclusion of the long and taxing journey, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim offered some closing thoughts for the pilgrims to consider:

“The primary reason for our pilgrimage is not to explore external boundaries but to engage in introspection. When we visit India, there are many new sights to behold. If one were to visit the US or Europe, there wouldn’t be that much to see as the standard of living there is quite similar to that in Korea. Even hotels, whether in Korea or the United States, are nearly identical. The only differences lie in older buildings or slight variations in architectural styles; otherwise, daily life appears almost identical. Clothing, lifestyles, and everything else are similar. However, when one visits India, there is still a significant presence of ancient traditions, allowing for a wide array of unique experiences. . . .”

“While admiring external landscapes may be one of the charms of travel, a greater journey lies in observing the landscapes of our mind. . . . Conventional travel entails surveying external scenery, while pilgrimage involves examining how one’s mind responds to various sights and sounds encountered along the way. Yet it’s not merely a matter of debating whether one’s mind arises with negativity or positivity.

“For pilgrimage to be effective, one must adhere to the principle that the mind is simply a variety of phenomena arising. The mind can give rise to benevolent intentions as well as malevolent ones. . . . Nevertheless, in practice, both malevolent and benevolent intentions arise along the boundaries of the mind. . . . Just as a marionette moves automatically in accordance with the commands of its strings, the mind arises spontaneously along these boundaries. Thus, one should not attribute too much significance to what arises in the mind . . . if one simply acknowledges, ‘This is how the mind is arising now,’ it will soon dissipate like boiling water. By refraining from attributing meaning in this manner, one ceases to be ensnared by the boundaries. Conversely, by attributing meaning one becomes ensnared like a puppet. . . . Even if ensnared, upon realizing, one can turn inward and return to one’s original position, thus pilgrimage can become a form of practice. . . .”

“When discussing enlightenment, four stages are mentioned: the first stage is called sotāpanna in Pali, which is a clear understanding of the essence. However, due to the continual influence of fleeting ignorance, this understanding may not be readily translated into practice in reality. Nevertheless, once one clearly comprehends causal nature, one will not regress to ignorance. . . . When one falls, we acknowledge, ‘Ah! I have fallen,’ and then learns to rise again. It is through continual practice of this process that one reaches a stage where they no longer stumble. . . .

“The second stage, sakadāgāmi, entails continued stumbling, but after one more fall, they no longer stumble. The third stage, anāgāmi, signifies the end of falling. The fourth stage, arahant, represents the stage where one no longer stumbles on the path. Each of you must reach sudawon in this lifetime. Even if it is not feasible in daily life, you must be aware when understanding the essence clearly. Thus, you must progress to the stage where you do not rationalize the inability to achieve something. Only then can you become the master of your own life.”

“After achieving sotāpanna, Buddhism in Korea refers to obtaining insight as chogyeongsung—first perceiving one’s original true nature. Following insight, engaging in cultivation after attaining realization is termed borim in Korean. By analogy, striking a match is akin to chogyeongsung. However, a match is quickly extinguished once lit. Therefore, borim involves affixing flames here and there to ensure they do not extinguish even when the wind blows. Progressing to a stage where the flames never extinguish is called borim. What did you realize during your pilgrimage? Did you perhaps sense that there is no need to become overly attached to eating, dressing, and sleeping?”

“Yes!” 

“Even if you feel this way now, after returning home and living for a month, you may forget that you had such thoughts. During the pilgrimage, you lived frugally, even saving every 10 rupees. . . . Therefore, spending money becomes challenging upon returning home. . . . Yet before a month passes, you will revert to your old habits. Therefore, you must maintain what you have realized here. A pilgrimage does not instantly change your life; rather, it serves as a catalyst for initiating change. It is difficult to change in everyday life. Hence the saying, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ However, after experiencing intense stimulation during the pilgrimage, if you make up your mind to change you can actually do so. . . .”

“Do not search for happiness in distant places. Being able to see, hear, speak, eat with your own spoon, relieve yourself, these simple actions are already immense sources of happiness. The most challenging thing for someone in hospital is being unable to relieve themselves. Many people in hospital cannot even feed themselves, so they have to be fed through their nostrils, or they have tubes inserted into their sides to collect waste. When you witness such circumstances, simply being able to walk with your own legs and move with your own hands becomes a tremendous blessing. When your employer assigns tasks, it’s because you can walk, move your hands, and see. If you couldn’t do these things, how would you be able to work? If you can see through such situations, you can quickly attain freedom.

“The Buddha’s blessings do not come in the form of material wealth but in the form of freedom in life. That’s why we undertake pilgrimages like this, even though they are difficult, because through the process we gain more freedom. However, the benefits aren’t limited to individual freedom. By undertaking this pilgrimage, you’ll experience and accumulate much merit. . . .”

“By choosing to sleep in the poor temple instead of staying in a hotel, you’ve provided assistance from the temple’s perspective. Especially when you sleep in temples in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Cambodia, it’s an act of virtue in itself. Furthermore, because we’ve traveled frugally and saved money, there’s some left over. So even if you don’t donate separately, any remaining funds from the pilgrimage fees are used to support the Sujata Academy. This was my plan from the beginning when I started organizing pilgrimages. With the money saved from pilgrimages, we’ve built school buildings, provided food, clothing, and school supplies for children in need. So while the pilgrimage may have been a personal practice for you, the frugal approach we took during our journey has also benefited impoverished children in this country. However, it required some effort from you. That’s why when you travel with me and undertake the pilgrimage, you might find it challenging . . . yet despite the difficulties, you’ve successfully completed the pilgrimage safely.

“When feces are in the house, it’s filth, but when they’re in the field, they become fertilizer. Similarly, whatever happens, whether it benefits me personally or helps the world, I should consider it as part of my practice and strive to make it beneficial to others. Through this pilgrimage, I hope you’ve become more aware of such principles. . . .

“The Buddha said: ‘I leave you with the wisdom of enlightenment, not the physical body. Although the body may depart, the wisdom of enlightenment shall forever remain with you. The world is transient. Diligently practice and strive, like water dripping on a rock.’

“These are the Buddha’s final words. May you engrave them in your heart and always continue to strive forward.”

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.4

1 Engaged Buddhism: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and JTS Volunteers Visit Sujata Academy Project in India (BDG)

2 In the Footsteps of the Buddha: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Leads 1,250 Jungto Practitioners on a Pilgrimage to India (BDG)

3 Online Dharma: Jungto Society Opens Registration for Spring Intake of Jungto Dharma School with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (BDG)

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

See more

Pomnyun
Jungto Society

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Prince
Prince
20 days ago

Beauitfully covered. It was really a blissful experience to participate in the Jungto Pilgrimage program along with other 500 fellow practitioners. May the wheel of Dhamma keep spinning for the benefit of all sentient beings.