The Fifth Day of the INEB Study Trip: Meetings with Foreign Workers, Buddhist NGOs, and Jungto Society Volunteers
June 18, 2023
Hello! Today is the fifth day of the study trip hosted by Jungto Society for young leaders and activists from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
The participants of the study trip left Dubuk Retreat Center at 4:30 am to head toward Seoul. After a four-hour drive on the highway, they arrived at Seoul Jungto Center at 8:30 am.
After unpacking their belongings in their accommodation, the participants gathered at the second-floor café to chat over tea. They had been occupied since the beginning of the program and finally had some time to relax.
“Hello, welcome to Seoul Jungto Center.”
The head of the Seoul chapter of the sangha welcomed the guests. A tour of Seoul Jungto Center began at 10 am, commencing on the 15th floor rooftop.
“Ven. Yongseong Josa built a cottage called Daeseong Chodang on Umyeonsan, which you can see over there, and prepared for the March 1st Movement calling for independence from Imperial Japan. This Dharma Hall on our rooftop is named Daeseong Chodang after that cottage.”
Continuing on, the participants visited Join Together Society (JTS), Peace Foundation, Good Friends, Eco Buddha, Jungto Publishing, the media studio, International Conference Room, Teaching Hall, and Main Auditorium.
At 11 am, they ate lunch prepared by volunteers from the Seoul and Jeju Division and the International Division in the basement cafeteria. Today, the bhikkhunis from Bhutan led the meal prayer.
When the meal was concluded, Sunim stood and smiled as he addressed the participants,
“After finishing your meal, use a slice of kimchi to clean your plate and bowl. As you can see, I’ve already cleaned my plate and bowl. Jungto Society has been actively engaged in the zero-waste movement as part of its environmental efforts. Do you understand?”
Everyone washed their own plate and bowl. Sunim showed them how to do so and they followed suit.
“Wash your plate and bowl in three steps like this.”
After the meal, a meeting with foreign laborers working in Korea was held in the auditorium on the ninth floor at 12 noon.
A meeting with foreign workers in Korea
Yan Naing Phyo, who assisted JTS in providing aid to the Sama Taung Children’s Home in Myanmar, and Nuan, who recently assisted in the distribution of food in Sri Lanka, were present at the meeting. Sunim talked about the purpose of today’s meeting by quoting some passages from the Bible.
Six types of deeds that allow one to go to heaven
“In the Bible, there are six categories of people facing extreme hardships in this world. The first category is hungry people, the second is people in rags, the third is thirsty people, the fourth is sick people, the fifth is wandering people—those who have left their homes, and the sixth is people in prison. These six groups are described in the Bible as the most disadvantaged. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you did for the least of these people, you did for me.’ In other words, those who do not help these people will go to Hell while those who help them can go to Heaven.
“People who have left their homes face numerous difficulties. Many Koreans were forced to leave their homes in difficult situations, such as the Japanese occupation, the division between North and South Korea, and the Korean War. Additionally, during times of poverty in Korea, many people emigrated to countries with better living conditions. As a result, there are approximately seven million Koreans living overseas. Consequently, Koreans are well aware of how difficult it is to live in a foreign country.
“With Korea’s recent economic growth, many foreigners have come to Korea, especially from Southeast and Southwest Asia. They say that living in Korea is difficult because Koreans are not inclusive. Historically, Korea has been a predominantly homogenous nation, with limited experience of living with people from diverse ethnicities or races. I think that is why such issues arise.”
Afterward, Sunim gave a detailed explanation of the situation of foreign workers in Korea.
“According to statistics provided by the Korean government, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were approximately 2.5 million foreign workers in Korea, accounting for around 5% of the population. However, as a result of the pandemic, the number dropped to approximately 2.25 million …”
After Sunim’s explanation of the status of foreign workers, Nuan and Yan Naing Phyo talked about their personal experiences as foreign workers in detail.
“I’ve been living in Korea for 12 years now. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is the incredibly high medical expenses because of my visa status. A friend of mine received a hospital bill for around 20,000 USD, which he still hasn’t been able to pay. Many foreign workers are employed in factories and they are facing excessive workloads because they can’t speak Korean well. Some even lose their lives on the job and the cost of sending their bodies home amounts to over 7,000 USD. There are instances where their families cannot afford this expense and are unable to send the bodies home…”
Sad stories continued. After listening to their stories, participants of the study trip asked questions.
- What is the relationship between Sri Lankan workers and Sri Lankan temples in Korea? I wonder if they can receive assistance from the temples when they are in need.
- After the military government took power in Myanmar, many young people have been seeking employment opportunities abroad. It seems that a lot of men have come to Korea. Can Myanmar women also come to Korea for employment?
- Besides Sri Lankan temples and Myanmar temples, are there any organizations that assist foreign workers?
- If you need psychological support, what kind of psychological support do you need?
Lastly, Ven. Kittisara from Myanmar shared a comment after hearing their stories.
“I think it would be nice if the temples could facilitate conversations to solve problems rather than just focusing on Buddhist services, birthday celebrations, or funerals. After listening to your stories, I feel that it would be nice if temples serve as places to discuss the challenges workers encounter. The monks can lead these discussions or the workers can have discussions among themselves. I suggest that Jungto Society cooperate with the foreign workers to systematically solve these problems.”
As the two-hour conversation was coming to an end, Sunim made a closing remark.
“To sum up the stories you’ve just shared, it seems that there are two types of challenges you encounter while living in Korea, a different cultural environment. One is psychological challenges and the other is material hardships. Regarding the psychological challenges, it appears that first, you feel lonely because you are away from home. Especially when you experience the loss of a parent or a family member back in your home country. Second, it seems challenging to find someone with whom you can talk about the feeling of being lost or distressed. It’s because you need to speak in your native language when discussing such matters. I believe that monks from the workers’ home countries, such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand can help address this issue.
Ways to alleviate the suffering of foreign workers
“I think that the issue of material hardships needs to be addressed by Korean Buddhists and Jungto Society. First, we can provide legal assistance to those in need. Second, we can help people receive medical treatment when they fall ill. As the uninsured and undocumented can’t benefit from national health insurance, Jungto Society would like to operate a hospital, but this is not easy because it’s Jungto Society’s principle to carry out activities through the work of volunteers. Building a hospital isn’t all that difficult, but it’s hard to secure doctors. Unlike other professions, doctors can continue earning money even after turning 80, so finding retired doctors willing to volunteer is a challenge. I’m considering the idea of forcing the doctors who’ve been Jungto Society members since their college years to retire and volunteer for us. (laughter)
“Third, we can provide or secure a space for foreign workers to gather near their residences. Jungto Society used to host temple tours and Dharma Q&A sessions for foreign workers twice a year, but they were suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re now planning to utilize Seoul Jungto Center as a venue for Dharma meetings or other gatherings, several times a year, categorized by country.
Issues that need to be solved together
“I’m sharing this information with you because these issues are also yours. While they are Korean problems because they occur in Korea, they are relevant to you because they affect the people from your country. I hope that we work together to alleviate their suffering, even if it’s just a little. I’ve arranged this meeting to bring your attention to these issues.
“In the case of Vietnam, I discussed these issues with the leaders of the Vietnamese Buddhist Association during my recent visit to Vietnam. Currently, 300,000 Vietnamese live in Korea while 100,000 Koreans live in Vietnam. We agreed that by collaborating and finding ways to help each other, we can find solutions.
“Jungto Society has established Ansan JTS Multicultural Center to help foreign workers. We’re planning to open a multicultural center in each region. I hope you visit Korea often to provide psychological support to these workers.”
The study trip participants expressed agreement with Sunim’s proposal by clapping enthusiastically. After the meeting was concluded, Sunim approached Nuan and Yan Naing Phyo and made a suggestion.
“Try to arrange a picnic or a gathering to have traditional food or talk about difficulties once or twice a year for the workers from your country. I will make time to participate in these events. I hope that programs such as Myanmar Day and Sri Lanka Day can be helpful for the workers.”
“Thank you for your suggestion. I’ll work on it.”
Sunim encouraged them once more and took a photo with them.
A meeting with Buddhist media and NGO representatives
At 2 pm, the participants of the study trip had a meeting with Buddhist media representatives and Korean NGOs. Kim Beom-su, deputy manager of the Planning Department at the Buddhist Television Network (BTN), Nam Su-yeon, editor-in-chief of Beopbosinmun, a Buddhist weekly, Kim Nam-su, editor-in-chief of Bulkwang, a monthly Buddhist magazine, Lee Seok-ho, a reporter for the Buddhist Broadcasting System (BBS), Kim Dong-hyeon, managing director of The Promise, an international aid organization, and Han Hye-won, secretary-general of Buddhist Environmental Network, were present.
After introducing each other, Sunim talked about the purpose of today’s meeting.
“The purpose of this meeting is twofold. First, we aim to provide information about the activities carried out by Korean Buddhism as a whole, in addition to those of Jungto Society. Second, you might not agree with all the activities Jungto Society carries out, however you may find some of the activities of other Buddhist organizations in Korea more agreeable and we want to introduce you to some of these organizations and their activities. We hope that this meeting helps you establish mutually beneficial relationships.
“We’ve organized this meeting to help you broaden your relationships in Korea. Unmunsa, Bulguksa, and Jungto Village Jajae Hospital, which you visited yesterday, represent one aspect of Korean Buddhism. I hope you can find partners with whom to network, taking into consideration the situation in your own country.”
Next, each of the Buddhist media and NGO representatives talked about the activities they carry out and how their activities are related to Buddhism.
Afterward, the participants had an opportunity to ask questions. Since all the participants were interested in Buddhist media and NGOs in Korea, a wide range of questions were raised.
- How do you engage with young people who are more interested in pop culture, such as K-pop and K-drama, rather than the Buddha’s teachings?
- How does Beopbosinmun ensure stable income?
- We’re living in an era, where anybody can ask any question to ChatGPT and personal broadcasting is accessible to all. Do you view this as an opportunity or a hindrance to spreading Buddhism?
- Engaging in social activism in Vietnam comes with numerous challenges. Apart from such external challenges, there are also internal struggles to contend with. Social activists often carry a lot of rage within them. As a Buddhist engaging in social activism, how do you overcome internal and external challenges?
The representatives offered detailed information to address the probing questions raised by the monks from Southeast Asia.
A meeting with Jungto Society volunteers
After a short break, the participants had a meeting with Jungto Society volunteers starting at 4:10 pm. Sunim started the meeting by introducing the volunteers.
“The people you met at Mungyeong Jungto Retreat Center and Dubuk Retreat Center are members of the sangha. In other words, they are practitioners who have chosen to leave worldly lives. The people gathered here are people who volunteer full-time for Jungto Society while still living as householders. This particular group of Jungto Society members makes up the majority, with approximately 99% of all members participating in this form. They are the ones who actually operate Jungto Society.”
The meeting was organized to enable the study trip participants to interact with volunteers at different levels, including the president of Jungto Society, an executive director of the administrative office, a division head, a chapter head, a group facilitator, and a Dharma School facilitator. Firstly, the president of Jungto Society delivered a welcoming remark.
“Last year, Jungto Society successfully completed its first 10,000-Day Practice and has now embarked on its second 10,000-Day Practice this year. During this period, we have decided to focus on spreading the Dharma to people worldwide. I am delighted to meet you all who are actively engaged in social activism in Asia and around the world. My hope is that together, we can promote engaged Buddhism worldwide, following the teachings of the Buddha.”
Afterward, participants had an opportunity to ask questions.
- I am interested in learning more about your plans for spreading the Dharma to people worldwide and young people. How do you conduct education and training programs and how do you go about evaluating their effectiveness?
- During my time in Seoul before the study trip began, I saw many elderly people. Do you also offer Happiness School programs specifically designed for them?
The questions kept coming. They were especially interested in young members of Jungto Society. A member of the Special Youth Division answered their questions lightheartedly.
Why do young people volunteer for Jungto Society instead of watching K-dramas?
“Why do young people choose to volunteer for Jungto Society? I mean, you probably have so many other things you’d like to do, like going out for a beer, listening to K-pop, or watching K-dramas. How does volunteering for Jungto Society benefit your work life?”
“We’re living in a time when people have diverse professions throughout their lives, rather than sticking to just one. To make my life more fulfilling, I volunteer for Jungto Society. I’m paid for the work I do at my regular job. I usually perform specific tasks for the money I’m paid. However, at Jungto Society, we come together, even without expertise in the field, to do things. So we are not very skilled, yet we manage to achieve something. In the process, we naturally help each other. This is something I can never experience at my regular job.
“I majored in economics and I’m working for a company. I feel that the capitalist market economy is not a suitable model for our future civilization because it tends to create exclusivity and widens the gap between rich and poor. Volunteering for Jungto Society allows me to participate in creative endeavors aimed at developing an alternative model for our future civilization.”
Although the scheduled two-hour meeting was reaching its end, there were still some people with questions. It was a bit unfortunate that we had to wrap up the meeting, but we had no choice.
Peace Foundation and the situation on the Korean Peninsula
After the Yebul ceremony in the Teaching Hall on the third floor, the participants gathered at the auditorium on the ninth floor to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula with representatives of Peace Foundation.
Initially, the plan was for them to participate in Sunday meditation in the evening but they had a lot of questions and Sunim felt that not enough information had been provided about Jungto Society’s social engagement activities. So, an impromptu decision was made to hold a meeting with Peace Foundation instead.
First, Sunim explained in detail the efforts of Good Friends and Peace Foundation toward achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula and the reunification of Korea. Sunim provided a clear explanation of the reasons behind Korea’s division and the ongoing threat of war by summarizing the history of Korea over the past 100 years—from the late Joseon Dynasty, through the Japanese colonial period, independence, the Korean War, North Korea’s famine, to the recurrent war crisis on the Korean peninsula.
After Sunim’s explanation, participants asked questions.
Are there ways to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula?
“Was Korea divided mainly because of geopolitical reasons? Or were there other factors at play as well? Do you have any solutions to prevent a future war and overcome the division?”
“I have an idea for the solution to this problem. The U.S. and China are in conflict and there are also tensions between Russia and the U.S., causing the U.N. Security Council to be unable to fulfill its roles effectively. For these reasons, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons without any restraints. They are increasing the number of nuclear weapons, enhancing their technological capabilities, and miniaturizing nuclear weapons for use in actual combat.
“South Korea has also made significant advancements in science and technology, and its defense industry is becoming increasingly sophisticated. It is acquiring cutting-edge weaponry from the U.S. and conducting military exercises, aiming to achieve military superiority over North Korea. In response to this situation, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to overpower South Korea, leading to a rapid arms race. This escalating military competition increases the likelihood of war. If a war were to occur, the whole Korean Peninsula would be devastated. However, at present, neither side is willing to back down and both are striving to overpower the other.
“The solution I have in mind is to persuade the U.S. to change its approach. Insisting that North Korea should completely abandon their nuclear weapons won’t be accepted by them. A more feasible approach is to pursue a nuclear freeze. In other words, we should persuade the U.S. to demand North Korea freeze its nuclear programs while establishing diplomatic relations.
“Everybody knows that this is the only way. However, due to the reasoning that ‘agreeing with North Korea’s nuclear freeze is the same as accepting its nuclear weapons,’ no one is willing to discuss this option. Currently, persuading both sides is impossible as they are fiercely fighting with each other. So, we may have to wait until they are a little tired and more open to suggestions and persuasion. For example, in the case of the war in Ukraine, we can’t help but watch more people die. In their attempts to achieve victory, Ukraine and Russia will advance and retreat repeatedly, but eventually, with no decisive winner, they will have to enter into ceasefire negotiations. It’s truly foolish, but that’s the nature of humans and there’s little we can do about it.”
Since there were no more questions about social activism, Sunim said,
“Tomorrow is the last day of your study trip. This is the last chance for us to have a conversation, so feel free to ask whatever you want.”
Since it was the last chance, those who hadn’t asked questions before took the opportunity to do so. Kao, an activist from Laos expressed his concerns about the economic and educational crisis in Laos.
He criticized the Laotian Buddhist order for being indifferent to social problems and expressed his frustrations to Sunim. Sunim replied with a smile.
“Such social issues are found in every nation. I am also concerned about our social problems. But when I plant rice seedlings, I should only concentrate on planting them, and when I harvest potatoes, I should only concentrate on harvesting them. However, we must continuously search for solutions to these problems. When you return to your country, investigate the issues and share your findings with us. Perhaps, I can offer some ideas or provide support.
Those who consider whatever they do as their own work
“To find solutions to social issues, you have to approach them as if they were your own. We invited you here so that you can engage in that kind of work in the future. Don’t approach your work passively, assuming you’re merely there to assist monks. Instead, embrace a mindset that looks for ways to leverage the Buddhist order to address these challenges actively. Take ownership of the problems. During my recent visit to Laos last month, I noticed that you seemed somewhat passive. That’s why I made an urgent request for you to join this study trip. When engaging in any task, practitioners don’t do it as mere helpers. Instead, they consider whatever they do as their own work.”
Upon listening to Sunim’s answer, the executive secretary of INEB Khun Moo responded with a smile,
“When you return to Laos, you can receive ordination and solve those problems.”
To his comment, Sunim said,
“It’s far better to move 100 monks than to become a monastic yourself.”
Kao nodded with his thumbs up. Other participants applauded to show their support. Afterward, a young man from Vietnam asked Sunim a question.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve encountered over the past 30 years?
“Jungto Society has achieved so much, but I can only imagine the numerous hardships you encountered when you first built a school in India in 1992. What was the biggest challenge you’ve encountered over the past 30 years and what is the most pressing challenge you are currently facing?”
“Over the past 30 years, there wasn’t anything particularly hard. Things happened every day and we solved them, and then other things happened, and we solved them, that’s how we lived. (laughter)
“When I began to build a school in India in 1992, I had nothing just like you have nothing now. My only thought was to create a school, no matter the circumstances, because the children in the area were not attending school. I didn’t aim to build a big school, I thought of a modest school made of bamboo sticks and grass. A school is a place to educate children, not a physical building. However, the villagers insisted that we build the school with bricks, so in the end, we constructed it using bricks.
“Actually, our pilgrimage to India began as an effort to secure money for constructing the school buildings. Since I had a good understanding of the Buddha’s life, I could guide the pilgrims effectively. I conducted the pilgrimage with the thought, ‘I could guide them through the pilgrimage effectively, and in return, they could save some money on accommodations and food expenses and the money saved could then be used to construct the school buildings.’ Initially, we secured money in that way to construct school buildings, but later on, people began to donate after witnessing the school’s excellent operation. After that, the school became financially independent.
“For the first several months of initial school construction, I lived with one of the villagers and worked together with them to construct the building. Now I have more work than I did at that time, but I am the same. However, one challenge I face is that when I work on the farm, my body isn’t the same as it used to be. I work for a while thinking that I could handle that much work, but afterward I feel very tired. Other than that, there isn’t anything particularly hard. (laughter)
We did many things, but actually we did nothing
“You can take the Buddha’s teaching in this way. Let’s say there is a mirror. Consider this notepad as a mirror. When a cup is placed before the mirror, it reflects the cup. When a watch is placed before the mirror, it reflects the watch. How many objects can this mirror reflect? It can reflect countless objects. However, does the mirror feel that it’s hard?”
“The Buddha never tried to teach anything. The Buddha’s clear mind reflects unenlightened beings. Let’s say someone feels pain over the death of a loved one. The Buddha’s clear mind reflects the pain. The Buddha doesn’t feel it is hard because he handles the suffering as it is reflected on his clear mind. He doesn’t make efforts. When suffering appears, he reflects it, and when it passes, there is nothing to reflect. The Buddha’s life can be summarized as follows:
‘The Buddha painted countless paintings, but actually he didn’t paint anything.’
The Buddha gave countless teachings, but actually he never uttered a word.
It’s hard to understand, isn’t it?” (laughter)
The interpreter was moved by Sunim’s words and burst into tears. The atmosphere became solemn as if all the participants were greatly inspired.
Lastly, a monk from Thailand who hadn’t asked a question before spoke.
“In our country, Buddhism is part of our lives. I wonder if Koreans also feel that Buddhism is part of their lives.”
Ninety-five percent of the Thai population are Buddhists. Whereas only 17% of the Korean population are Buddhists and the number of Koreans with a religious faith is declining. Sunim discussed the situation in Korea, which is different from that in Thailand, and explained the reasons why engaged Buddhism is needed.
“I believe that it’s easier to teach the Buddhadharma to people without religious faith. Having no religious faith means not believing in unfounded things. To understand the Buddhadharma, one has to be rational and smart. So you don’t have to worry too much.
The reason why we participate in engaged Buddhism
“But the important thing is what we do under our circumstances. We need to respect the traditional aspects, as they do in Thailand. However, the traditional aspects can’t serve as a vision to solve the problems modern civilization is facing. We participate in engaged Buddhism to provide solutions to the crises our civilization is confronting, such as climate change and war. Although we use the term engaged Buddhism, I believe what we are actually doing is a movement to return to the authentic teachings of the Buddha.”
Since there were more questions than usual, the meeting ended after 10 pm. It was late, but they shared their feelings and thoughts in their groups. They looked quite tired but everyone shared their heartfelt impressions lightheartedly with a smile.
Tomorrow morning, the participants will have balugongyang with the members of sangha in Seoul, and visit Jogyesa to meet with the executive director of Jogye Order. In the afternoon, they will have free time, and in the evening, they will have a sharing session, where they can express their feelings and thoughts about the seven-day study trip, which will conclude tomorrow.