September 8, 2023

 A Day of Sunim, Düsseldorf(Sep 2, 2023)

(Korean article, published by Sep.2)

“How can I soothe the emptiness I feel living abroad?”

2023.9.2 Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (2) Düsseldorf, Germany

Today is the second day of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s 2023 Overseas Dharma Talk Tour. 

The Dharma talk in Düsseldorf began at 3pm sharp, with a video introducing Venerable Pomnyun Sunim. After, as Sunim walked out on stage, there were many cheers and a loud round of applause. 

Sunim began the talk by telling the audience about the past few days, and his visit to Bhutan to discuss a project on sustainable development. He emphasized the importance of consuming less and living a frugal life as we face the climate crisis. 

Seven people asked questions to Sunim over a span of two hours. One of the questioners asked how to manage her emotions, saying that she feels depressed at the thought of living abroad forever and always feeling like a stranger in a foreign country.

How can I soothe the emptiness I feel living abroad?

“I am currently living in the Netherlands. When I was living in Korea, I thought that some of the difficulties I faced would be resolved once I came to the Netherlands. However, I have come to realize that new concerns have emerged since coming here. Things that I didn’t worry about in Korea, such as not being able to easily find the food I want, or the fact that even if I live in the Netherlands for a long time, I will always be considered a foreigner, or the fact that I see how much my parents and grandparents have aged every time I go back to Korea, or not being able to be with loved ones when they experience happy moments, have all started to trouble me. Occasionally, I become submerged in these concerns, which leads to feelings of depression and days where I do nothing but lie around.

I have tried meditation in my own way, exercise, cleaning, donating unused items, sharing with people around me, and even participated in lectures by someone who practiced for three years in a Tibetan cave. In the end, I realized that since the source of my concerns lies within my own mind, the solution is also within my mind.

I understand the importance of emptiness, but I still can’t pass up a 2-for-1 sale and take it to heart when someone says something critical to me. I also feel a sense of unease when I see my friends getting married and leading happy lives. I often wonder, ‘What am I doing here right now?’ How can I alleviate these concerns?”

“If there is an illness, you should seek treatment. If there is no illness, there is no need for treatment. If what you are currently worrying about is worth worrying about, then you should find a way to resolve it. However, if it’s not something to worry about, then there’s nothing that needs to be done.

For example, let’s consider three different kinds of birds: pigeons, penguins, and ostriches. No matter how well penguins and pigeons run, they can’t run as well as ostriches. Does this mean pigeons and penguins are inferior? No matter how well penguins and ostriches fly, they cannot fly as well as pigeons. Does this mean ostriches and penguins are inferior? No matter how well ostriches and pigeons swim, they can’t swim as well as penguins. Does this mean ostriches and pigeons are inferior?”

“No, it doesn’t mean they are inferior.”

“Then why do we feel inferior just because someone runs better than me, is better at math, or has a better memory? There is nothing that can be considered inferior or superior in our world. All existence simply exists. However, if you make comparisons based on swimming, the penguin will be in first place, and the pigeon and ostrich will be in last place. If you base it on flying, then the penguin and ostrich will come in last place. And, if you compare running, the penguin and pigeon will be in last place. So then, how many different criteria could we set as a basis of comparison?  Millions.

The problem with school education is that we take three or four subjects and make them the standard against which all students are compared and ranked. We have selected just three subjects – Korean, Mathematics, and English – and use these to divide students into those with good grades and those with bad grades. The reason why children with poor grades in school can end up doing well out in society is because the standards are different. Of course, it’s also hard to set a clear standard as to what it means to do well in society.

So, in fact, there can be nothing that is inferior or superior. If you compare yourself to the universe, then your existence is but a speck of dust. If you compare yourself to atoms or molecules, then your existence is like the universe. But, you are neither a speck of dust nor a universe. You are simply you.

However you set the standard, bias will arise. If we take the universe as the standard and define ourselves as specks of dust, there will be a bias that we are insignificant beings. If we take atoms as the standard, there will be a bias that we are as great as the universe. Instead, we have to look at both sides together. This is why you can be the most precious being in the world, yet at the same time be but a speck of dust. Understanding these together is the Middle Way. When we only see one aspect, it is biased.

If your parents are getting older, it means that you are also getting older. Just as you grow older, your parents have no choice but to grow older too. If you notice more people around you are dying, does that mean God is punishing those around me? Is it because you committed a lot of sins in your previous life? Or, is it because you are growing older in age?”

“It’s because I’m growing older.”

“As you grow older, more and more people that you know will die. The death of your parents’ generation, your older sibling’s generation, and some of your friends means that you are getting older. The reason children don’t think much about death is because there aren’t many people they know that are dying. But when you get older, there are many people around you who die. This has nothing to do with past lives, and has nothing to do with punishment from the heavens. As I said earlier, this stems from the same way of thinking where an ostrich feels inferior because it can’t swim as fast, or a penguin feels inferior because it can’t run as fast.

It is natural for parents to get old. If they need help from you, then you can go and help. Caring for children is about the preservation of one’s species and a natural phenomenon in ecosystems. However, caring for aging parents is an option, not an obligation. Take a look at nature. Have you seen animals take care of their aging mother? Adults must take care of their own lives, and die when the time comes. On the contrary, the young need care in their early life, or they will die and that line will end.

It is natural for parents to take care of their children, but for children to take care of their parents is a choice humans make. So, if you think you need to take care of your parents, you can go and take care of them. If your work is important and you are unable to go take care of your parents, you can attend the funeral when you hear that they passed away. There is no need to feel guilty thinking that this is against filial piety. It is easy to make arbitrary interpretations about what is filial piety. Something that can be called unfilial is taking away what your parents have or harming your parents’ lives. This behavior does not exist in nature.

Just as a non-Korean becomes a foreigner when they come to Korea to live, a Korean becomes a foreigner when they come to Germany to live. When a Korean comes to live in Germany, or when a German comes to live in Korea, they are called an immigrant. Immigrants are a minority so they may be marginalized. That’s why they are called foreigners, but there is no such thing that is inherently foreign.

Doesn’t the fact that you came to Germany mean that you came to become a foreigner? So if you ask me why you are a foreigner here, then I think it’s a really funny question. You came here because you wanted to live in Germany. You could say that you came here because you wanted to become a foreigner. So it makes no sense at all to ask, ‘Why am I still a foreigner no matter how long I’ve lived here?’

In the past, immigrants were a minority, so they became a symbol of those living in poverty and alienation. However, in the future, immigrants will form the mainstream and the indigenous populations will become the minority instead. Immigrants make up the mainstream in Seoul. There is little advantage to being a native of Seoul, born and raised there. In the United States, the vast majority of the population either come from immigrant ancestors or are recent immigrants, and the concept of indigenous people applies to a very small native population who face discrimination as a particulr minority. Being an immigrant or foreigner is not something that is automatically problematic.

If you look a little deeper into the issues you have, there is no issue. It is as if you are being chased by robbers in your sleep. As you run away, you scream for help, but, as far as I see it, if you open your eyes, there will be no more problem. Open your eyes and say, ‘It was a dream!’ Then, that is that. You don’t even have to solve it, because the problem was created in your mind. Waking up from dreaming is called enlightenment. So wake up from your dream right now (Laughter).

Of course, as you listen to me now, you can understand what I mean by waking up from a dream. But when you go home, your eyes will close again, and you will start dreaming again. At such times, it is important to have the self-realization that you are dreaming. 

If you want to be part of the mainstream, you can go back to Korea. Don’t keep thinking of becoming mainstream in Germany. If you want to speak Korean, you can go to Korea. However, the fact that the number of Koreans living here continues to increase means that Koreans are no longer a very small minority. It means that the numbers will increase little by little into the future. As the Korean Wave continues, Koreans may gradually move toward being part of the mainstream.

The nurses who immigrated to Germany from Korea 50 years ago were really lonely. But now, living in Germany, if you tell them you are lonely, they would laugh at you and say, “You’re talking nonsense.” So, have a little more confidence. Okay?”

“Thank you.”

Questions continued to follow.

After conversing with seven people, it was well past the time to finish the talk. Finally, Sunim wrapped up the talk.

“In Christianity, there is a saying, ‘God’s voice is heard in suffering.’ If you are not able to transcend pain, it becomes trauma, but if you transcend pain, it can become the path to enlightenment. If you try to avoid disaster, it becomes a great evil, but if you accept disaster as a blessing and accept it willingly, it can become a blessing. Because of the suffering experienced, you can understand others much more deeply and you can see the world through a wider lens.

I’ve been tortured, suffered injustices, and been bullied – all sorts of experiences. Even though I am 70 years old, I do not have any certifications other than my resident registration card [Korean national ID]. Even within the monk community, people bullied and discriminated against me for 30 years. But I don’t feel as though I was bullied. I consider myself a person who is charting out a new path. If you do not have a positive mindset, you will always live feeling like a victim. We are all born into a free world, so why should any of us live with a sense of victimization? After renouncing the secular world and leaving my own family, why should I have to cater to what others think of me? Why should monks who have left home to seek truth feel bound by systems and qualifications, and why do they need to feel acknowledged by vested interests within society? We can live confidently even in the midst of suffering by having this kind of positive mindset.

Awareness, the beginning of change

Just because you came to Germany, it doesn’t mean you will feel free and happy. Just as green beans brought over from Korea won’t suddenly turn into red beans when planted in Germany, your karma remains the same. That’s why you have to change your karma in order to be free and happy. In other words, you need to have self-realizations.

‘Oh, this is something that has left a scar in me.’

‘Oh, this is a habit I have.’

‘Oh, this is going to be a loss for me.’

Only with this kind of self-realization can change begin. Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days in the wilderness and realized, ‘I am the Son of God.’ His fear was gone because he realized he was the son of God. So, whether he went to the temple or wherever he went, he spoke the truth without any fear. The Buddha realized that he was a Buddha after 6 years of asceticism. You too must realize that you are the sons and daughters of God. You too must realize that you are a Buddha. If you are a Buddha, who can hurt you?

People live in fear and feel like a victim, hoping someone will take good care of them or pay too much attention to what others think. I hope you all shed the mentality of being a victim. Please do not live as a slave to the classist and sexist ideology formed in the past.

If you cannot escape from the victim mentality, no matter how much education you receive, no matter how much knowledge you accumulate, and no matter how many new skills you acquire, you will not be able to escape suffering. Self-realization is the only way. Becoming aware of yourself, such as, ‘Oh, I have this problem’ is the only way to liberation. Nobody else can help you. If you have received help from Venerable Pomnyun Sunim today, it is not from Venerable Pomnyun Sunim. In the process of talking with Sunim, you became aware of something about yourself, a self-realization. You saw for yourself, ‘Hey, it’s not a big deal!’ which is why change can happen in you. If in our conversation, you do not realize anything about yourself, then you won’t experience any change going forward.

Even if I wanted to, I can’t give you freedom nor can I take away your freedom. It is simply my role to create an environment in which awareness and realization can arise for you. I’m not the one who teaches, but the one who guides the way. It’s up to you to decide whether to go that way or not. I’m just here to guide you if needed. I hope that all of you can live each day with confidence, as masters of your own life and contributors to the world.”

The Düsseldorf Dharma talk ended with great applause.

Sunim came off the stage, and went to offer encouragement to those who asked questions. A man, who had been active in the early days of Jungto Society in Germany, was so happy to see Sunim that he was moved to tears as he hugged him.

“The world today is already full of issues but the global environment will increasingly get worse. Conflicts will deepen between countries and the number of people suffering from severe mental illness will increase. There will be more stubborn leaders than in the past, and people will also become more and more extreme.

There was a similar phenomenon 100 years ago, but with the end of World War II, many people shared a sense of remorse and set forth ways that allowed relative global peace to extend to today. Nowadays, there are less and less remaining of those who were directly affected by World War II. More people than not have had no direct experience of war. This is why there will be more and more people who think, ‘Let’s go to war.’ I’m not saying that the world is unlivable. The current situation is better than at the end of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea or during World War II. However, it can be expected that the situation will get worse in the future.

Despite this, we must strive to reduce conflict in the world, even a little bit, so that we can have individuals who are happy, a world that is peaceful, and a global environment that will sustain life. We can’t sit around, living in fear. When COVID-19 first appeared, we did not take it seriously, and then felt afraid due to so much being unknown. But, instead of fearing it, we needed to be cautious. It’s the same thing now. In a fast-changing world, our efforts are needed to reduce the speed of things getting worse, or to shift the course of change towards a better direction. What’s before us is neither something to be afraid of or feel anxious about. 

With this point of view, I hope you will continue your practice. The value of the practice and social engagement done by Jungto Society will become an even more important virtue in the future. It may seem hard to imagine now, but there will come a time when these values are recognized as something we specifically need in the world. So, rather than just making money and living here, I want to encourage you to live with the confidence that you are spreading this vision for the future with the people around you in Europe. As practitioners who have a daily practice, donate what they can, and volunteer their energy and talents, you can be the people who present this vision for the future. 

Korean society is also currently facing many difficult issues, but if you go to Southeast Asia, the Korean Wave has made Korea even more popular than how Koreans saw the United States when my generation was young. I hope all of you will live with a little more confidence. What you put into action, from learning in Junto Society, goes beyond religion and can help you live with more confidence.”

“Thank you.”

Tomorrow, Sunim will depart Düsseldorf and move to Berlin, where he will visit historical sites marking German reunification, and then hold the third Dharma talk of the tour.

스님의 하루 전문 링크 (In Korean)

For more detailed information on the 2023 Overseas Dharma Talk Tour: