2023.9.12 Casual Conversation with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (13) San Diego, USA
On the thirteenth day of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s 2023 Overseas Dharma Talk Tour, he gave a talk in San Diego, California, USA.
After lunch, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (hereafter, ‘Sunim’) departed from Orange County and headed to San Diego. Driving along Interstate 5 from Orange County to San Diego, he enjoyed the view of the Pacific Ocean stretching out to his right.
After 2 hours of highway driving, he arrived at Dharma Bum Temple, the venue for his talk today at 4 PM.
Mr. Jeff, the temple keeper, warmly welcomed Sunim.
“Long time no see! Good to see you.”
“I was already impressed by your temple activities when I visited four years ago. Things are even better now.”
The Dharma Bum Temple underwent refurbishment in the Spring of 2017. Initially established as a church in 1925, the building had been left disused for a considerable period. Currently, six individuals are residing and actively practicing Buddhism at the temple. The gathering, which began in downtown 15 years ago, has steadily expanded to its present state. The temple operates on a volunteer-based model and offers meditation programs for addiction treatment, including drug addictions.
Sunim had a meeting with the members of the Jungto Society in the meditation room prior to commencing his talk. During this session, the members had the opportunity to pose any questions or thoughts they had in mind.
Is it appropriate to suggest 108 bows to Americans?
It seems that Americans have a strong affinity for meditation; indeed, suggesting the practice of 108 bows during the 1000-day practice resolution appears to be challenging for them.
Engaging in the 108 bows might not align well with American culture. However, true faith often emerges when we conquer such challenges. The practice of 108 bows can significantly impact on personal growth, even more so than daily meditation. First, it aids in overcoming difficulties. Second, it promotes good health through physical exercise. Bowing tirelessly contributes to one’s well-being and good health. Interestingly, the trend of 108 bows gained popularity in South Korea, especially among judges, irrespective of their religious beliefs. They prepared a seating cushion in their offices and perform the 108 bows each morning before commencing their workday.
In Western culture, bowing is often viewed as a sign of submission, making the practice of 108 bows a challenge. However, individuals tend to experience a sense of inner softening after overcoming this initial resistance and engaging in 108 bows. While it’s not advisable to compel them to partake in this 108-bow practice, you can certainly inform them about the positive benefits associated with it.
The culture of bowing is primarily observed in Korea and Tibet. In many other countries, meditation is commonly practiced. However, individuals who engage in uninterrupted bowing experience notable changes in life. From my observations within my community, those who refrained from bowing did not exhibit notable progress in personal growth. Therefore, I would recommend it but without imposing it on anyone.
Observe the contrasting changes in individuals who engage in 108 bows versus those who meditate 20 minutes daily over a period of 100 days. From my perspective, those who performed 108 bows showed significantly greater personal transformation. This isn’t to dismiss meditation but to highlight that bowing can be more impactful than meditation in fostering growth and self-reflection. Often, during what you may perceive as meditation, a considerable portion of the time is spent daydreaming or dozing off. On the other hand, bowing 108 times each morning can unquestionably lead to noticeable changes in one’s life.
Whenever I send JTS volunteers abroad for fieldwork as part of JTS overseas relief programmes, I ensure they begin their workday with 108 bows. However, amidst the hustle and bustle of daily tasks, they sometimes skip the 108 bows for a day or two, eventually ceasing the practice altogether. Individuals who consistently perform 108 bows each day tend to endure and successfully complete their missions, while those who stop bowing are more likely to give up and return. Engaging in this challenging practice daily signifies a clear sense of purpose for their mission abroad. However, when one becomes solely focused on conducting the daily work, they start to lose their sense of purpose and see themselves as simple laborers. That’s why I emphasize the importance of doing 108 bows, except for those who are physically unable due to injury. Certainly, starting this practice can be tough, and people often inquire about how long they should continue doing 108 bows. My response is you should do it until you die.
The most beneficial exercise is walking, followed by bowing. Going to the golf course to play golf or lifting weights at the gym can be hard on the body and not very healthy. So, it’s important not to rush through the 108 bows; instead, do them slowly to avoid straining your body. Doing them slowly is also excellent for your health. Moving slowly can even aid in rehabilitation therapy. If you leave your fingers immobile because they’re injured, they’ll stiffen up. Even when it hurts, you should move them little by little for the treatment to be effective.”
“What mindset should one have when doing 108 bows?”
“When you do it for exercise, it’s simply a physical act. However, when you perform 108 bows as a form of practice, it’s important to approach it with a humble mindset. Bowing involves a physical act of bending down but consider how this bodily movement is influenced by shifts in your mental state.
Imagine a married couple lying in bed, engaging in a quiet and gentle conversation. However, if conflict arises and they disagree, they don’t stay lying down. Instead, they sit up and say, ‘What did you say?’ while their voices may escalate. As frustration grows, they might even stand up while speaking. In heightened emotions, they might stand, widen their eyes, and even start shouting. It’s often in these actions that their conviction in being right becomes more evident.”
However, when I recognize that I’ve made a mistake, my gaze drops, and my head bows slightly. If the mistake is more significant, my posture inclines further, my waist bends, and for even more substantial errors, my knees bend, ultimately culminating in my forehead touching the ground. This act of acknowledging my shortcomings and humbly bowing to the ground enhances my sense of self-assurance and humility.
Practitioners must be confident and humble. However, foolish people tend to be arrogant and look down on those who are inferior to them, and act subserviently to those who are superior to them. An arrogant and servile person is a foolish being, while a confident and humble person is a practitioner. Bowing is essential to practice because it makes a person confident and humble.
“Moreover, during the act of bowing, you have the opportunity to reflect on your activities from the previous day and contemplate areas where you may have fallen short. As you review moments from yesterday when you experienced anger, irritation, or laziness, you become aware and think, ‘Ah, I missed that!’ Bowing alone is beneficial for physical health, but when combined with self-reflection, it also enhances mental well-being.
Many individuals tend to approach bowing with thoughts like, ‘A thousand times would be good,’ or ‘Three thousand times would be even better.’ However, this mindset is driven by greed, not the essence of bowing. Bowing should be a practice of lowering yourself.”
This way, the 1000-Day Practice programme is structured with self-reflection followed by 108 bows, meditation to cultivate mindfulness, and recitation of Sutra reading. Repentance is keeping the precepts, meditation is cultivating Samadhi (deep awareness of meditation), and reading sutras is acquiring wisdom. The program was structured that way based on the Buddha’s words that practitioners must practice the threefold training.
If you decide to do 108 bows, you need to do it consistently. It’s not considered practice if you start enthusiastically because you’re motivated and then quit when you don’t feel like doing it anymore. Practice requires a steady and unwavering commitment. You have to do it whether you like it or not. It’s through this consistent dedication that you can make yourself happier and progress on your life journey.
Moreover, you should strive to become a person who can contribute to making a better world. It can be materialistic contributions or mental/spiritual ones to help practicing the Dharma.
You can contribute with materials/resources or mentally/spiritually. By becoming someone who contributes even a little to the betterment of the world, you will lead a life that embodies the principle of “자리이타(自利利他)” – benefiting oneself and benefiting others. It would be wonderful if each one of you could experience such a life at least once.”
At dusk, Dharma Talk began at Dharma Bum Temple at 7pm sharp.
The small church’s worship hall was packed with over 130 audiences including non-Korean speakers. Due to the limited seating, additional chairs were set up just before the talk started. About 200 people also joined via the YouTube livestream prepared by the temple.
When Mr. Jeff introduced “Zen Master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim from Korea,” the attendees welcomed Sunim with enthusiastic applause. The Master then took the podium and began a conversation with the audience, addressing the topic of the climate crisis.
“While the climate crisis may not be an imminent threat to us today, it has already posed a severe threat to people living in impoverished regions. To halt or slow down the climate crisis, we need to reduce our consumption. Achieving a carbon-zero lifestyle requires us to significantly reduce our current levels of consumption, in terms of what we eat, wear, and how we live. However, it’s exceedingly challenging for people living in already developed, affluent countries to cut down on consumption. Today, our pursuit of convenience has led many of us to a level of consumption addiction that is almost comparable to drug addiction. Therefore, overcoming consumption addiction appears to be even more challenging than overcoming drug addiction.
Why Buddhism is Even More Important in the Era of Climate Crisis
Nevertheless, despite the challenges, when we look at the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived 2,600 years ago, we find hope for ourselves. He was born as a prince and lived a life of abundance, but he chose to renounce it all and live a humble life, gathering food, wearing discarded clothes, and sleeping under trees. Despite this simplicity, he lived without suffering and found happiness.
Just as Buddha chose a humble life instead of his vested comfortable lifestyle, I believe that we too should return to such a lifestyle to address the climate crisis. Therefore, if we all learn from the teachings of Buddha and lead humble yet fulfilling lives, we may be able to make carbon-zero living a reality in the era of the climate crisis.”
Venerable Pomnyun Sunim then started his talk with the audience.
In the front rows, there were people listening to the Dharma talk with large meditation cushions as if they were meditating. Throughout the talk, some were nodding in agreement, while others were diligently taking notes of Sunim’s words.
Anyone was free to raise their hand and ask questions to Sunim. Over the course of two hours, ten individuals questioned and spoke with him. In an atmosphere of focused and attentive listening, the discussions centered around environmental issues and consumption addiction. Everyone resonated with the idea of living a simple and humble life after listening to Sunim’s talks.
How can one live a frugal life amidst a culture of consumerism?
“You made reference to living a simple life and trying to consume less, but I think it’s difficult in the society we live in, with all the news, social media, consumption of food, alcohol, whatever it is, what are the things you can recommend living a simple life?”
“Eating less is good for your health. Having a smaller room makes it easier to clean. Walking more contributes to better health. When you reduce consumption, you spend less money, so you don’t have to strive to earn a lot. It doesn’t take any special effort to reduce consumption; we advocate for it because it benefits your life.
“Is it easier to smoke or not to smoke?”
“To smoke, you first need to earn money to buy cigarettes. You have to buy cigarettes, open the pack, take one out, put it in your mouth, light it, ash it, and even clean up afterward. On the other hand, not smoking means you don’t have to do any of these things. You don’t have to do anything, which makes not smoking much easier. However, some people find smoking easier, and those are the ones addicted to cigarettes.
Just like eating less is good for your health and spending less means you don’t have to strive to earn more money, there are many benefits to reducing consumption. If reducing consumption is still difficult for you despite these advantages, then you are already addicted to consumption.
Even if the per capita GDP in the United States were to increase from the current $60,000 to $600,000 in the future, it wouldn’t necessarily solve your life’s problems. Just like someone who smokes one pack of cigarettes a day doesn’t become happier by smoking ten packs, it only harms their health further.
If our consumption continues to increase, climate change will worsen, and we will face even greater crises. We shouldn’t envy those who earn a lot of money and consume excessively. Excessive consumption in the era of climate crisis is akin to a crime that puts humanity at risk.”
Some attendees asked lighthearted questions about inconvenient challenges in life.
What should I do about the skunks and raccoons that have taken over my yard?
“A very large skunk and raccoon have taken over my yard. I don’t want to kill them, but I don’t want them in my yard.”
“You can catch them with a large net and release them in the mountain.”
“It smells too much.”
“You just have to wear a mask.”
Both the questioner and the audience burst into laughter and applauded at the simple and clear solution.
Heavy questions that concern the current era also followed.
Is the current era a time of declining Dharma?
“My question is, some people believe this time is different from the time of the Buddha, a Dharma dark age or declining age of the Dharma. So I wanted to ask you, do you believe this and if so, do you think it should change how we practice or how we think about, especially the traditional teachings, and what we should prioritize and focus on in our conditions compared to the past?”
“People tend to say that the era they live in is the most difficult era, and this tendency is often recorded in history as well. However, there is no such thing as the most difficult era. Whether we live in an era without the Dharma or an era filled with the Dharma depends on our own ignorance or enlightenment. It’s not so important whether the current era is an era of the Dharma or not. What’s more important is our efforts to make this era a better one. Whether this era is considered an era of the Dharma or not will be judged by our descendants in the distant future. Let’s leave that evaluation up to them.”
The time passed, filled with laughter. Americans like humors, and Sunim led his talk engaged, light-heartedly, and candidly with audience, even with people raised heavy questions. It was a very positive atmosphere.
At the end of the Dharma Talk, Sunim provided some concluding remarks.
“Through the teachings of Buddha, my hope is that all of you can alleviate your suffering and stress, and find freedom and happiness. Even at the age of seventy, living alone, I still embrace life with laughter, don’t I? There’s no reason to live in misery; we were not meant to suffer. Suffering arises because of excessive thinking. When you stop thinking, there is nothing at all.”
With a big round of applause, the Dharma Talk came to an end. As attendees left the worship hall, they exchanged handshakes and greetings with Sunim. The participants expressed their gratitude to him for delivering an insightful Dharma talk.
“Today, the teachings of Buddhism resonated with me entirely.”
“Thank you very much for your talk.”
Tomorrow, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim will continue the fourteenth day of 2023 Overseas Dharma Talk Tour in San Jose, the largest city in Silicon Valley.