October 1, 2023

A Day of Sunim, Boston(Sep 15, 2023)

“It’s difficult to accept the reality of being discriminated against as a woman.”

2023.9.15. Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (16) Harvard University, Boston,  USA

The sixteenth lecture of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’ 2023 overseas Dharma Talk tour was held in Boston, the capital of Massachusetts, USA.

Professor Susan Hayward of Harvard University warmly welcomed Sunim. She currently serves as the chairperson of the Niwano Peace Prize Selection Committee and became acquainted with Sunim when he won the Niwano Peace Prize in 2020. At that time, she was the one who personally announced the reason why Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was selected as a recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize.

She introduced Professor Mike, who lectures on the social practice of religion at Harvard University, to Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. The two professors asked Sunim about topics they had been curious about. First, they asked Sunim to explain in detail the humanitarian aid work he does. After listening to Sunim’s explanation, Professor Mike asked a question.

“What about your overall budget for all your international work more or less, what is that? And where do you do your fundraising?”

“JTS does not receive support from companies or governments. It relies solely on individual donations. This is because JTS does not want any political influence or interference. We also do not ask people to donate money. That’s the principle on which JTS operates. We first help people in need, and then we show people what JTS has done. Then  people voluntarily make donations. So there is no set budget. Once the project is decided, then the fundraising comes in.”

“How many employees do you have?”

“Currently, we have no paid staff. JTS is run by volunteers. We may lack professional expertise, but we have plenty of volunteers. The number of volunteers required for the activity quits their jobs, goes abroad to work, and then returns to their home countries. A few individuals who have renounced worldly life and live within the community are engaged in full-time activities. The rest are all volunteers. Therefore, when helping people in need, there are no labor costs involved.”

Professor Susan Hayward also asked a question.

What meaning does almsgiving have in Jungto Society?

“Can I ask a question about the Buddha’s understanding of Dana? So in Buddhist’s history, my understanding is that Dana was often understood to give financial resources to support the sangha, the monastic community, so that Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and the nuns can survive and practice by meditating and studying, and that you receive good karma from their practice. But it seems that there’s a bit of a shift here. In that people are giving the charity, giving dana to the Jungto Society to do their work of humanitarianism rather than to do the work of study and practice in meditation. Is the idea that this kind of giving then provides the same kind of karmic benefit for the one who gives the donation? Or maybe I’m wrong, and this is the same as in the past, as is being practiced now. I’m curious.”

“In Jungto Society, we do not seek rewards or blessings in the next life, such as going to a better place or receiving a better life after death, through alms giving or Buddhist practice.

‘Materials do not belong to anyone. They are meant to be used by those in need. That’s why food should be eaten by the hungry, medicine should be taken by the sick, and all children should receive a basic education.’

This is the way of life that Jungto Society pursues, and we believe it is what we should rightfully do. For this reason, Jungto Society does not ask people for money. Instead, we inform them about what is happening in certain places, what people in distress need, what we are doing to help such individuals, and what additional support is required. We simply share these facts, and then people voluntarily offer their support after learning about them.

Most people who give alms are people whose lives become happier after encountering Buddhism. Because they are happy without receiving any compensation or blessings, they feel like they want to participate in something good. If Jungto Society engages in wholesome and positive work, people will voluntarily join in it. Furthermore, the more we demonstrate that the donated money is being used very efficiently, the more they will donate. There are many people who see what we are doing and say, ‘No, it only costs this much money to do something like this?’ and give donations. So we spend our money very frugally.” (Laughter)

“Has the fundraising been successful so far?”

“Yes. However, if we find that our partners working together in the field are not transparent in the use of funds, overspend money, or use it for personal purposes, we stop the activity. We also stop activities when there are no volunteers available on-site. This does pose some challenges. Organizations collaborating on-site sometimes raise the question, ‘We need office maintenance and labor costs. What if you only provide material support?” In response, I say, “We are not an organization that supports, but an organization that works together. Don’t you think you should also contribute something?”(Laughter)

Professor Susan Hayward also inquired about the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, talking about how difficult it is to change the U.S. policy toward North Korea and questioning whether the current situation is hopeful.

“Do you think there is hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula right now?”

“The current situation is not hopeful, but we must make an effort. Practitioners must continue to work hard until they become successful. Because North Korean citizens have endured severe suffering for too long. However, even if we want to provide humanitarian aid now, we cannot. Humanitarian aid can only be possible when tensions on the Korean Peninsula are eased. That’s why I’m trying to come to the United States and meet people.”

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Professors and Sunim wanted to continue the conversation further, but said goodbye with the hope for the next meeting. And from 6 p.m., Ven. Pomnyun Sunim had a meeting with students attending the Introduction to Buddhism Course in English of Jungto Society. They were so delighted to finally see Sunim in person after interacting him online.

Each of them introduced themselves and then asked Ven. Pomnyun Sunim questions about things they were curious about while practicing. Among them, one person mentioned that while self-awareness had its benefits, it also brought challenges, and he asked what kind of perspective he should attain.

Sometimes awareness is hard to handle

“Sometimes the awareness itself is too much to handle. Many old feelings, including anger and frustration, come back. It takes less time to resolve the emotion, but it tends to go back to it again.”

“It is suffering caused by not being awake in the present and being caught up in thoughts of the past. If you are awake in the present, suffering will dissipate. Being aware does not make you suffer.

Suffering is like watching a movie. For instance, when we watch a movie, it’s playing on the screen, but nothing is actually happening. Even though the screen is just spinning, we feel sad when someone dies, and we also get angry when we see certain actions. When we turn off the screen, everything disappears, yet we wonder why we felt sadness and anger. It’s because when the screen stimulates our senses, our brain mistakenly interprets it as if it is happening in the present moment. The same goes for reading. While it’s just a story on the page, our brains often perceive it as if it was happening right now. This is why we can cry and laugh while reading a novel. When we do this, it seems like we’re crazy to an observer.

Our brains tend to perceive thoughts as if they were happening in reality. When we think about the past, our brains feel like we were watching a movie. We feel angry, sad, or happy. Suffering often arises when we dwell on the past. When we imagine the future, ‘What will happen to me when I get old?,’ our brains feel it as reality. So, fear and anxiety arise.

Practice is being awake in the present without dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Suffering often arises because we continually think about the past. Reflecting on the past is fine as long as it remains a memory without triggering emotions. However, when emotions are stirred, it signifies that the brain is deluding itself into thinking it’s happening in reality. Medically, this is called “trauma.” It means that the wounds of the past have not yet healed. Even if you make an effort to forget and move on from the past, when you think about it, emotions arise because those wounds haven’t been erased.

First, it’s important not to dwell on the past. Secondl even if thinking about the past triggers emotions, you should recognize it as something like a dream or watching a movie and quickly move beyond it. Third, if that doesn’t work, shift your focus to other thoughts. Then the scene changes and the emotion disappears. The question you asked was based on thinking about the past, not awareness.”

“Thank you.” 

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As the dialog continued, it was time to begin the Dharma Talk. Prior to starting it, there was a conversation with Professor James Robson of the Department of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University, who chaired today’s meeting.

“When did you first come to the United States?”

“The first time I came to the United States to speak on the topic of Buddhism was at a dialogue meeting between Buddhism and Christianity held in Chicago in 1993. The main topics of discussion at that time were ‘loss of human nature,’ ‘collapse of community,’ and ‘destruction of the natural environment.’ Since there were no speakers available to address these topics, the request eventually came to me.”

Professor Robson asked a question about the climate crisis.

“Recently, we allocated 400 million dollars to establish a new center at Harvard University to research the climate crisis. Currently, the center consists of scientists. However, since environmental changes require a shift in human mindset, I find that aspect somewhat disappointing. What are your thoughts on this?”

“Buddhism will be the most core ideology on environmental issues. I believe that the law of dependent origination, which states that everything in the world is related, is the most important idea in the era of climate crisis. Also, reducing consumption is the best way to overcome the climate crisis. To do so, you must control your desires. How can science help humans control their desires?” 

“You’re right. Scientists are trying to solve the issue while maintaining current levels of consumption.”

At 7 p.m., Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and Professor Robson made their way to the hall. Sunim came up to the stage to loud applause. The seats were full with no empty seats, and people were sitting in the aisles because there were not enough seats. Most of them were young men. Sunim began the conversation with a smile.

“The core teaching of Buddhism is ‘Why do we suffer?’ It’s not about where we go after death, nor is it about being reborn into a better life in the next one. The essence of Buddhist teachings lies in examining why we suffer and, by eliminating the causes, everyone can live without suffering. Among all of you, there may be rich and poor individuals, young and old, men and women, and various religious backgrounds. Regardless of where you belong, are you living without suffering right now?

If there is suffering, I believe it’s not because of any other cause, but because each person lacks self-exploration. So today, I’d like to talk to you about the topic of ‘Why do we suffer?’ You can talk about anything, whether it’s the environmental or political issues that give you a headache or the stress you experience because of your spouse. The key question is, ‘Why do we suffer?’ Let’s listen to your stories.”

Subsequently, questions were taken from the audience. Over the course of two hours, nine individuals raised their hands to ask questions of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. Among them, one person asked about the discrimination she was experiencing due to her gender.

It is difficult to accept the reality of being discriminated against as a woman.

“You had said essentially that if we can realize what’s causing the suffering we can be free of it. Although I am aware of my suffering coming from the discrepancy it is difficult for me to abandon the ideal and come down to reality. But my question is how can I change my perspective so that I can better accept the reality as it is and lower or reduce the suffering I am encountering but at the same time contributing to the world in a positive way.”

“All you have to do is put both feet on the ground, look into the distance, and walk one step at a time. Looking into the distance with your eyes means having an ideal. Putting both feet on the ground and walking step by step means accepting reality. There is no contradiction between ideal and reality. The difference between ideal and reality does not cause suffering. Suffering is caused by looking into the distance and not walking, or by standing still with your eyes closed. Your suffering may not be caused by the gap between ideals and reality, but rather by your desire to get results without putting in any effort. I hope you look at yourself a little more directly.

Let me ask you a more specific question. What specifically are the ideals and realities that you mentioned?”

“So, to be more specific, for example, I’m a graduate student in the science field. And I’m experiencing for the first time discrimination between women and men. So what I mean by the ideal is that women and men should be treated equally which is how I feel. And the reality that I’m encountering is that although my professor is a woman scientist, maybe that person mistreats women as well. That is a reality that sometimes I encounter.”

“How do you think you can overcome that problem? Are you asking because you really do not know?” (Laughter)

Sunim smiled and continued to answer lightly.

“I believe that you should first show that there is nothing to discriminate against. Using this as an opportunity, you should study harder and show the professor that your abilities are superior. Showing that women do not lack scientific ability will solve this problem immediately. Instead of feeling discouraged by such discrimination, why not take it as an opportunity to be even more active?

The older generations often rely on their own experiences to navigate life. In the past, societal conditions led to women receiving less education than men. Discrimination was prevalent, and there were very few cases where women have demonstrated their abilities. Additionally, many women would interrupt their studies if they got married while pursuing education. Your professor may have such experience and think that it is better to teach men than women. No amount of talking about principles is of any use to a person who lives based on his or her own experiences. Achieving an equal society requires the efforts of many individuals striving to overcome discrimination. Instead of merely hoping for the benefits of an equal society, why not make an effort to overcome current discrimination yourself? I would suggest sharing these thoughts with you and encouraging you to adopt a more proactive attitude. Have I been too harsh in my response?” (Laughter)

“No. it’s okay. I think you said a very good solution”

The questions continued. After the conversation, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim gave a final remark.

“When you’re feeling uneasy or suffering, you should confront that feeling directly, much like pointing at it with your finger. For example, let’s say you need to wake up at 5 in the morning. The alarm rings. When you can’t get up, what do you say to yourself? You might say, “I want to get up, but my body isn’t cooperating,” while blaming your body. However, what has your body done wrong? To be more precise, you should say, “I think I need to get up, but I don’t want to.” Let’s say the phrase “I need to get up” three times out loud.

‘I need to get up, I need to get up, I need to get up…’

What does this phrase mean? It means you don’t want to get up. If you spring out of bed, you don’t need to say, ‘I need to get up.’ Many times in life, we think, ‘I have to do this!’ or ‘I have to do that!’ but we don’t actually do it. If you think you need to wake up at 5 in the morning, just get up. Then the worry disappears. Instead of just thinking, ‘I need to let go,’ just let go. Instead of just thinking, ‘I need to do it,’ just do it. Just do it. Just let go. In Buddhism, this is called ‘Bang Ha Chak(放下着),’ which means releasing the attachments.

The way to be free from suffering now

Don’t force yourself to do something you don’t like. It’s perfectly fine not to do it. If you think you should do it, just do it. You should adopt this perspective to reduce stress. If you don’t feel like studying, you can stop. The reason you are suffering is because you don’t want to study, but you want to earn a degree. The same goes for writing a thesis. Just write whatever comes to your mind. After you’ve written it all down, read it again. And make the necessary revisions. This will make it much easier to complete your thesis.

You should do as much as your abilities allow. Trying to do better than you’re capable of actually makes you perform worse. If you do it as I said, studying becomes fun. Let’s say you’re studying astronomy. Instead of pursuing a degree, you should have a curious and wonder-filled mind about the universe. Research itself should be fun. Then, you won’t need separate play time.

If you’re in a relationship, it’s perfectly fine to study together with your partner. You don’t necessarily have to drink alcohol to spend time together. You can date while studying and  researching together. Dating and studying do not contradict each other. In Zen Buddhism, this is expressed as ‘Da Seon Il Che(茶禪一體)’ or ‘Seon Nong Il Chi(禪農一致i).’ In other words, practicing Zen(禪)and drinking tea, or practicing Zen(禪) and working are not separate but interconnected activities.

We should apply Buddha’s teachings to our lives. Buddha’s teachings should become our way of life. Merely thinking with our minds is not truly studying Buddhism. Thoughts that arise in the mind are all delusions and worries. Do things as they come to mind. If it’s wrong, fix it. If you made a mistake, apologize. If you don’t know, ask.

Suffering arises when you pretend to know when you don’t know, when you pretend not to be wrong when you’re wrong, or when you insist that you did right when you did wrong. Live your life freely. If there’s a problem, fix it. Then, even in an imperfect state, you can live freely. I hope you live happily.”

Tomorrow, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim will be traveling to Toronto, Canada to give a seventeenth Overseas Dharma Talk.