“After taking care of my mother for 17 years, it is very difficult for me to now take care of my father.”
2023.09.17 Overseas Dharma Talk tour (17) New Jersey
Today marks the 18th day of Venerable Pomnyun’s Overseas Dharma Talk tour in 2023, held in the state of New Jersey, located on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Dharma Talk today is taking place at the Korean Community Center (KCC) located in Tenafly, New Jersey. This center was established to help immigrants from Korea overcome cultural and language barriers and to serve as a bridge with American society.
The lecture hall had its prepared seats fully occupied, so volunteers were bringing in extra chairs and placing them wherever there was space. Originally, there were 320 seats arranged, but so many people attended that even with the additional chairs, there was still a shortage of seating. So, all the volunteers had to stand and listen to the Dharma Talk. A total of over 390 people filled the room. The Dharma Talk began at 5:30 p.m. After the introduction video, as Ven. Pomnyun Sunim walked onto the stage from the back of the lecture hall, applause poured in.
Sunim began the conversation by asking how everyone had been during the coronavirus pandemic.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, I lived farming every day at a closed school near Gyeongju. My dream was to live by farming as I get older and retire, so it felt like the pandemic had brought early retirement to me. Living in the countryside and farming was great because I got some exercise. I’ve been to a lot of places throughout my life, so I’ve rarely slept in the same room in a row. I spent three years like that as a farmer, to the point where I think it was the longest I had slept with my back in one place since I graduated from elementary school. How have you all been doing?” (Laughter)
Then, Sunim requested the Korean residents in the United States play even a small role for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“The reason I visited the United States this time is not only to talk with you like I did today, but also to make efforts to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula by staying in Washington, D.C. for a week starting in the next few days.
The escalating tension and the looming threat of war on the Korean Peninsula
The tension on the Korean Peninsula is currently at a critical level. South Korea is engaging in military cooperation with Japan and the United States, saying it will not tolerate any provocation, and is mobilizing strategic assets and threatening North Korea with cutting-edge weapons. North Korea is threatening South Korea that it may use nuclear weapons as actual attack weapons, and is accelerating the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In this situation, if Russia were to provide military technology to North Korea, there is a significant risk of rapid proliferation not only of North Korea’s conventional weapons but also of weapons of mass destruction.
This situation could cause a significant catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula where we live. This is a catastrophe incomparable to the war in Ukraine, so it is desperately necessary for us living in this country to prevent such a catastrophe. I believe what can have the greatest influence here is the U.S. government’s East Asia policy. However, persuading the United States to do this or that for our own interest is nothing but a delusion. We need to persuade the United States that it would be good to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula for the interests of the United States.
Military cooperation between North Korea and Russia poses a great threat not only to South Korea but also to the national interests of the United States and the security of Japan. Therefore, by normalizing relations between North Korea and the United States, it is advantageous for the national interest of the United States to take measures to freeze North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.
Of course, I believe it would be best if the South Korean government takes the lead in efforts for peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, if you look inside South Korea, it is adopting a hard-line policy toward North Korea for various political reasons. If you look around the world these days, not only is the competition between countries fierce, but the competition between domestic political parties is also very fierce. In the past, we still cooperated and competed with each other, but now we are competing as if we were in a civil war. The United States seems to have a stronger tendency to do this, and so does Korea. This isn’t necessarily the fault of any one government, but can be seen as a common crisis that democratic countries are currently facing. It’s not just South Korea nor the United States, but the conflicts are escalating globally. In such situations, taking sides or blaming individuals won’t provide solutions. We need to find ways to ease these dangerous situations. Efforts must be made to at least prevent war from occurring.
People who have been suffering for too long
In particular, North Korean residents are the ones suffering the most from this conflict. They are starving due to food shortages, and their freedom is being suppressed in the name of a national crisis. This situation has been continuing for far too long. I hope to make it our mission to find ways to alleviate the suffering of these North Korean residents even a little.
In fact, it is not very effective for a foreigner like me to meet and talk to political people in the U.S. As you all know, what do U.S. lawmakers need most? Firstly, they need votes, and secondly, they need money. So, those of you who are U.S. citizens should collect donations and send them to them while requesting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Also, using your voting rights to demand, ‘If you do well, we may support you,’ can move them even a bit. In that regard, the efforts of one U.S. citizen can have a greater impact than the efforts of a thousand in Korea. So, if you feel grateful for my Dharma Talk and want to reciprocate, I would like to suggest that you become more actively involved in the voter movement for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Following this, more than 20 people at the entrance of the lecture hall requested to ask questions, but only 10 individuals had the opportunity to pose their questions to Sunim during the two-hour session. One of them shared her dilemma, explaining that she had cared for her mother for 17 years and was now faced with the responsibility of caring for her father. She sought advice on how to overcome this situation.
After taking care of my mother for 17 years, it is very difficult for me to now take care of my father.
“My mother passed away after undergoing dialysis for 17 years due to complications from diabetes and heart problems. Meanwhile, as I was in charge of taking care of my mother, I had to watch my mother go through all the hardships, and when she passed away, honestly, rather than feeling sad, I felt more relief for my mother, knowing she was free from pain. But now it’s my father’s turn. Recently, he suffered a stroke and developed dementia. The problem is that I’m no longer as healthy as I used to be. I’m not sure how I will be able to cope with my father suffering from dementia in the future. Of course, there are other family members besides me. My older brother is helping me a lot, and my good nephew is also taking good care of his grandfather. But my heart feels so tired. What should I do?”
“Taking care of your father may be a burden, but it seems to be even more difficult because your current mental health is not good. It would be good for you to take care of your father if you’re healthy, but since your health is currently not good, it would be better to leave the care of your father to your brother. I think it would be good for you to do more self-care and take care of your mental health.”
“I am undergoing treatment. I’m taking my medication as prescribed.”
“You are also a patient, so it’s a bit difficult for a patient to take care of another patient.”
“Fortunately, I don’t hate my father yet. I’m afraid that there will come a moment when I end up hating him.”
“If you do not take care of your father, you won’t end up hating him.”
“But you see, I have no choice but to take care of my father. He is my father.”
“Why do you have to do it? If you feel that way, it’s your problem. You don’t have to provide care. Thinking that you have to take care of him because he’s your father is your opinion. It’s a choice you can make, not an obligation.”
“Then who will take care of my father?”
“Your brother will probably do it. You can tell your brother that it is difficult to take care of your father because your health is not good. It’s a choice you can make, not a problem that arises from having to care for your father.”
“Is it really okay for me not to take care of my father?”
“You don’t have to do it. There is no problem if you don’t take care of your father. If we look at it from a natural perspective, when a mother gives birth to a baby, it goes against the laws of nature not to care for the baby. All living beings have a survival instinct to protect their own lives. So, every creature must take responsibility for its own life. However, when any living thing has a baby, the mother must take care of it until it becomes an adult. This is maternal love. Maternal love is an instinct for the preservation of the species. Without maternal love, a species cannot be sustained. So, when a woman is alone, her own life is the most important, but when she gives birth to a baby, the mother sacrifices her own life to save the baby. In the case of birds, if another predator attacks while the young are present, the mother will risk her life to protect them. Hens usually run away when people approach, but when they are with their chicks, they never flee but flap their wings and confront people. This is a life instinct. Without that instinct, a species cannot be maintained.
If a woman says, ‘I can’t give birth to a baby and raise it,’ that is her thought before giving birth. When she gives birth to her baby, her natural instinct to protect her baby kicks in. If there is someone who doesn’t, she has paralyzed instincts. In modern society, some people become so consumed by their career and desires that their instincts become paralyzed. Nowadays, occasionally, we see such people emerging. However, prioritizing one’s work over the baby and neglecting the child goes against the laws of nature.
On the other hand, when the cub becomes adult, the mother and the cub become independent lives. In natural ecosystems, there are no instances where a mother continues to follow her offspring, and there are no cases where an offspring follows a mother. Each is an independent life. Each entity is responsible for its own life. So in the natural ecosystem, there is no conflict between the mother and the offspring.
Not caring for a baby after giving birth can be seen as a mental disorder. And even though the child has become an adult, the mother’s continued efforts to protect it can be seen as obsession. If a child relies on his or her parents even after reaching adulthood, it is because of dependency. If a child cannot overcome his dependence on his parents, he will not be able to become independent from his parents even when he becomes an adult and will always have to live under the interference of his parents. If parents cannot let go of their attachment to their children, they will always have to live with a heavy burden. This is against the natural ecosystem. Going against nature in this way causes suffering.
Likewise, caring for your parents is a matter of choice, not an obligation. Caring for one’s children is an obligation because it’s the principle of the ecosystem. However, in the natural ecosystem, children do not take care of their aging parents. This is something that only exists in human society. If you can do it, it’s called filial piety, but if you can’t, that’s okay too. Hitting or abusing your parents becomes unfilial. However, not caring for your parents is not unfilial.
Especially in the case of someone like you, who has poor health and cannot care for one’s parents, there is no need to feel any guilt. However, if you cannot stop taking care of your parents despite not wanting to, it is your own attachment. In fact, you are doing it because you want to, so there’s no need to suffer.
The reason you ask, ‘How can I stop taking care of my father no matter how sick I am?’ is because you are so attached. As a result, if you fall ill, it’s because you chose it, so there’s no reason to blame your father. There’s no reason to hate your father either. If it’s hard, you can simply choose not to do it. Hating your father while taking care of him is a foolish act. If you’re going to hate your father, it’s better not to take care of him.”
“I’m trying to do that.”
“There is nothing to try. If it’s too much for you, don’t do it. When it’s too much for you, you unconsciously start to think things like, ‘I wish my father would die quickly.’ If you keep thinking that way because it’s difficult, you’ll become unfilial. So, there is a risk that your care for your father could become unfilial if you are not careful.”
“Then is it okay if I don’t take care of my father?”
After ending the conversation, Sunim received one more question on the spot. She raised her hand and asked an impromptu question.
“Are you happy, Sunim?”
In response to Sunim’s brief and concise words, the entire audience applauded. Finally, Sunim concluded his Dharma Talk by talking about what happiness is.
If you understand happiness as pleasure, behind that happiness, there will inevitably be suffering. In our practice, happiness means being without suffering. You are not healthy only if you run fast and are strong, but you are healthy when you are not sick. Like that, if there is no suffering, that is happiness. I say I’m happy because I don’t have anything particularly distressing.
What is happiness?
But please don’t stab me in the side with a knife and ask, ‘Isn’t this still bothering you?’ The suffering arises moment by moment, but I don’t hold onto it, hate it, resent it, or regret it. Even if the fundamental ignorance is resolved, ignorance arises momentarily. This is because we momentarily revert to our past habits. You may feel angry, irritated, or sad, but it shouln’t last long. There is a saying in Chaegeundam(菜根譚):
‘When the wind blows, the leaves shake, and when the wind sleeps, the leaves also sleep.’
However, even when the wind sleeps, the leaves continue to shake. If you have been hurt, you keep it in your memory and it hurts you when you think about it. This suffering has nothing to do with the person who hurt you and is of your own making. This is foolishness.
The Buddha said, ‘You may be hit by the first arrow, but don’t be hit by the second arrow.’ If you get angry because someone hits you, you are getting hit with the first arrow. However, continuing to get angry while thinking about that is like being hit by a second arrow. It would be best if you didn’t get hit by an arrow, but as you live, you may get hit by the first arrow. However, the second arrow should not hit.
The karma you have does not change just because you get married, become a monk or nun, or go to a church or temple. If you are having difficulties while living in Korea, it seems like it will be resolved by going to the United States, if you are living alone and having difficulties, it will be resolved by getting married, and if you are having difficulties after getting married, it will be resolved by getting divorced, right? It may seem like it’s resolved for a moment, but it doesn’t work that way. What’s essential is to examine the workings of your own mind, which collide with external boundaries, and liberate yourself from there. Only then can you live freely without suffering, regardless of where you go, who you meet, what you do, or whether you live alone or with someone. This has nothing to do with what religion you believe in. So, I hope you engage in mental cultivation, value yourself, and live a happier life day by day.”
With a big round of applause, Dharma Talk came to an end. After the Dharma Talk, old acquaintances came to meet Sunim. He warmly greeted them, asking how they were doing.
The line waiting to get Sunim’s autograph wrapped around the lecture hall from the stage.
One student, leaning on crutches, came forward to get an autograph and greeted Sunim:
“I injured my leg, but I came because I wanted to meet you.”
“Welcome,” Sunim replied.
Tomorrow, Sunim will continue his 19th Overseas Dharma Talk tour at Queens College, New York.