May 4, 2024

A Day of Sunim, Columbia University, New York(April 29, 2024)

April 29, 2024  North America East Coast Dharma Q&A Tour (1)

Hello. Today marks the beginning of the 2024 North American East Coast Dharma Q&A tour, starting in New York.

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport this morning at 11 AM after a 14-hour flight from Korea, which he boarded at 10 AM the previous day.

After clearing immigration, he was greeted by volunteers of Jungto Society, including Mr. Kim Myeong-ho, a member of New York Jungto Society, who had arrived earlier.

We traveled by car to the residence of Mr. Kim Myeong-ho and Ms. Yoo Jeong-hee. The couple had offered to provide lodging and meals for Sunim for four days while he held Dharma Q&As in the vicinity of New York.

“I’ve been well. But it seems that you haven’t been doing too well…”

“Can you physically handle it?”

“You seem to be working too hard every day…”

We had a fun conversation during the car ride, and before we knew it, we arrived at the accommodation. Mr. Kim Myeong-ho, Ms. Yoo Jeong-hee, and the other volunteers bowed three times to Sunim.

We had lunch together. After unpacking and resting for a while, we left for Columbia University at 5 PM for the Dharma Q&A.

After meeting Venerable Pomnyun Sunim at an ordination Dharma talk in Korea seven years ago, Venerable Gowoo Sunim had come to study in the U.S. Last year, she attended a Dharma Q&A that Venerable Pomnyun Sunim gave in the U.S. and requested that he also give a Dharma Q&A at Columbia University. Venerable Gowoo Sunim greeted them upon arrival in the parking lot.

Columbia University was experiencing a heightening of tensions across its campus due to protests against the bombing of Gaza by Israel. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators had occupied Hamilton Hall on the New York campus and set up barricades inside. The administration demanded the tents be removed by 2 PM local time or students would face disciplinary actions, and only Columbia students with valid IDs were allowed to enter the buildings.

The protests, which had been quieting down, spread to other universities after the police dismantled the tents of protesters, and they intensified within Columbia University. Ven. Gowoo Sunim had been preparing for Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s Dharma Q&A with the students of the Buddhist Student Association. Two main volunteers had been arrested for participating in the protest, but fortunately, the university allowed the event to proceed as planned, provided that a list of pre-registered attendees was submitted and identities verified. Students had to register once, while outsiders needed to register twice to attend the event.

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim was no exception. He had to show his ID and have his identity verified before entering Columbia University. On campus, the cherry blossoms were falling.

Upon arriving at the Earl Hall Auditorium, the venue for today’s Dharma Q&A, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim was warmly welcomed by monks from nearby New York temples such as Wongaksa Temple, Wonjeoksa Temple, and Daegwansa Temple.

Prior to the Dharma Q&A, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim had a brief conversation with Venerable Jigwang Sunim, the abbot of Wongaksa Temple, and Venerable Gowoo Sunim. Venerable Jigwang Sunim had kindly prepared dinner for the audience attending the event.

“Did you face any difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

During the conversation, Susan, one of the graduates from the first cohort of Online English Dharma School, and her husband, came to pay respects to Venerable Pomnyun Sunim. They had come from New Jersey.

“Jungto Society will soon take over America. I brought my husband today to spread the teachings.”

The monk responded with a smile.

“Her energy keeps me alive.” (Laughter)

Professor Janice Shin soon arrived and had a brief conversation with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim.

When Venerable Pomnyun Sunim had visited the U.S. last year, Professor Shin had proposed a learning project for children with disabilities in Vietnam. He reiterated JTS’s principle of operating solely through volunteer work and mentioned that he would look for suitable people to conduct the project.

At one side of the lecture hall, activities like making short beads and lotus flowers from paper cups were underway. On the other side, dinner was prepared for the attendees. Attendees engaged in these activities while waiting for the Dharma Q&A to start.

Contrary to worries about a low turnout due to the challenging circumstances on campus, all 182 seats were filled, and an extra row of chairs had to be added at the back.

The Dharma Q&A began at 7:10 PM. Venerable Gowoo Sunim presented a detailed introduction of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, and the audience gave him a big round of applause as he took the stage. Jason provided the English interpretation.

The session then opened to questions. Over two hours, eight people engaged in conversations with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim. One person expressed fear about the quick passage of time and asked for advice on how to manage his feelings.

“I am afraid of time passing too quickly. I had to part from my family and friends to come here to Columbia University. When I feel sad, time passes slowly. Then, when I feel happy, time flies. But these days, that time passes quickly whether I am happy or not. Everything in my life is changing. I am afraid that time is passing so quickly.”

“Yes, I understand. Whenever I think about my past memories, like breaking up with my girlfriend, I feel sad. Even when I am happy, I feel sad when I reminisce about the past.”

“I would feel disappointed and throw it away.”

“I don’t think I conveyed my question clearly. My point is that even from unpleasant memories, I always manage to learn something or obtain a lesson. So, I long for my past memories because they are helpful for me. “

As the Dharma Q&A continued, more and more people raised their hands to ask questions:

  • What is the essence of the mind? Does the mind have a substance?
  • What causes our suffering? Is it because we truly don’t know who we are? How can we explain ourselves beyond the physical and mental realm?
  • How is Buddhism different from nihilism? What is the meaning of life?
  • I have so much to do, like schoolwork and club activities, that I often work late into the night and don’t get enough sleep, which makes me miserable.
  • I was subject to severe bullying in middle and high school. I want to live without suffering and forgive those who hurt me, but I find it hard to function in society, and I often can’t sleep. Medication doesn’t seem to help. What should I do?
  • How can we balance economic growth with environmental protection?
  • It seems that suffering arises both from external circumstances and internal reasons. I wonder if desire is always bad. Sometimes, it seems that desire helps me improve, achieve more, and be more productive.

Not everyone’s questions could be addressed due to time constraints, and the Dharma Q&A concluded as scheduled at 9 PM.

At the conclusion of the Dharma Q&A, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim asked a Thai monk sitting in the front row,

“I didn’t catch everything, but I grasped the essence.”

A foreign monk with blue eyes also came forward, thanked Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, and showed his respect by touching his feet.

“I really appreciated today’s Dharma talk.”

At Venerable Gowoo Sunim’s request, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim participated in the ritual to bathe the baby Buddha.

After the ritual, many people came forward to express their gratitude.

“I really appreciated today’s Dharma Q&A. I’m a graduate of the English Jungto Dharma School. I’m really looking forward to the Sutra Course.”

Another attendee thanked Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, “Your Dharma talk was a great help during these tough times. Thank you.”

People lined up to take photos with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim.

After a long session of taking photos, the monks and Venerable Pomnyun Sunim conversed about the current state of nearby temples.

Venerable Gowoo Sunim followed him out.

“No, let me accompany you to the entrance.”

Venerable Gowoo Sunim expressed her gratitude to the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim.

“Today’s talk was wonderful. I really wanted the Columbia students to hear your teachings. I’m glad I could realize this dream before graduating. It was even more meaningful since the event coincided with the protests at the school.”

Although questions about the Israel-Palestine conflict were anticipated, no one brought it up during the Dharma Q&A, maybe because the topic was too sensitive. Venerable Gowoo Sunim attempted to offer a donation to Venerable Pomnyun Sunim as a token of gratitude, but he respectfully declined.

“Thank you.”

Venerable Gowoo Sunim ended up accompanying him to the parking lot to say goodbye. They parted ways, and Venerable Pomnyun Sunim left Columbia University for his accommodation at 10 PM, arriving close to 11 PM.

After a late dinner and further conversation, we concluded the day.

Tomorrow, the second Dharma Q&A of the North American East Coast Tour will take place in Boston. Sunim will travel by car for six hours to Boston to meet Professor Park Gibum at Harvard Medical School and then proceed to Harvard University for a Dharma Q&A with English interpretation.