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January 27, 2016 – Holistic and Sustainable Development

First uploaded in Korean on 2015.1.28
Delivered by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim
English Translation: Jinah Lee

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It is a great honor for me to speak to you today. The theme is holistic development, a subject that raises the issue that the world we live in is making piecemeal, rather than holistic, progress. Another problem is that our spiritual development, or mental progress, is not keeping pace with our material development, which is unfolding rapidly.

In regional terms, unequal development is a problem because some regions advance rapidly while others fall behind, creating inequality. We are also faced with the fundamental question: “Is today’s development sustainable?”

When we think based on the teachings of the Buddha, holistic development, i.e., sustainable development, is certainly what will bring us happiness. Desire is often the driving force behind human action. People act according to their desires. Most people are happy when their desires are fulfilled and are unhappy when their desires are not met. The problem is that the world we live in cannot fulfill all our desires. You cannot say that having your desires fulfilled is always good. Nevertheless, we tend to be overly attached to the pleasure gained when our desires are gratified. Due to this attachment to pleasure, the cycle of pleasure and suffering, which the Buddha called samsara or reincarnation, is repeated.

The task the Buddha addressed was how to make happiness sustainable. The goal was to become liberated from the samsaric cycle and attain nirvana. Nirvana is a sustainable state where you and other people enjoy happiness together and that happiness does not lead to suffering in the future.

The gratification we receive when we fulfill our desires is not sustainable. Pursuing the pleasure that comes from fulfilling one’s desires is called hedonism. On the contrary, curbing and suppressing desires is called asceticism. This ascetic practice, however, is also not a path to nirvana since it causes stress.

From his six-year practice of asceticism near Bodhgaya, the Buddha discovered two significant contradictions, that both following desires and oppressing desires are no different than being fettered by desires. So he discovered a third way, that is, the middle way, which is to neither follow nor suppress desire but simply to recognize desire as desire. The Buddha ultimately attained enlightenment through the middle way, and this is called dependent origination.

Dependent origination means that all beings in this world are not a collective gathering of separate and independent entities, but are interconnected. If you look at one part of something, it will appear to exist independently. However, if you look at it holistically, you can see that it’s all interconnected.

This was also an answer to the questions that the Buddha asked himself as a child. The young Siddhartha Gautama, while attending a plowing festival, spotted a bird pecking at a bug and asked himself: “Why one being has to take another being’s life in order to survive? Is there not a way for them to live together?” He asked his teachers and parents these questions. Since no one could answer his questions, he began contemplating them. After going beyond the palace walls, the young Siddhartha was able to see the phenomena of one being taking another’s life more clearly. Outside the East Gate, he saw a weak old man who had been abandoned. Outside the South Gate, he found a dying man who was also abandoned. When going outside the West Gate, he encountered a corpse, abandoned without a proper funeral. The Buddha did not just observe the suffering of people growing old and dying, but had compassion toward those who were suffering. He realized that the affluence and comfort he enjoyed within the palace had been built upon the suffering of slaves. So, when asked later by the King Pasenadi of Kosala, the Buddha answered, “Do not build your happiness upon other people’s suffering.” And his answer was based on what he had experienced as a child.

The Buddha could not find the answer to those questions through the values and faith of the Brahman tradition in which he had been brought up. Then, Siddhartha found a new hope when he went through the North Gate and encountered a practitioner from a new movement that opposed the mainstream teachings of Brahmanism. Siddhartha joined the movement and attained Enlightenment after six years of practice. The Enlightenment was his awakening to the truth that one did not exist by one’s self but in relationship with and as part of a family; that one’s family is part of a village; that the village is part of a region which along with other regions is part of a country that along with other countries is part of humanity; that human beings are part of the entire ecosystem of all living things; that life exists along with non-living things; and that that exists together with everything else. Based on this understanding, he came to see the world holistically.

If we are to follow the Buddha’s teachings in today’s world, i.e., the Buddha dharma, we need to see nature not as an object of conquest but as the foundation of our life. And yet, we have seen nature as the object of conquest and development which has caused the environmental problems we face today. We have contaminated the water and food we eat, causing suffering. We have staged wars with our neighboring countries over resources. We ignore the suffering of people in other countries because we are only interested in pursuing our own prosperity. We only think of our own interests which leads to conflicts with others and eventually suffering. The most fundamental causes of these problems are ego-centric desire (greed), ego-centric view (anger) and ego-centric assertion and ignorance (delusion). The Buddha said these three poisons are the root causes of all our sufferings. But we have not been able to abandon these traits.

We need to let go of our desires. We need to abandon consumerism with its over-production and over-consuming as the definition of living well. Until we abandon consumerism, we cannot solve our environmental problems. If we consume less, we can share the unused resources with the poor. If we consume less, we would not have to compete for resources and could live peacefully together. Individually, we could live peacefully without constantly pursuing material goods in our lives.

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Peace does not come to us just because we practice meditation. We need to have the right understanding of the world we live in. Also, we need to live our lives based on right understanding. Today, even we Buddhists are letting ourselves be swept up by consumerism, thinking the development of Buddhism equates with materialistic development. We should, however, see and live our lives from a more holistic and comprehensive perspective. Thank you.

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