“Every time I make a mistake, I feel regret and anguish“
September 11, 2023, Overseas Dharma Talk Tour (11th-12th) in Los Angeles
Hello. Today marks the eleventh and twelfth day of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Overseas Dharma Talk Tour in 2023, held in Los Angeles, USA.
The Dharma Talk for Korean residents in Los Angeles began at 2 p.m.
One person raised his hand and asked a question.
When faced with the difficulties in life, how should one deal with them?
“When the questioners shared their concerns today, Sunim provided precise and fitting answers to them. I thought that if they gained some level of insight and changed their attitudes and thoughts, they could alleviate the current suffering. However, on the other hand, I wonder what kind of attitude I should have in dealing with the difficulties that may arise in our future life.”
“Indeed, as the question is asked in detail, the answer also becomes detailed. However, when asked in a general manner, the answer tends to be general as well. There is no predetermined answer, as it depends on the specificity of the questions posed. But now you are generally asking how one should deal with them when faced with the difficulties in life, right?
Basically, it’s best to treat it like ‘It’s not a big deal.’ In life, nothing is really a big deal. Is getting older a big deal? Looking at the big picture, it’s not a big deal. Is getting sick a big deal? It’s not a big deal. Is breaking a leg in an accident a big deal? Looking at the big picture, it’s not a big deal. If you visit the emergency room at a hospital, you’ll routinely encounter people with broken legs and people with fingers severed by machines. For doctors, it’s not a big deal. It’s a common occurrence.
From a short-term perspective, it may seem like a big deal to you, but if you look at it in the future or look at it as a whole, there is nothing special in this world. Everything just unfolds according to our connections and circumstances. It’s like a log floating down a river. It might get caught on this side for a while, then flow again when the current picks up, and it may get caught on the other side for a bit before continuing to flow. Similarly, the difficulties we encounter in life are not a big deal.
For example, let’s consider going hiking on Mt. Seorak. When you get off the bus stop and walk, it’s flat terrain, but soon you’ll have to cross a stream. As you go further, you’ll have to climb steep slopes. Further along, you’ll reach ridges, and in some cases, you’ll have to ascend very steep paths. Some parts are in the forest, and others are under the scorching sun. But when you get to the top and look back on the process, it’s just things that happened during the climbing process. There were flat paths, steep ones, stream crossings, shaded areas, and sunny stretches, all part of the hiking experience.
Just like that, as we live our lives, today we might lose money, and tomorrow we might get a windfall. Today we might meet good people, and tomorrow we might encounter those who cause us harm. There are times when things go well, and times when things go wrong. Each moment can vary significantly, but when we look back, none of it really mattered.
Please take a moment to reflect on your elementary school days. What significant events do you recall? It’s just days when a child went to school. However, if you examine each day, it would feel like a huge big deal, with thoughts like ‘Today my grades improved,’ ‘Today my grades dropped,’ ‘Today I got scolded by the teacher,’ or ‘Today I had a fight with a friend.’
Each moment may seem significant to us individually, but when viewed from a broader or longer perspective, it’s not a significant event. What is not significant is referred to as ‘emptiness’ (공 or 空), and what is significant is referred to as ‘form’ or ‘color’ (색 or 色). Some things may appear significant, but when seen as a whole, they are not, and conversely, some things may not seem significant, but when viewed differently, they are. This concept is expressed in the Heart Sutra as ‘Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form’ (色卽是空, 空卽是色).
Looking at the big picture, it’s not a big deal. Among you, there may have been instances where your younger sibling passed away one day, and before that, someone else did, and people around you keep dying like this, right? It’s a sign that you’re aging. As you get older, more and more people related to you tend to pass away. When you’re a child, there’s hardly anyone close to you who dies, except your paternal grandparents and maternal grandparents. But as you age, you may experience the loss of friends, siblings, and relatives. It’s not God’s punishment, and it’s not due to past-life sins. It’s simply what happens as you get older.
When something happens at this moment, it’s a big deal, but when you look back on it tomorrow, it’s not a big deal. If you recognize that it’s not a big deal now, you can adopt an attitude of simply resolving the issue at hand.
I have been working as a farmer in the countryside for the past three years, and during this time, I have also been injured several times. The people around me have also been injured one or two times. In some cases, I simply applied medication and bandages at home and endured it, and in other cases, I went to the hospital for treatment. This is because we handle farm machinery every day, increasing the likelihood of injuries. It’s not a result of past-life sins, it’s simply that the probability of doing so has increased. When you do weeding, you inevitably disturb the beehives, which raises the chances of getting stung by bees.
Indeed, life may seem like a big deal at the moment, but when we look back, most things are not significant. If something that happened 10 years ago still feels like a big deal, it might be trauma. In the realm of the human mental world, it’s normal for most things to be not significant when viewed in hindsight. If past events continue to linger in your mind and affect you, it could be an illness that requires treatment.
We live our lives making something special everyday in a world where nothing special happens. Every day may seem eventful, but when we look back, nothing special happens. This is life.
So, don’t lament being old too much. Being born, aging, getting sick, and dying is the Buddha’s enlightenment. When we die, we simply return to nature. The question of ‘Will I be born again?’ is a matter of faith. However, in Buddhism, it is said that through enlightenment and liberation, one does not get born again. How wonderful is that? Buddhism aims at not being born. When you aim to be born, you might fear not being born, but when you aim to not be born, there’s no need to worry. If you are born again, you can live again.
When you feel stressed and angry, just remember, ‘This too shall pass, and it’s not a big deal.’ Keeping this in mind makes it much easier to navigate through life.”
With a big round of applause, the Dharma Talk for Korean residents in Los Angeles has come to an end.
At 4 p.m., Sunim moved to the Skirball Cultural Center to deliver an English Dharma Talk for American attendees.
Following that, from 5 p.m., Sunim had a conversation session with students from the English Jungto Dharma School. Students from various countries, including the United States, Iran, China, India, and others, gathered for this session. Each student introduced themselves and shared their impressions of studying at the Jungto Dharma School in a casual and friendly discussion.
After hearing their impressions, Sunim shared the perspective on how to approach the study of Buddhism and what it entails.
“Regardless of how magnificent the Buddha is, that is the Buddha’s life, not my life. You should always ask yourself ‘What about me?’ and concentrate on your own issues. It’s not important how great the Buddha’s teachings are, but what is important is that I can apply them to myself to live without suffering. I hope you continue your study with this perspective. We don’t exist for the Buddha, but the Buddha exists for us. The Buddha has shared all of his experiences with us so that we can escape suffering and live happier lives.”
Before the Dharma Talk began, UCLA chair professor Robert Buswell and his wife visited Sunim. Professor Buswell specializes in Korean Buddhism and was ordained at Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon in his twenties, where he engaged in monastic practice for over five years. Last year, he donated $3.7 million to establish the Korean Buddhism endowed chair at UCLA.
After sharing what each other was up to, they also talked about Buddhism.
“In the era of COVID-19, what message can the teachings of the Buddha convey?”
“The coronavirus can also be seen as a symptom of the climate crisis. The root cause of the climate crisis lies in excessive desire-driven development, which is where the teachings of the Buddha can offer guidance. For the past 30 years, I have believed and worked towards the idea that the fundamental teachings of the Buddha can heal the ailments of modern civilization that humanity is grappling with. Now the time has come for the Law of Dependent Origination that Buddha realized to see the light of day.”
At the end of the conversation, Professor Buswell presented Sunim with a Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism that he had personally compiled, and Sunim also gifted one of his books translated into English. The professor and his wife expressed their intention to attend the Dharma Talk as well.
“If there are any questions about Buddhist knowledge during today’s conversation, I’ll pass the microphone to Professor Buswell.”
“Haha, I am retired now.”
After the conversation, we moved to the lecture hall together.
With a loud round of applause, Sunim took the stage at 7:30 p.m. First, he introduced the purpose of today’s conversation.
“How can we live our lives without suffering? This is our primary concern. The Buddha had this kind of problem awareness more than 2,600 years ago. That’s why he sought a state without suffering, or Nirvana.
Nowadays everyone is living as they want to live, yet people still suffer. Why does suffering arise even when I live as I want? The answer to this question cannot be found in books or by traveling to India or Myanmar. You must ask yourself, ‘Why am I suffering?’ Through this inquiry, we can free ourselves from suffering.
There are no definitive answers in life. I am not here to provide you with the answers. Today, we are here to engage in a conversation with the question ‘Why am I suffering?’ and to explore a life without suffering together.”
Then, questions were taken from the audience. Before the lecture started, 25 people had submitted questions, demonstrating a high level of interest in Sunim’s teachings. With a 2-hour time frame, 7 individuals had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with Sunim. The first questioner expressed distress over feeling regret every time he made a mistake and asked how to free himself from this feeling of regret.
I feel regret and distress every time I make a mistake
“My question was as you get older and everything you look back about the things that you regret and you know people talk about mental health and depression. So, I think sometimes regret has something to do with it? So, how can you work on that?”
“Can people make mistakes, or do they always do things right?”
“Yeah, bad things too. You know you look at your past and you say I should have had another chance I wouldn’t do that. And yet, you should live with it.”
“Do you think you are a saint like Jesus or the Buddha?”
“Why do you regret something you could have done wrong? When you say you regret past actions, does that mean you did something wrong when you shouldn’t have done something wrong? Are you a person who cannot make mistakes?”
“Well, everybody makes mistakes, but you know sometimes mistakes … How would I say that…”
“Are you someone who can make mistakes, or are you someone who cannot make mistakes?”
“Well, life, you learn from mistakes I guess, but some are hard to live with.”
“The reason it’s hard to live with mistakes is because you think you shouldn’t make mistakes.”
“I don’t think I am a person who should make any mistakes because you learn from your mistakes, but what I am talking about is when sometimes you look back at your life you would have done things differently and some mistakes kind of derail you.”
“Don’t you have such thoughts after it’s all over, not before it happens?”
“Well, sometimes life entangles you at that moment. So, you don’t think so.”
“So, I’m asking you, are you a saint?”
“Well, my name is Saint.”
Everyone laughed out loud at the questioner’s joke, and then Sunim continued his response.
“Everyone makes mistakes and fails in life. Based on these experiences, we should move forward to reduce the likelihood of making mistakes next time. If you make a mistake again, you can move towards reducing the probability of making a mistake again. While making mistakes, we should move towards reducing the chances of making mistakes. However, you are holding onto the past and continuing to regret it. What has already happened cannot be undone. What good will happen in the future if you regret the past?”
“What do you mean it doesn’t help in the future?”
“Reflecting on what I did wrong and working to reduce those mistakes will help in the future. However, what good will it do for the future if I am still crying over what I did wrong in the past?”
“Okay, that is good advice. Regret…”
“So, an ancient zen master said, ‘A person who falls, gets up by touching the ground.’ If you’ve fallen, should you regret it, or should you get up by touching the ground?”
“Get up? But what about the regret? Regret…”
“But why do you keep sitting and crying?”
“Okay. Okay, haha.”
“Regret arises from the assumption that I am a person who shouldn’t make mistakes.”
“Okay. I accept. My mistakes.”
“So, that’s why I asked if you were a saint. Regret is not a reflection. Regret arises from the belief that I am a person who cannot make mistakes. Regret occurs when you cannot forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made. You are a saint in name only, not a saint in perfection. You are a person who can make mistakes. In order to reduce mistakes, you should refer to your past failures and work to reduce mistakes in the future.
Look at human history. Humanity has continued to progress through failure. The civilization we have today was built on countless experiences of failure. That’s why the saying ‘Failure is the mother of success’ exists. The reason failure brings frustration is because of greed. You should be able to admit, ‘I am a person who can make mistakes,’ to move beyond the feeling of regret.”
“The moment you accept yourself, you can also improve yourself. Let me share an experience from my childhood. I was very good at marbles when I was young. I had a jar filled with marbles that I won from games with my friends. But now, 50 years later, I have no idea where all those marbles have gone. If I had the wisdom when I was young and, after playing marbles with my friends, I had given those marbles I won to my friends, how great would it have been? If that were the case, when someone went to my friends and asked, ‘What was Ven. Pomnyun like when he was young?’ they would say, ‘Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was very compassionate from a young age. So even if he won marbles, he would give them back to us when we returned home.’ It could have been done. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case? But I couldn’t do that. Now, If someone were to ask my friends the same thing, they would say, ‘Ven. Pomnyun Sunim took all our marbles when we were young.’ I often look back on those days and ask myself now.
‘What are the marbles in what I am doing now?’
Among the things that I think are very important now, when I look back on them before I die, I think about what would be considered useless, like the marbles from my childhood. So, I suggest you not dwell too much on past mistakes but use them as experiences to reduce future errors.”
“Haha. Okay. Thank you.”
“Change your name to ‘No Saint.’ (Everyone laughs)”
The questioner understood Sunim’s words clearly and responded with cheerful laughter. Applause filled the audience as well.
After answering all the questions, the promised two hours quickly passed by.
The last question was about anxiety, and with that, the talk came to a close. Sunim added a final remark as he concluded the lecture.
“If you find that you have just one person you dislike in your human relationships, then when you can accept that one person, you will be free in all your relationships. That’s why making peace with that person becomes a practice. But if there are two people you dislike, then you need to examine if there’s something wrong with you. And if there are three people you dislike, you should definitely go to the hospital. (Laughter from the audience)
Many people suffer from mental illnesses, but they may not realize that they are patients. Just as you would go to the hospital for a physical ailment, when you have a mental illness, you need treatment. ‘Receiving treatment’ does not mean ‘being completely cured.’ Many of you often misunderstand that treatment will result in a complete cure. First, there are cases where a complete cure is achieved. Second, there are cases where the condition is maintained so that the disease does not worsen. Third, there are cases where the rate at which the disease worsens is slowed down. All three constitute treatment. In particular, mental illness has not yet been sufficiently identified. While there are many traditional treatments for mental illness, modern psychiatric treatments can be considered more effective. So, if you are not feeling mentally well, it’s essential to get checked out.
If you are not facing a mental problem that requires treatment, but still have a lot of suffering, you should seek treatment on your own. Treating yourself and moving to a stage where you are free from suffering is what we call ‘practice’. However, for those who cannot control themselves, even if they engage in practice, it will not be effective. Therefore, it’s a misconception to think that you can always solve mental issues through self-practice.
And walking a lot and bowing are also helpful in treating mental illness. Insomnia is a sign of mental disorders. Therefore, a good night’s sleep and moderate exercise are also very helpful in achieving mental stability.
Disaster is a blessing
I hope that all of you live a little more lightly. Someone asked me this.
‘I had a failed first marriage and got married for the second time, but now I am going through another divorce. I wonder what sins I committed in my past life to keep failing in marriage like this.’
So, I said this.
‘I haven’t even been married once. What blessings did you accumulate in your past life to get married twice?’
Is getting married twice a blessing or a disaster? It’s a matter of perspective. So, please don’t consider what has happened to me now as a disaster. It’s just something that happened. I hope you don’t take anything too seriously and take things lightly.”
The audience expressed their gratitude to Sunim who came from afar to give valuable teachings with enthusiastic cheers and applause.
Tomorrow, Sunim will be moving to San Diego to have a conversation with members of Jungto Society and then give a Dharma Talk in English with an interpreter for Americans at the Dharma Bum Temple.