“I suffer from comparing myself to others.”
2023.9.8 Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim (8) Vancouver, Canada
Today is the eighth day of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s 2023 Overseas Dharma Talk Tour.
At 6:30 pm, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim arrived at Nikkei Center, the venue for tonight’s Dharma talk.
By 7 pm, all available 440 seats were full. Due to the venue’s strict regulations, anyone over the 440 limit had to be turned away. As many people returned home, disappointed, there were some who vowed that, next time, they would come hours in advance to make sure they get a seat.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been 4 years since I’ve been here. How have all of you been? Raise your hand if you passed away during that time? (Laughter)
I see that not one of you have passed away. As for me, I did a lot of farming during the pandemic, living in a closed-down school that we rented near Gyeongju. For 3 years, I barely ventured out any farther than that. Then, last autumn, I visited India, the Philippines, and other places where we work. At the beginning of this year, we resumed the pilgrimage to India. In the spring, I visited 12 countries in Southeast Asia, and this fall, I’m going around Europe and North America for our Casual Conversations. It’s wonderful to see and meet you.”
Next, Sunim took questions from the audience. There were 14 people who requested a chance to ask their question when checking into the event, but there was only time for 9 questions during the two-hour talk. One questioner asked how she could find happiness because she kept experiencing distress from constantly comparing herself to others.
I suffer from comparing myself to others.
“I’m troubled by my tendency to compare myself with others. I am now in my 50s, and after much deliberation, I went back to school. I was worried whether I would be able to keep up with the class because I was not confident in my English proficiency and also concerned about my age. So, before going to class, I bought the textbooks and studied really hard in advance, and as a result, the school lessons felt really easy. With newfound confidence, I made a resolution to aim for a perfect score in all subjects and become a legend at this school. I studied diligently, even limiting time for meals. On the first exam, I made a mistake and got one question wrong, out of 50. Getting one question wrong was somewhat forgivable, but I later found out that besides me, two other students in the class had also missed just one question. I was so upset that I had missed the opportunity for a perfect score by making a mistake on an easy question, and I felt frustrated for two whole days.
On top of that, the student sitting next to me spends time with his family and actively participates in church activities, yet his grades are better than mine. As I dedicate myself entirely to studying, it feels unfair and disheartening. The desire to excel and win can be a driving force for me, as I want to do better than others. However, I also suffer because of it. How can I develop a mindset that is not overly attached to the outcomes?”
“Let go of your greed. (Laughter) For example, let’s say I’m competing in a 100-meter sprint against a young man. He completes the 100-meter sprint in 13 seconds, while I finish it in 25 seconds. Even if I practice day and night while the young athlete is out having fun, can I beat the young athlete? Does that mean I’m an inferior being because I can’t beat the young athlete?”
“No, that doesn’t mean you’re inferior.”
“This isn’t even something you can compare. I think you go beyond being greedy and are also being rather dim-witted. (Laughter)
At first, when I heard that studying for school at your age became easier thanks to your preparation in advance, I thought, ‘This person is amazing.’ But as I continued listening to your words, I heard that you made a resolution to achieve a perfect score and become the top student. Your courage is commendable, but it seems excessively greedy.
It’s good when you challenge yourself to get a perfect score. However, trying to outperform younger individuals and feeling jealous because other students excel while enjoying themselves falls into the category of envy. Since olden times, envy has been considered one of the sins. What I mean by ‘one of the sins’ isn’t that it’s bad, but that it’s an action that greatly torments oneself.
Don’t be jealous, just do your best. Entering university in your 50s alone is already remarkable. Just that fact alone could make you a legend. Furthermore, if you become an outstanding student on top of that, you become a legend among legends. You don’t have to be number one to become a legend.”
“Financially, I’m at a level where I can live comfortably without having to struggle. But a few days ago, I felt very upset after meeting a friend I’ve known for a long time. I didn’t know my friend had that much money. My friend said that they already have enough money to live on until they die because they invested the money their parents gave them. When I heard that, I felt deeply bothered and went through two days of agony. What should I do?”
“Don’t worry, you also have enough money to live on until you die. The only difference is that your friend can spend $10,000 a month and has enough money to last their lifetime, while you can spend $1,000 a month and also have enough money to last your lifetime.”
“But I want to spend $10,000 every month.”
“If you spend $10,000 a month, that would be considered a crime. The planet is facing a climate crisis. What is the main cause of the climate crisis? People are consuming too much. Those who have excessive consumption patterns should not be seen as role models, but rather as the culprits who are harming the planet and humanity. We need to make excessive consumption a crime by law. Even if a criminal who murders one person is eligible for parole, they still receive a prison sentence of at least 10 years. However, those who engage in excessive consumption bring about the cumulative result of the death of thousands and millions of people. Therefore, overconsumption should be considered a serious crime. The social norm needs to gradually shift in this direction. In a climate crisis, overconsumption should be seen as something to target with legal action.
To mitigate the climate crisis, we need to establish a cap on consumption, allowing individuals to possess wealth but setting a limit on how much one can spend in a month. Laws should be enacted stating that ‘exceeding a certain amount of monthly expenditure constitutes a crime that leads to the annihilation of humanity.’ Only then can we hope to prevent the current climate crisis. Otherwise, humanity faces the prospect of extinction. Therefore, overconsumption should never be admired. Your statement is akin to wanting to emulate such a crime, just like saying you want to emulate a drug addict. If any of you gathered here envy those who have a lot of money and engage in overconsumption, you are essentially admiring that crime.
Many of you who live here in Vancouver have recently suffered greatly from wildfires caused by climate change, haven’t you? Even after experiencing such a disaster, it seems like you still haven’t come to your senses. How much more suffering must humanity endure before they come to their senses? Overconsumption should never be admired. Instead, we should cultivate a culture that condemns it.”
“I understand. I am also very concerned about the environment. I will live modestly. Thank you.”
“Is it easier to not spend money when you don’t have much? Or is it easier to not spend for the sake of the planet even when you do have money? It’s much easier to not spend when you don’t have money. When you have a lot of money but can’t spend it even though you want to, that can also be a significant source of suffering.
I view our continued adherence to consumerism as ‘consumption addiction.’ This is a problem that can’t even be compared to drug addiction due to the scale of its harm. That’s why it’s crucial we break free from consumption addiction. In Europe, the culture among young generations in their teens and twenties has completely changed. If parents prepare a lavish meal at home, their children simply have a small portion and leave. I know someone whose son is in their second year of high school, and their son refuses to buy new clothes and goes to school with worn-out shoes. No matter how much the parents insist on buying new clothes, he doesn’t listen. In some areas, these behaviors are becoming part of school culture.
Just as there was the hippie culture in the past, today’s youth are creating a different culture in the era of our current climate crisis, distinct from older generations. It’s not just children from poor households; those from wealthy families are like this too. I received a similar question during a Dharma talk in Europe the other day. The parents prepare generous meals for their children, but the kids won’t eat it. They said they only take one cucumber and one boiled potato for breakfast before heading to school. The parents who asked the question felt so upset.
What used to be considered important keeps changing. A few days ago, during the Dharma talk in Paris, a woman talked about how she couldn’t stand her husband not taking showers. So, I replied, ‘A saint has arrived in your household.’ It means a saint who is trying to save the climate has appeared. Overwashing is not good for the body. Especially in the United States, people tend to wash themselves too often and have excessive consumption habits. They consume to the point where it should be punishable as a crime, and they don’t even practice proper recycling.
Today, humanity is racing towards destruction due to consumerism. If we look at history, many ancient monarchs and rulers led their countries to ruin through overconsumption. People of that time may have admired such rulers, but in the end, their actions led to the downfall of nations and the suffering of the people. Similarly, overconsumption accelerates the climate crisis and plunges humanity into agony. We should never admire consumerism. Instead of feeling inferior while envying it, we should first correct our own view of life.
Whenever I see someone living in a big house, my first thought is, ‘Cleaning that must be really hard.’ I never think, ‘I wish I could live in a house like that.’ If you want to have spacious rooms, why not sleep in a classroom? How large are classrooms, after all? (Laughter)
Our worldview needs to change now. With the worldview we’ve had so far, we can’t overcome the climate crisis. How many more deaths and how much more suffering will it take for us to realize that this way is truly wrong? During the Opium War, the Chinese people only recognized the dangers of opium after they became addicted to it. However, the wise should have foresight and recognize the dangers beforehand, saying, ‘This will really put us in danger.’ But ultimately, I think people will only wake up after more than half of us die.
These days, with the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, and the escalating competition between the United States and China, global attention to the climate crisis continues to wane. As conflicts and rivalries once again take center stage, the climate crisis may become unstoppable. It may be that only after experiencing substantial damage will humans snap out of this foolishness.
So please never envy those who consume extravagantly, and also, don’t criticize them. Pity them instead. Think, ‘Oh, poor souls. The maggots are returning to the dung heap.’
“I also care about the environment, so I really appreciate your words about how excessive consumption is not good for the climate. I’ll remember that it’s a good thing I don’t have that much money since then I don’t spend much. I’ll live my life without envying others. Thank you.”
“From now on, we should compete not in who consumes more but in who consumes less. Those who consume less should be respected and earn the envy of others. If we do this, we can quickly achieve carbon zero. Right now, we are all stuck in consumerism, which is why this isn’t happening.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”
After finishing the conversation, Sunim shared his closing remarks.
“Do not sacrifice later for now, and also do not sacrifice now for later. Our lives are just as important now as they are later. So, whatever we do, it should be good now and good later, good for me and good for you. This way, we get closer to the truth and how to live a sustainable life.
Please do not sacrifice the present for the sake of the future, and do not sacrifice the future for the sake of the present. Do not sacrifice others for yourself, and do not sacrifice yourself for others. Living a happy life is benefiting others, and helping others is benefiting yourself. With this perspective, you can live life a little lighter.”
Tomorrow morning, Sunim will have tea with Ajahn Nisabho, a monk teaching meditation in Seattle, and then move to St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral to hold a Casual Conversation with English interpretation. In the afternoon, Sunim will fly to Orange County, located south of Los Angeles, California.