- Special interview with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim in commemoration of the completion of Jungto Society’s 10,000-Day Practice
- Held at Seocho Jungto Dharma Center on Jan. 24th, sponsored by Beopbo the Weekly Buddhist Newspaper, interview conducted by Kim Byeong-jo
- Addresses topics ranging from the background of the 10,000-Day Practice to memorable volunteers
- “Only based on constructive criticism can you and the world be changed”
A special interview with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim was held at Seocho Jungto Dharma Center on Jan. 24th, ahead of the completion of Jungto’s 10,000-Day Practice. It was organized by Jungto Society, sponsored by Beopbo the Weekly Buddhist Newspaper, BBS, and BTN, and the interview was conducted by Kim Byeong-jo, a broadcaster and faculty member of Chosun University.
The 30-year-long journey of Jungto Society’s 10,000-Day Practice—which began on March 7th, 1993 with the aspiration to create “Jungto,” a land in which individuals are happy, society is peaceful, and nature is preserved—will come to an end on December 4th this year. Jungto Society has engaged in the promotion of ecological-awareness, human rights, peace, and reunification movements as part of its 10,000-Day Practice. Jungto practitioners’ daily practice includes an hour of morning practice, a donation of at least 1,000 won (about 1USD), and doing a good deed each day. Jungto practitioners, who constitute only a fraction of the population, aspire to transform the world into Jungto, just as a small percentage of salt in the seawater makes it salty. As of January 2022, about 12,000 people were participating in the 10,000-Day Practice, and the total number of people who have ever participated in the 10,000-Day Practice is around 30,000. On January 24, a special interview with Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, Guiding Dharma Teacher of Jungto Society, was conducted at Seocho Jungto Dharma Center, ahead of the completion of the 10,000-Day Practice. The interview was organized by Jungto Society, sponsored by Beopbo the Weekly Buddhist Newspaper, the Buddhist Broadcasting System (BBS), and the Buddhist Television Network (BTN), and conducted by Kim Byeong-jo, a broadcaster and faculty member of Chosun University.
△ Jungto Society’s 10,000-Day Practice will be completed this December. How did it begin?
When I was young, I once complained about Korean Buddhism to Venerable Seoam Sunim, a great Seon (Zen) master whom I respected greatly. I complained: “How can Buddhism be like this?” and “The Jogye Order shouldn’t be like that.” The great master listened to my complaints for more than two hours that day. Then, he said softly, “My dear fellow, if a man sits on a ridge between rice paddies and keeps his mind pure, he is a monk. And that place is a temple. And that is Buddhism.” His words shocked me. I had already learned that all phenomena are empty and everything is impermanent, but I then realized that I was the one who was attached to form. I judged based on my fixed notion that Buddhism should be such and such. After listening to the great master’s words, I got rid of my fixed ideas about what Buddhism should be like. Then, I felt at ease. Before our conversation, I had thought that certain conditions must be ready for me to start something, but then I realized that actually I didn’t need anything to do so.
△ Most of the members of 10,000-Day Practice are lay people. Is it also related to Ven. Seoam Sunim’s teaching? A practice community consisting mostly of laypeople is rare, isn’t it?
It was not intended. Following what Ven. Seoam Sunim said, I was no longer bound by form or formality. I thought that anyone who agreed with the Buddhadharma and was putting it into practice would do. Those who agreed with my idea were mostly lay practitioners, so the 10,000-Day Practice naturally centered around them.
△ I heard that you began the first 1,000-Day Practice of the 10,000-Day Practice alone?
I was the only one who formally began the first 1,000-Day Practice. However, I didn’t do it alone. Others also participated in the practice, even though they didn’t join formally because they had family and work commitments. We decided to shape our future direction after watching what happened during the first three years. After the first 1,000-Day Practice, 300 people formally signed up and gradually the number increased. I am grateful for that.
△ I enjoy reading “Sunim’s Day,” an account of your daily activities featured on the Jungto Society website. You seem to work on the farm at Dubuk Jungto Retreat Center everyday. What is the secret behind your stamina?
A reporter once asked Ven. Seoam Sunim about the secret of his health. He replied: “I’ve never thought about health.” (Laughter) My health has been delicate since I was a child. I’ve been ill often. When you see it from outside, I seem to work a lot. People are worried that I sleep only 2–3 hours a night. But I just don’t have a fixed sleeping time, and I sleep in the car while going places. I sleep in installments. Anyway, I am doing all these activities because I am well enough to do them. I take heart medicine and sometimes go to see a doctor, but I am not too concerned about my health. Farm work is my way of exercising.
△ You can’t talk about Jungto Society without talking about social engagement. What is the reason for engaging in various social movements such as ecological-awareness campaigns, the promotion of human rights, and efforts for world peace and reunification?
People often ask me: “Why do you, a Buddhist monk, engage in the environmental movement?” or “Why do you, a Buddhist monk, engage in the peace movement?” But as a human being, I need to breathe clean air and drink clean water. If war breaks out, I won’t be able to avoid bullets and bombs will injure me. For us to live, we need clean air, water, and food. And we should also be able to live peacefully, without tension or fear. That is why I engage in peace and environmental-protection movements. When people ask me such questions, I ask them in return: I don’t have any children, so I don’t have to worry about the future. But you have children. Why am I the only one engaging in these movements? Leaving a lot of money to your children is not the right legacy to leave behind. A safe and clean environment is the right legacy to leave behind. People agreed on this perspective and have been participating in these movements.
△ It is impressive that Jungto Society carries out social engagement activities and practice for oneself at the same time.
When you are freed from suffering, you naturally become interested in the world outside of you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could use your energy to benefit the world instead of torturing yourself? Helping another person appears to benefit him or her, but it actually helps yourself. When you understand this, you can carry out social engagement activities and practice for yourself at the same time.
△ Are there any committed volunteers who are particularly memorable for you?
There are many. One comes to mind right now. While participating in the 10,000-Day Practice, she was diagnosed with cancer. After the diagnosis, she visited me. I jokingly told her, “You have to keep your promise to complete the 10,000-Day Practice. Don’t say that you can’t. You are breaking your promise.” She replied, “I want to keep my promise, but I can’t help it because of my health.” She made a donation that covered the rest of the 10,000-Day Practice period before she died.
You might misunderstand me and think, “Sunim likes money too much.” I didn’t mean it that way. What I want to say is about resolution. It is about loyalty, in secular terms. Doing your best to fulfill a promise, such a sense of responsibility moves me. People who used to complain bitterly about their lives are now leading environmental and peace movements. This proves the Buddha’s saying: “Every sentient being has buddha-nature.”
△ I guess the 30-year-long journey of the 10,000-Day Practice hasn’t always been smooth sailing?
While transitioning from offline to online, we were in a state of confusion. Before the emergence of COVID-19, our aspiration was to establish a Dharma center in every neighborhood so that anybody could come to practice. As a result, we tried to open a Dharma center in each city, county, district, and then in smaller administrative units. Finally, we had about 200 Dharma centers. Then, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, we had to halt all face-to-face activities. All the existing programs, including the Dharma Meeting, Jungto Buddhism Course, and Jungto Sutra Course, went online. When a decision was made to close the Dharma centers, there was some resistance because Jungto members had worked so hard to open and operate them. I told them that we can’t cling to the dead bodies of our loved ones because we love them, and we have to stop the construction of a building if it will be of no use tomorrow. The members agreed with me and were able to accept the decision.
△ How are things going now?
I ask the members occasionally: “Should we have maintained the Dharma centers, or is the shift to online better?” And they say that the latter is better. But at first we weren’t sure what to do and just waited for the whole month of February 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started. We could hardly think about what to do. Computer skills and skills to conduct online meetings were needed. Education and membership systems also needed to be changed. We had about 130 hearings on this. In the end, everyone agreed to a new perspective; turning one’s room or living space into a place where one meditates and practices is a Dharma center. The members agreed to this new perspective and overcame the difficult challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic posed. I think the process of making the transition to online itself was a big change in the history of Jungto Society.
△ I heard that Jungto Society has been steadily spreading the Dharma to overseas Koreans for the last 20 years?
I can’t speak a word of English. I left home to become a monk when I was a high school freshman. And I’ve never attended college or studied abroad. Naturally, I had no contact abroad. So how could I think of spreading the Dharma overseas when I was like that? (Laughter) There was an international conference under the theme of a dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity. One of the topics was about the collapse of human society. They couldn’t find anyone to speak on the topic, so eventually the task was assigned to me. I wrote the speech overnight and I traveled to the US to deliver it. However, the manuscript was submitted too late and my speech didn’t even make the presentation list. But I was able to meet Koreans living there and they asked me to give a Dharma talk. Those who listened to my Dharma talk introduced me to Koreans living in Europe, and so I went to Europe to give Dharma talks. And naturally we began to spread the Dharma to overseas Koreans. It happened naturally and it was not intended.
△ In 2014, you traveled overseas to hold Dharma Q&As. You toured all over the world, including the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, North America, and Central and South America, in 115 days. The responses of the people you encountered were very enthusiastic. What is your plan now for spreading the Dharma around the world?
I thought how wonderful it would be to share the magnificent Buddhadharma with people around the world. So I thought about relocating our base to the US. But by going online, there is no longer a need for that. When I give a Dharma talk in Korea, people in the US can listen and people in Germany can ask questions. The greatest beneficiaries of going online are Koreans living abroad. When we considered opening a Dharma center overseas in the past, we only considered areas with more than 10,000, 20,000, or 50,000 Koreans living there. We couldn’t reach people living in small cities. They had to spend hours traveling to listen to one hour of Dharma talk. It was very inconvenient for them. But the online transition has made it possible for anyone—whether they are in Europe or Africa—to listen to the Dharma talks. It is the same in Korea. Anybody who has access to the Internet can join our Dharma talks, even if they live in remote areas, such as Ulleungdo or Baengnyeongdo. The online transition has benefitted those living in remote areas. On the other hand, the elderly are having a harder time. They are the victims of our operations going online, so to speak.
△ Most of the world’s systems and operations are also shifting to an online format. In these circumstances, what should be the practice method for Buddhists?
Jungto Society is investigating a practice method that utilizes the strengths and supplements the weaknesses of online practice. In early Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha were transmitted through in-person interactions. But with the advent of sutras, remote learning became possible. People didn’t have to go to India to learn the Buddha’s teachings; they could learn them in China or Korea. It was an epoch-making change. However, as the Buddha’s teachings were delivered through letters, they began to be intellectualized. And schools focusing on the philosophical side of Buddhism emerged. To overcome the negative effects of this intellectualization of Buddhism, Zen (Korean: Seon, Chinese: Chan) Buddhism emerged. In practice, one needs personal realization through face-to-face interactions. There is an expression in Zen Buddhism: “mind-to-mind transmission.” Unlike written words, online communication allows two-way communication. A Dharma talk can be delivered to many people simultaneously, regardless of distance. However, when we consider the tradition of Zen Buddhism that uses mind-to-mind transmission of the Dharma, we need face-to-face contact to some extent. So we are investigating ways to supplement the weaknesses of online practice.
△ Could you give us some advice on the future direction of Buddhism in Korea, which is rife with conflict?
I think that Buddhism should adapt to the people, rather than trying to lead people to suit our needs. Buddhism should free itself from the confines of being a religion, and instead be a teaching for all people. Old Buddhist temples in Korea are located in beautiful environments and have a wonderful cultural heritage. I think there are about 100 of them throughout the nation. It is important to share these assets with the people. Temples should perform multiple functions, instead of just performing religious functions. Temples should be spaces to help people to relieve their stress and recharge. Now, more than half of the world’s population are non-religious, and the number of Buddhists is decreasing. Non-religious people outnumber religious people. Therefore, we shouldn’t limit our target only to Buddhists. In this respect, the education of monks should focus on the ability to guide practice rather than the ability to perform religious ceremonies, such as the ritual for the 49-day mourning period and the ritual for the spirits of the dead. Monks should be able to help people to practice to be free from suffering. Of course, you don’t need to renounce the world and become a monk to help people to free themselves from suffering. But it is important for Korean Buddhism to cultivate experts in practice.
△ I have also heard that Jungto Society is preparing new educational courses for people as it approaches the completion of the 10,000-Day Practice.
When I first began teaching Buddhism 30 years ago, the intended audience was Buddhist practitioners. I wanted to correct misconceptions about Buddhism and explain true Buddhism. Buddhists are usually inspired by my recorded lectures on Buddhism, but the people who attend Dharma Q&As these days don’t seem to be so. Their reactions are different. For non-Buddhists, the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives may seem strange. So I am going to give lectures using a different method.
△ Will the content be different as well?
Yes, it will be different. Previously, I approached it with questions such as, “What is a religion?” or “Who is the Buddha?” But this time, I will approach it with questions such as, “How are you doing now?” For example, if your answer to the question is “I am suffering,” the next question will be: “Why are you suffering?” I will proceed like this. I’ll start with suffering in our daily lives and then present the relevant teachings of the Buddha. Another example is that, instead of explaining what the Five Precepts are, I will explain them from the human and environmental ethics perspectives.
△ Will the format be a combination of Dharma Q&A and existing lectures? It sounds interesting.
I think studying Buddhism for a year will make one much wiser and more insightful than studying worldly things for four years. What would the Buddha be like if he were alive today? The Buddha who lived 2,600 years ago was not an omnipotent god or a special person. He chose his way to solve the deep-seated contradictions in India at that time. Therefore, today’s Buddhism should be Buddhism that helps people escape from suffering, rather than Buddhism as a religion or a philosophy. And those who have been freed from suffering shouldn’t just be content with that. They should then help others to free themselves from suffering.
△ Will the lectures be held online?
The lectures will be live-streamed, starting in late March this year. The content will be structured to be relevant to everybody in the world. And when the lectures are translated into English, they will be used for the second 10,000-Day Practice, during which we aim to spread the Dharma to people around the world.
△ The world is chaotic because of the rapid changes taking place, including the Fourth Industrial Revolution, metaverse, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and so on. What is the significance of practice in this day and age?
The world has always been changing rapidly. The confusion people felt when Western culture was first introduced to Korea in the late Joseon period, or when Korea went through rapid industrialization, was probably greater than the confusion we feel today. People say that the world is chaotic, but actually it is not. You feel like that because you can no longer understand the world with your framework of perception. The key here is the framework of perception. When the world changes, your framework of perception should change as well. The great teachings of the Buddha allow us to change our framework of perception to be appropriate for the present era. If you understand the Dharma correctly, you can let go of your fixed notions. You can understand the changing world as it is. Therefore, you will be able to cope with the future of society quickly.
△ Many important national events are scheduled for this year. People worry a lot about the upcoming presidential election, for example.
If we look back on history, people have always felt that there would be big problems whenever there was a national election. For example, when the conservative party takes power, people fear that democratic achievements will be lost. And when the progressive party takes power, people fear that they will hand South Korea over to North Korea. But such things won’t happen. The breadth of change is increasingly narrowing. Even if the ruling party wants to expand social welfare, they may not be able to do so because of budget constraints. And even if the ruling party wants to do away with social welfare completely, they won’t be able to do so because the social structure won’t allow it. So we don’t need to worry too much. We want candidates to be perfect, that’s why we feel that they are inadequate. Of course, we need to make a choice. Your choice should depend on your values. If you think being free from the threat of war is the most important, you should examine the candidates’ peace policies. If you think measures to counter the climate crisis are the most important, you should examine their environmental policies, such as policies on carbon neutrality. Each person’s priorities are different. We can’t say a certain thing is important across-the-board. We need to make an overall decision in consideration of our values. We need to think comprehensively about how our country can maintain peace and improve welfare in these times of social disharmony. Therefore, Buddhists—as wise people—should make a choice with equanimity rather than based on emotions.
△ Can you offer a word of advice for Buddhists in time for the Lunar New Year?
First of all, be grateful to be alive. This is a world worth living in, even though things don’t always work out the way we want them to. Your husband, your parents, and your children may not meet your expectations, but they are good people. I hope you can keep this perspective. See the world in a positive way, but with a critical viewpoint. Only then can there be improvements. Think positively of your life and of Korean society as a whole, but think critically so that you can see the contradictions instead of becoming complacent.
By Jeong Juyeon, Published by Beopbo press on Feb 2, 2022