[Hankyoreh S] Lee Choong-Keol’s Interview With Ven, Pomnyun Sunim
March 5th, 2022
The day I met Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, right after COVID-19 cases in Korea exceeded 160,000 due to the omicron variant, and the day after the second mandatory presidential debate in which the candidates had a showdown as if in a Western. Feeling like an earthworm crawling on the surface of the perilous earth on that Saturday morning, I waited for him on the second floor of Seocho Jungto Dharma Center. As the sound of the mourning bell died down, life seemed to be nothing but waiting. Waiting for something real and important.
“If war breaks out, many young people, civilians, and children who didn’t make the decision to go to war rather than those who made the decision get killed, so any war for whatever reason is undesirable. However, compared with the past, we can’t say that there are more wars now than before. We haven’t achieved the peace we want. We want lasting peace, but we haven’t achieved it yet…”
This plight of humanity is one experienced by so many people around the world. Anyone who sees a Ukrainian girl crying in an air-raid shelter in Kiev would ask themselves whom this war is for. The old man Putin who pushed the war button doesn’t take arms himself. Peace will come in tiny pieces and need to be patched up moment by moment. On the day of the interview, it was possible to see that a direct and gentle way of speaking in a tone of voice flat like a lotus leaf was probably the essence of his communication.
“I look at the upcoming presidential election from this perspective…”
After founding Jungto Society, a community of Buddhist practitioners, in 1988, he penetrated deep into civil society with compelling power, breaking away from the mighty shackles of religion. Moreover, his dedication to issues such as the reunification of Korea, world peace, humanitarian aid in developing countries, and the environmental movement have made him a prominent figure of our time. And his sense of right and wrong inevitably exploded in the face of the upcoming presidential election.
“We need to see what the president’s job is. The job of the member of the National Assembly and that of the president are different. The first and foremost job of the president is to ensure national security. The president of Ukraine was popular, but ultimately, he failed to protect the country’s national security. We can’t say that the current war is entirely Russia’s fault. If your neighboring country is powerful, you need to maintain independence while making small concessions and engaging in diplomacy with your neighboring country to prevent military aggression; insisting on independence without using such tactics leads to disaster. Nevertheless, if your neighboring country attacks your country like Russia did, you need to counter the attack by cooperating with your allies and uniting the people, as well as relying on self-defense. Just as the people of Goguryeo, a Kingdom of Korea, united and defended their kingdom when it was attacked by the powerful Sui, China in the early 7th century. Therefore, we need to examine which candidate, in cooperation with his team, will be the best in handling diplomacy, national defense, and national unity to protect the nation…”
“We need to elect someone who will be good at handling diplomacy and national unity and establish a system for power dispersion,” he spoke up ahead of the presidential election
Despite the sensitive nature of politics, he proposed an effective method from his perspective.
“The current Election Act has the structure of winner-take-all. Thus, any candidate who wins more votes, even if by only one vote, becomes the winner, and the votes for losing candidates are denied representation. Therefore, the political system should be reformed to achieve national unity by amending the Election Act so that if a candidate wins 10% of the votes, those votes can be proportionally represented in government administration. The Constitution also needs to be amended. During the last 35 years since the direct presidential election began in 1987, several presidents were imprisoned after their presidency. If all those presidents were bad enough to deserve incarceration, it means people voted foolishly, doesn’t it? If not, there must be some systematic flaws. I think it is because too much power is concentrated in the hands of the president, and as a consequence they are accountable for everything. I think a system must be established to ensure the dispersion of power. After the election, the president-elect, instead of hating and retaliating against their rivals, should form a coalition government so that the votes cast for their rivals are proportionally represented in government administration as in the grand coalition of Germany. People might laugh at me for saying this, but if we think about what’s best for our nation, shouldn’t we move in this direction? I look at the upcoming presidential election from this perspective…”
In the past, we had elders with whom we could consult whenever our nation was in turmoil. Now, they are all gone, and all of us are like orphans hiding behind a pillar. He seemed nonchalant about the gazes of 10 million people who consider him a mentor of our times, but his sensibility as an insider, being well versed in the grammar and physiology of our time, is clear proof of his realism.
“Article 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea prescribes that it shall be a democratic republic. It also prescribes that its sovereignty shall reside in the people, not the king. And all state authority shall emanate from the people. We are electing a leader who will govern the nation on behalf of 50 million Korean people; he or she will be our employee, not our boss. It is a sort of employment. Voting is a right and a duty at the same time. It is all right for you not to exercise your right, but you must fulfill your duty. I mean voting is a duty even if you have to choose a candidate who you consider to be a lesser evil.”
10,000 Days of Practice for the Environment, Eradication of Poverty, and Peace
His words stuck fast like a stamp. Because what we want is a democratic choice rather than a selection of an elite and one of the democratic values is to resist cynicism, considering voting as going to the lavatory of democracy is to put a butcher’s knife in the hands of a strong, uncontrollable child.
In 1993, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim began 10,000-Day Practice, an hour of practice at five every morning including paying homage to the Buddha, meditation, and sutra reading for 10,000 days, under the banner of solving various social problems in South Korea. Almost 30 years have passed, and it is to be concluded on December 4th this year.
“Before embarking on the 10,000-Day Practice, we identified four major future challenges of our society. As for the planet earth, environmental problems; for humanity, eradication of extreme poverty; for the Korean peninsula, establishment of peace and laying the groundwork for reunification; and for individuals, practice and happiness. I think we identified them correctly. Environmental problems have worsened, absolute poverty has become a world-wide issue, the threat of war on the Korean peninsula heightened in 2017, and individuals are more at loss how to lead their lives. However, there is a growing realization that we need to solve environmental problems. Absolute poverty has been substantially reduced due to the efforts of the UN and respective countries. Peace on the Korean peninsula hasn’t been achieved yet, but the threat of war has been considerably reduced. Also, people’s perceptions have changed so that more people think they can become happy by cultivating their mind. I think that we are headed in the right direction, but our capabilities to resolve the challenges have been insufficient.This is my evaluation.”
10,000-Day Practice – 10,000 days of practice for environment, eradication of poverty, and peace from 1993 – to be concluded this year
As I was listening to his rich essay-like stories, I felt like a hungry child in a buffet restaurant. What is it like to radiate the vibration of energy outwardly? How could he maintain his physical mobility over such a long period of time?
The role of today’s heroes probably lies in their rebellion and contribution to many (if not all), unlike the heroes of the past who played the absolute, elite role. But some say that his actions are not consistent with the motto of Buddhism, which prioritizes inner practice above all else. He, who has examined social ills rather than remaining as a detached observer, smiled with a calm face of a person who is indifferent to the world.
“If Buddhism is only concerned about solving people’s inner problems, why did the Buddha say that caste and discrimination against women were wrong? To say so is to speak from the perspective in which Buddhism mooched off the ruling class, was used as a means of rationalizing the feudalistic order, and remained silent while getting crumbs from their table. To say that being born a disabled person or a woman is due to sins committed in past life is to rationalize discrimination against the disabled or women, isn’t it? Such reasoning is not Buddhism. One’s life is influenced by two factors: Controlling one’s mind and environmental influences. If someone criticizes us for social engagement and tells us to remain silent on politics, isn’t it the same as telling us to remain silent on dictatorship? Isn’t it the same as supporting dictatorship? Does it make sense to say that speaking up for people’s suffering is being political? Enjoying all the benefits without speaking up on social issues to avoid trouble is contradictory.”
The rule is clear. It is clear that my problems and social problems are two faces of existence that can’t be separated. Minimal language he uses to provide solutions to people’s problems in the Dharma Q&As, which began in 2002, has gained immediate popularity because it is electrifying, pithy, and real. Whenever I saw him playing the role of making people see their lives from a different perspective by bringing in objectivity to their personal problems, I was curious to know: Where did his language come from? What is this quick openness? Is it the fruit of long years of practice? Is it a secret time has taught him?
“I use everyday language. I don’t use any philosophical or religious terms, and I seldom use Buddhist terms. There is no special solution in my Dharma talk. I don’t say that if you pray, you will be cured of your illness. It has nothing to do with books or meditation, either. But I try to see things from all sides. I try to see what it would be like if I see both sides of a problem, or if I see it from a third person perspective. If we view a cup from the top, it looks round, if we view it from the side, it looks different, but if we view it from the top, bottom, and side, we can get the whole picture. Giving advice in this manner is called wisdom in traditional terms, but it is a common sense solution that anyone can reach if they approach a problem from a perspective that tries to find out why it happened without prejudices and preconceived answers…”
The perspective of examining the back side of things without discrimination seems rather fashionable. But who does he consult with his own problems and concerns? If he has no one else but himself to rely only on while following his convictions, how frustrated would he feel?
“It depends on the type of concern. If my mind is troubled, I will examine myself because I caused it. If I have trouble operating a machine, I will ask someone who knows how to use it. If I am hungry, I will ask someone who can cook for help. If I am concerned about the divided public opinion like now, I will ask social elders. It all depends on the type of concern and challenges I face.”
His words are devoid of doubt or uncertainty. That is how he is and what others probably want from him. So he will certainly be self-assured in the face of any problem.
The Reason for Waiting for Spring
“If you decide that humans shouldn’t falter, you will be disappointed whenever they falter. Recognizing that humans are naturally deficient, weak, and unsteady, we are steadily moving forward in the midst of it all. This is what I can tell you.”
We have often seen conventional religious leaders reigning over people as secular gods with their heads in the clouds, fallen thinkers insisting the false names and forms they constructed to be true, vague union of vague religious leaders and vague followers, and nauseating meditation on lost time. However, his narration armed with powerful reality gives us a densely woven philosophical experience and makes us witnesses of a page in history.
But how would he feel? Would he, who creates ripples at the center leaving traces behind without belonging to any sect, be also aware that he is getting old? He asked in return, “Don’t you see me getting old?” And he added with unperturbed joy,
“As long as I am alive, there will be things to do. At the same time, I don’t need to fret about not being able to do them. I can’t do them all, and I can’t do them by myself, either. I just accomplish my life’s tasks each day as much as I can. So I can say that I have no wish, and I can also say that I have countless wishes.”
Every word has flaws, so half of it would be right and half wrong. He doesn’t claim, “Only this is the truth” or irresponsibly say, “Only don’t know.” A prediction of this age that people will live forever by replacing one’s body repeatedly has thrown one more nameless fear at us.
“For every action, there is a reaction over time. There will be side effects of long life. Even though we have advanced civilization, we are facing a huge reaction called environmental deterioration. When plastic was invented, it was nice to have something that doesn’t decompose easily, but its slow decomposition has created new problems. Likewise, freon gas was considered a colorless, odorless, and harmless gas at first, but now we know that it destroys the ozone layer. “
“I tend to wait for spring because I have to plow the fields, sow seeds and plant trees.”
Confronted with the topics I had never asked myself before I met him, I felt like a totally lonesome and penniless man. However, this comprehensive thinker defined himself as just “a person.”
“Since I was a child, I’ve always imagined myself as a farmer; The image I have of myself at the end of my life is one who was born in a farm village, moved around a little bit and died as a farmer. This is how I think of myself.”
Ultimately, a cause for people he believes in is the land and its products. The air has already become less dense. The movement of stars has brought spring to Dubuk, Ulsan in the southern part of Korea where he put in great effort into growing rice and other crops.
“I tend to wait for spring because I have to prepare for farming. I have to plow the fields, sow seeds, plant trees, and prune branches. You can only do them during a certain time in the year. If you plant seeds or trees too early, they die.”
He is one who combines Seon(Zen) practices with farm work, seeking enlightenment while engaging in farming. And he tells us about freedom from indolence.
“One thing I always bear in mind is ‘I start fresh now.’ Everything I did up until yesterday was an exercise, and I start fresh now. And when this is over, I will consider it an exercise again. I live with such a mindset.”
Sometimes, one’s clothing signifies one’s life, living thoughts, and contact through skin. His gray robes and dark reddish kasaya looked like objects that accentuates the sturdy energy emanating from his body rather than opaque apparel that makes him look solemn.
“Our Koan is National Unity. Why Can’t We Achieve It?
In this life without end because there is no beginning, he is going to give lectures on the essential teachings of the Buddha 30 years after his first lectures. He said that in the lectures for the Jungto Buddhism Course, which he gave when he was very young, his explanations were long and he used many Buddhist terms. However, the new lectures will be delivered online using everyday language for easier understanding. “ We are planning to ‘spread the Dharma to 10,000 people.’ We aim to register 10,000 students since we will be concluding 10,000 days of practice this year.”
Again he begins to embrace the future which is defined by what one dreams.
“Our current koan(Hwadu in Korean, a statement used in Zen practice to provoke great doubt) is national unity. This nation is too big for one party or one person to lead. The president elect should utilize his rivals or their policies, so why can’t he? The Republic of Korea ranks high in national power. If it maintains a peaceful relationship and cooperates with North Korea, its national power will increase further, but if a war breaks out, its economy will be destroyed. How can we make contributions so that we are liberated from ‘Korea risk’ and don’t have to worry about nuclear weapons or missiles anymore? How can we create an alternative model to overcome the environmental crisis by promoting that nature is the foundation of our lives rather than a target to be conquered?”
Cause and effect had brought us together and it was time for us to part accordingly. Talking with someone who had filtered out greed and pleasure, I felt myself to be unqualified to discuss the most important things in life, whatever they may be. When I stepped out, I felt like I was thrown into a formless and time-irrelevant world in which the past and future are closed. Did the moments we had together evaporate and melt into the unreal and evanescent? Only the fact that the morning mist resembled the color of his kasaya gave me an odd sense of relief.
Writer: Lee Choong-Keol Former editor-in-chief of GQ Korea. He has published a novel titled Totally Imperfect, a collection of interviews titled Playing with the Sun Behind Me, a collection of editor’s letters for 18 years titled Our Specialness That Nobody Appreciates, and an essay about his mother titled How Can Mom Be So.