|Ven. Pomnyun speaks during "A Casual Conversation with a Zen Master," his first Dharma talk session with foreign residents of Korea, at the Memorial Hall of Korean Buddhist History and Culture in Jogye Temple in Jongno-gu, downtown Seoul, last Friday. / Courtesy of Jungto Society|
Ven. Pomnyun holds Dharma talk with expats
By Park Jin-hai
Ven. Pomnyun, well-known for his sharp and insightful impromptu Dharma dialogues with people of all walks of life in simple layman's terms, held a rare casual conversation with foreign residents of Korea last Friday.
"There are over 2 million foreigners living in Korea, which is about 4 percent of the total population. By 2020, more than 3 million foreigners are expected to call Korea home. The expat community is a permanent part of Korean society contributing every day to its diversity and richness," the 65-year-old revered Zen master said during a press conference held prior to his special talk with foreign residents, last Friday.
"But their voices are often not heard in public policy debates that impact their lives. I believe that it is time we should pay attention to what worries and doubts those expats have while living in the country," he said explaining the reason for his first English dialogue session with the foreign community in Korea.
For the talk, the Memorial Hall of Korean Buddhist History and Culture, the venue of the talk within Jogye Temple in Jongno-gu, downtown Seoul, was fully booked with over 200 attendees from around the world.
Since the 1970s, led by Korean Buddhist Zen master Seung Sahn, the Jogye Order has focused on spreading Korean Buddhism overseas with emphasis on North America and Europe. The first teacher of Korean Zen in the United States, he had many foreign students and established nearly 40 Zen centers and meditation groups around the world. One of his best-known students is Hyon Gak, a graduate of Yale and Harvard who joined the Buddhist priesthood after hearing Seung Sahn's sermon as a graduate student in 1990.
With the increasing foreign population of Korea, the Jogye Order began to look inward, giving more attention to spreading the religion to foreigners living here as well.
Pomnyun, who entered Buddhist Sangha as a novice in 1969 and was ordained a bihikku in 1991, has done countless such dialogues and is famed for his unique way of engaging with people.
He says his initially one-on-one dialogue to guide one's spiritual practice has been expanded to engage more people, after he read news of suicides at Korea's top-notch university Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in 2011. "I felt a grim responsibility as an older generation. If those students only had just one person around them to tell their troubles, they might have made different choices than ending their own lives. The thought made me tour university campuses to meet students," he said.
|Attendees of "A Casual Conversation with a Zen master" listen to Ven. Pomnyun's words at the Memorial Hall of Korea Buddhist History and Culture in Jogye Temple in Jongno-gu, downtown Seoul, Friday. / Courtesy of Jungto Society|
He gave about 300 such talks that year. "Excluding school vacation periods, I had two talk sessions each day, five days a week that year," he said.
More than 600,000 attended his "Hope" lecture tour from 2011 until 2014 across 436 locations within the country. In 2014, he visited 106 cities around the world in 114 days and delivered 115 talks to more than 20,000 people there including Koreans living overseas. This year more talks with expats are scheduled than with Korean audiences.
Instead of giving lectures about Buddhist principles at temples, Pomnyun now visits public places only. "When I give dharma talks in public places, anyone can attend regardless of his or her religion. Also, when people share their problems with me, we can have a dialogue in lay terms and come up with a solution together. That is why I give my dharma talks in public places and not just in temples," he said.
During the early days of his talks, audiences hesitated to be straight about what troubled them out of privacy concerns, but he says it has changed over the years. "Now people are more likely to come forward and share their private stories like a spouse cheating in public and it's become settled as a kind of new culture. Yet while touring foreign countries, I find audiences more concerned about their privacy and in many cases they don't usually associate a monk with someone they can actually ask anything and seek consultation on any issues," he said.
Pomnyun was voted the most influential Buddhist monk in Korea last year, according to Sisa Journal. His talk session videos accumulated over 100 million views on YouTube. Recently, he even appeared on the popular TV show "Master in the House."
Currently, Korean Buddhism, which boasts 1,700 years of history, faces multiple challenges. Apart from a falling number of followers, losing 3 million followers over 10 years between 2005 and 2015 and being overtaken by Protestants for the first time in 2015, the religion has been hit hard again by recent corruption scandals involving top monks of the Jogye Order.
Audiences asked how they can understand Korean Buddhism and how it can help deal with issues of today like North Korean defectors as well as secular questions of love relationships and education for kids.
Zen Buddhism is not about finding the right ways to make your mind find peace, he claims. "That itself is a desire. You say you want peacefulness, you have to reach back to yourself and ask yourself why am I anxious? Find the root cause and explore that within yourself. On your way to discovery, then you reach a state in which you realize there is nothing really to be anxious about," he said. "In other words, you reach a state of emptiness. You're already at peace."
He said he finds contradictions in romantic relationships. "You don't want be together, because you feel bothered. But if you don't have that person near you then you feel lonely and look for another person. The first time is great, but as time goes you feel just as bothered. This is our cycle of suffering," he said. "Life is full of contradictions and there is no answer: it's a matter of investigating contradictions. As you delve deeper, at one point you feel there is no contradiction. To reach that state, you no longer feel attachment to another person or feel the need to always be with that person, nor do you feel this desire to get away from the person. You're good being together and you're just as good being alone. We engage in spiritual practice because we want that state of mind. Don't you want to try it? Everybody can achieve that state and it has as nothing to do with religion."
Pomnyun is also a fervent social activist. Under the belief that everyone becomes happy through practice and creates a happy society through active participation in social movements, he has engaged in many humanitarian and human rights efforts at home and abroad.
|Zen master Pomnyun shakes hands with an attendee after his first Dharma talk session with expats finished at the Memorial Hall of Korean Buddhist History and Culture in downtown, Seoul, Friday. / Courtesy of Jungto Society|
He says his various humanitarian efforts is part of his spiritual practice. "We should not insist on certain formalities associated with practice. A practitioner should make themselves happy and free. At the same time, they should also help others attain happiness and freedom. Then it is good for both me and you. And it is good for both now and the future. This is the teaching of the Buddha," said Pomnyun.
During North Korea's famine crisis of the mid- to late 1990s, 3 million North Koreans are presumed to have starved to death. Many North Koreans crossed the Yalu and Tumen rivers to look for food in China.
Over the past 10 years or so, Pomnyun and members of his Jungto Society, a humanitarian group he leads, have supported those North Korean refugees through clothing, medicine and foods and provided temporary protection and facilitated them to come to South Korea. But since China's crackdown on such aid efforts, which led to many members being arrested and imprisoned, his agency focuses on North Korean defectors settled in South Korea.
For those North Korean defectors who feel ostracized from South Korean society, Pomnyun and his aid workers guide them on how to acclimate themselves to this culture and provide companionship.
In recognition of his humanitarian works, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding in 2002.
"It was a real gift to be able to receive his teachings and I felt he gave all of foreign community an opportunity we don't usually get to experience the kind of depth of Korean culture and thinking," said Seth Taylor, an English teacher who has been in Korea for 10 years, who attended the talk. "Sometimes Korean culture seems a little superficial, because we don't get the experience. We don't have the open door to come in and experience this level of teaching and understanding."