Introduction of the Ven. Pomnyun Sunim

A Boy Whose Dream Was to Be a Scientist

In the winter of 1969, a 10th grade student who was studying for his semester finals at the Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju ran into the chief monk, Ven. Domun Sunim. Ven. Domun Sunim had taken note of the student’s exceptional intelligence and suggested several times that he become a monk. However, the bright student had been hesitant about it because had a dream of becoming a scientist. Ven. Domun sunim called out to the student. The student told him that he was busy, and Ven. Domun Sunim asked him,

“Where did you come from?”
“I came from school.”
“Where did you come from before that?”

“I came from home.”
Ven. Domun Sunim continued to ask questions until he asked,
“Where were you before you were inside your mother's womb?”
“I don’t know.”
“I see. Where are you going?”
“I am going to the library.”
“Where will you go after that?”
“I will go home.”
“Where will you go after you get home?”
Ven. Domun Sunim continued to ask questions until the student answered,
“I will die.”
“Where will you go after that?”
“I don’t know.”
That is when Ven. Domun Sunim roared,
“You stupid boy! How come someone who doesn’t even know where he came from and where his is going is so busy?”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim reminisced about that time of his life. “I was first introduced to Buddhism in 9th grade when I joined the Buddhist Students Association. Then, I first became a monk in 10th grade. Until then, my dream was to become a scientist. Bunhwangsa Temple was right next to Gyeongju High School, my alma mater. I met Ven. Domun Sunim when I became the vice president of the Buddhist Students Association. I learned a new kind of Buddhism from him.

Ven. Domun Sunim was a disciple of Ven. Baek Yongsung Sunim. Included among the 33 leaders of the Korean independence movement against Japan in 1919 was Ven. Yongsung Sunim, representing Korean Buddhism. As soon as the Josun Dynasty lifted its ban on Buddhist monks entering Seoul, he founded a dharma center named “Daegak Temple” in Jongro, in the central part of Seoul. He was the first person to translate sutras written in Chinese into Korean. He was a true pioneer, and Ven. Domun Sunim was one of his disciples once removed.

Not surprisingly, Ven. Domun Sunim had strong nationalistic tendencies. The Buddhist view of the world and the universe that he taught was in accord with the scientific views that I pursued. I became infatuated with Buddhism under his guidance. After my exchange with Ven. Domnu Sunim in 10th grade, I went to live at Bunhwangsa Temple.”

Two years after he entered the temple, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim became interested in putting the Buddhist spirit into practice in society. Having grown up in the countryside, he had a strong affection for farming communities that were disintegrating in the industrialization age. He was educated at the Christian Academy in his early twenties. He focused on teaching Buddhism to adolescents, and in 1983, he became the dharma teacher of the Buddhist Association of College Students, becoming more actively involved in the nation’s democratic movement.

Become a Pine Tree in Front of a Stupa

In 1979, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was arrested and taken to the Anti-communist Division of the Police Department, where he was beaten and tortured with water for several days on charges of funding the farmers union and other social movement groups. He was also arrested in 1983 for violating the Law on Assembly and Demonstration. Although he participated actively in the Buddhist reform movement and the democratic movement, he became greatly disappointed in the Korean Buddhist community and skeptical about his own Buddhist activities around the time of the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising. He reconsidered his old dream of becoming a scientist while staying at a Temple of the Jogye Order in New York for about six months in 1981. During that time, he met an old monk to whom he vented all his complaints and criticism about various problems with Korean Buddhism and asked him whether there was a way to fundamentally reform it. The old monk who had just listened for over two hours finally answered calmly.

“Young man, when a person sits down to meditate next to a rice paddy and makes his mind pure, that person is a monk and that place is a temple. That is Buddhism.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was extremely shocked at these words. Years later, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim told Yunho Oh, a reporter, during an interview “They were only a few words, but I was shaken to the core. I had thought that those with shaved heads and in dharma robes were monks that the tile-roofed houses in the mountains were temples, and that such institutions were Buddhism. However, the monk I met in New York said that a person with a pure heart is a monk regardless of how he looks and that the place where such a person stays is a temple although it may be a rice paddy. It really made me reflect. I thought to myself, ‘What a fool I was to consider something that wasn’t even Buddhism as Buddhism and trying to reform it. I will stop criticizing something that is not really Buddhism and start practicing Buddhism according to the teachings of the Buddha, starting with myself.’ That is one of the reasons I established Jungto Society in 1988.” The old monk who enlightened Ven. Pomnyun Sunim is Ven. Seo Am Sunim. He was the eighth patriarch of the Jogye Order of Buddhism and the greatest Zen Master of Korea.

His teacher Domun Sunim also gave a similar teaching to Pomnyun Sunim who became disappointed in Korean Buddhism and denounced it. He said, “Become a pine tree in front of a stupa.” Pomnyun Sunim explained, “When the pine tree is young, it complains because the stupa shades it from the sun. However, when the tree grows tall, it shades the stupa. In modern language, it means that rather than criticizing the old model, we should create a new model that others can follow. Then, the problem of the old model automatically disappears. That is the reason I founded Jungto Society. Rather than attacking the existing Buddhist order, we need to build a new model that the existing Buddhism can follow.”

The Creation of Jungto Society, a Community of Practitioners who Cultivate Pure Land where Individuals are Happy, Society is Peaceful, and Nature is Beautiful

Based on the valuable lessons imparted by his teachers, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim sought to find a new direction for his practice, so in 1989, he went to Bongamsa Temple in Mungyeong to work as a menial. Ven. Seo-Am Sunim was an elder of Bongamsa Temple at that time. Under his tacit approval, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim practiced in silence doing various tasks of a menial, including chopping firewood, cleaning the toilets, and cutting weed. After a period of quiet reflection, far away from pending issues, he went back to his colleagues and had a profound discussion with them on the most pressing issues of the time. They narrowed down to four issues.

“First, from the dimension of the Earth, I thought that the environmental problem was the most serious. Second, for humanity, starvation, disease, illiteracy were the biggest issues. The third was peace that will resolve the conflict created due to differences in skin color, nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, and class. The last task was to cultivate ourselves in order to heal the mind tormented with insecurity, anxiety, rage, and hatred. I concluded in the end that the only thing that could give hope to the disoriented people in modern times due to the loss of humanity is practice. Practice should not be limited to the exclusive realm of monks or religious people but should be disseminated among ordinary people as a general resource of human civilization. So I began the practice movement of practice through Jungto Society from 1988."

Jungto Society was established with the aim of creating “Jungto,” a pure land where individuals are happy, society is peaceful, and nature is beautiful. Jungto Society is largely composed of two types of sub-organizations. The first one is the popular organization that focuses on spreading the Buddha Dharma to the people. The second one is the social organizations which include Ecobuddha for the environmental movement, Join Together Society for the relief activities and welfare movement, Good Friends for the human rights movement, and the Peace Foundation, the Righteous People for Korean Unification, Ad Hoc Committee on Unification for the peace and unification movements.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim's movements are powered by the efforts of the participating individuals to Change their lives first. The participants’ persistent effort to cultivate and purify themselves differentiates Jungto Society from other NGO organizations. Jungto practitioners seek refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha under the guidance of Pomnyun Sunim. Participating in the Ten-Thousand-Day Practice with the aim of changing themselves and the society they live in for the better by living the life of a Mahayana bodhisattva through practice, donation, and volunteer work.

Becomes Ven. Jigwangdang Pomnyun Sunim After Being Ordained a Bhikkhu in 1991 by the Ven.Domun Sunim

In 1991, Ven. Domun Sunim told Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, “Since you have been active outside the Buddhist community for twenty years, it’s time to come inside.” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim retorted defiantly, “How can there be an outside and an inside in the path to Truth.” Ven. Domun Sunim shouted back, “There is an inside because you insist on the outside!” Years later, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim recalled “Ven. Domun Sunim knew precisely that I was fixated on the outside.” That day, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was ordained a bhikkhu (an ordained male monk), Dharma preacher, and Dharma teacher. Pomnyun also received Ven. Domun Sunim's alms bowl, walking stick, and robe. He received the Buddhist name “Jigwang (light of wisdom).” He became the disciple of the 70th generation protector and disseminator of the Buddha Dharma, Ven. Bulshim Domun Sunim, who is the disciple of the 69th Ven. Donghun Wangyu Sunim who in turn is the disciple of the 68th Ven. Yongsung Jinjong Sunim.

At the 1st Righteous People for Korean Unification Rally in 2015, Ven. Domun Sunim said, “Past Buddhist patriarchs became the roots that enabled a tree to grow, Ven. Yongsung Sunim made the seed sprout, I helped the trunk grow, and the tree trunk is Pomnyun Sunim. Branches will come out of the trunk. Who are you? (The audience replied “We are branches.”) From the branches will come out the stalks. They are the awakened people of Korea. Branches grow out of the trunk, stalks grow out of the branches, and from the stalks grow the leaves, flowers, and fruit. When Pomnyun Sunim first became a monk, I told him, 'The founder of Donghak, Jewoo Choi had a 100-year vision. You should look 1000 years ahead.' This is what connects Pomnyun Sunim and me.” He encouraged the members of the Righteous People for Korean Unification to continue their efforts with indomitable will in reforming Buddhism and reunifying the two Koreas under the guidance of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim.

The Establishment and Activities of JTS India

“The Hungry Must Eat”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim went on a pilgrimage to India in 1991 after he was ordained a bhikkhu. He met a beggar woman with a baby in her arms who motioned him to follow her to a food store. She asked him to buy her some baby formula for her baby. However, he refused because his travel guide in India had advised him not to give away more than one rupee, and the price of dried milk was 60 rupees. When he got back to the hotel and calculated 60 rupees in Korean won and found that it was just 2,400 won, which is a little over $2. At that moment, Pomnyun Sunim felt ashamed because he realized that he had coldly refused to help a woman who had asked for formula for her hungry baby as if she had asked him for his entire fortune. He said, "I had been raising my voice for liberation of people from suffering, but when I encountered an opportunity to help a desperate person, I turned away. After deep repentance, I began to help the destitute children in India.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim asked the children who were begging in the streets of India why they weren’t in school. He was extremely shocked when they answered that there was no school. In 1994, Pomnyun Sunim built the first school in a village of “Untouchables.” He did not build the school in the way that most relief organizations do. He gathered the people of the village and made them realize the necessity of a school. After he obtained a promise from the villagers that they will volunteer their labor and donate land to build a school, he financed the construction and operation of the school. He aimed to build a school that belonged to them rather than to JTS.

“The elementary students brought their younger siblings to school, which made the classroom too noisy for instruction, so we opened kindergarten classes. We also built an infirmary for the sick children. Soon, there were so many village people coming to the infirmary asking for medicine that we asked a doctor to work as a volunteer at the infirmary. However, when the number of patients who visited the infirmary daily increased to more than one hundred, we had no choice but to build a hospital. That’s how our operation in India grew.

After the doctor evaluated that the students fainted often from anemia due to malnutrition, we gave out a banana and an egg to each student for lunch. The school lunch attracted those students who had not been previously interested in coming to school, so the number of students doubled. The school had

been built for 150 students, but the number of students grew to three hundred. We had to turn away some students who came from neighboring villages.

When the students graduated from elementary school, some of them requested that we establish a middle school. After starting a middle school program, we build a kindergarten in every neighborhood and appointed the middle school students as Kindergarten teachers. We purchased bicycles for the middle school students so that they could teach at the kindergarten in the mornings and attend middle school in the afternoon. Currently, there are fourteen kindergartens, an elementary school, a branch elementary school, and a middle school we operate in Dungeshwari, India. We have over 900 kindergarteners, over 500 elementary school students, and over 120 middle school students.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also built a school in the conflict region of Mindanao, the Philippines. When teachers could not be dispatched to schools of native people living in the mountain areas occupied by dangerous rebel forces, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim met the leader of the rebel forces to secure the safety of the volunteer workers at the school. Later, JTS built over 50 schools which includes 39 elementary schools, high schools, and special schools for the disabled. It also constructed a public health center, student dormitories, and teacher’s quarters. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also built a traditional school and an auditorium to help the natives of Mindanao preserve and protect their traditional culture.

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Ecobuddha takes the Front Line in the Environmental Movement with the Empty Bowl Campaign

About 50 members of Jungto Society constitute a community and reside at the Jungto Hall in Seocho-dong, Seoul. Hundreds of other Jungto Society members visit the place for various activities. However, hardly any garbage comes out of the building. This is very strange since a place where hundreds of people come and go everyday usually yields several bags of garbage. How can it be possible? In the dining area of the Jungto Hall, all the people who have meals there get only the amount of food they can eat and empty their plates. After that, they clean their plates with drinking water and a piece of clean kimchi, and then, they drink the water and eat the piece of kimchi. As a result, there is less food waste, and the dishes can be washed in an environmentally friendly manner. In the restroom, the members of Jungto Society wash themselves with water instead of toilet paper just like the people in India, and wipe the remaining water with a piece of cloth they carry in a waterproof bag.

Such environmentally friendly actions are not limited to the Jungto Hall of Seocho-dong. All the members of Jungto Society of about 170 dharma centers in South Korea, about 40 dharma centers overseas, and about 50 dharma group meetings have vowed to change the world into a clean, clear, and bright land and carry out these environmental actions both at home and at the dharma centers.

They turn any little food waste that is produced in the house into compost by feeding it to earthworms that they keep in flowerpots in and around the house. Also, instead of using dish soap, they wash the dishes with rice starch water or the cleaning liquid made out of EM enzyme. They have taken the vow to make both themselves and other people become free of suffering and lead a happy life. They wake up at 5 am every morning, pray for one hour, and donate one dollar every day. They begin each day keeping in mind the 120 million people in the world who are suffering from famine, disease, and illiteracy. The empty plate campaign of Ecobuddha, which began in 2004 with the aim of eliminating food waste, garnered a huge response and had over 1.5 million participants within two years, gaining the status of an exemplary environment movement.

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Good Friends, Devoted to the Movement to Help North Koreans Refugees

In 1995, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim visited the Three Northeast Provinces in China. A local told him, “People are starving to death in North Korea. If we don’t do anything about the malnutrition of the North Korean children, the South and North Koreans may become different races.” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim did not initially believe him. The local took him to the Amnok River where he saw an emaciated child in very shabby clothes, looking exactly like the beggar children in India. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim called out to the child, but the child kept his head down and did not move. The local told him, “North Korean children do not even have the right to beg.”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim thought to himself, “We have a lot of food and money to buy food, so why can’t we give some to that child? Why is a border or a nation making people suffer?” He recalls that it was the first time the reality of a divided country struck him to his heart. Prior to that time, he had only thought vaguely that the two Koreas should be unified.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim said, “About three million people in North Korea died from starvation during the three years after the big flood in 1995. The international community did not believe

it, but the people in North Korea died in huge numbers like falling leaves in the autumn.” He tried to inform the people of South Korea about the serious situation in North Korea and asked for help, but the response was cold. Conservatives criticized him for helping the enemy. Liberals complained that Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was attempting to emphasize only the dark side of North Korea with bad motives. However, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim was steadfast in helping the most destitute in North Korea.

In order to help the starving people in North Korea, he travelled throughout South Korea and to various countries around the world, giving lectures and interviews to spread the word about the North Korean food shortage and refugee situation. In 1996, he founded the Korean Buddhists Sharing Movement(KBSM), the precursor to Good Friends, and dispatched activists to the Three Northeast Provinces in China to search for and help the refugees who had fled from North Korea due to hunger and were hiding in the mountains.

The North Korean refugees were thrilled to receive the bag of food and clothes from the Good Friends activists. They called it “life pack.” Later, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and Good Friends initiated the One Million-Signature Campaign to gain public support for humanitarian aid to North Korea. They also reported to the international community about the abysmal human rights situation of the North Korean refugees and appealed for humanitarian aid for them and improvement of their human rights. For three years from 2000, they hosted a weekly event, “Discussion on Reunification,” in South Korea to increase people’s awareness about the need for reunification.

The Jungto Society, led by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, carried out the “Nonstop 1000-day prayer wishing for reconciliation and peaceful reunification of the two Koreas” from March 1, 2000 until November 26, 2002.

Receiving international recognition for this effort, in 2002, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim received the Ramom Magsaysay Award, also known as the Nobel Peace Prize of Asia. Maybe the devoted prayers of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim and the Jungto Society members touched the heavens. South and North Korean leaders met for the first time in June, 2000 and announced the Joint Declaration of June 15, which was a groundbreaking start for the improvement of the relations between the two Koreas.

Good Friends USA

Center for Peace, Human Rights, and Refugees was founded in 2004 in Washington D.C. It aims to promote human rights situations of North Korean people and humanitarian aid to North Korea. It has provided information from inside of North Korea and insights of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim to the international community. Its weekly newsletter North Korea Today has delivered living conditions of North Korean people, including food prices and currency exchange rates.
It has also hosted Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s talks on North Korea and the Korean Peninsula every year at various venues including the U.S. Congress, think tanks, NGOs, and universities. A member organization of Korea Peace Network, Good Friends USA also participates in peace movement with other U.S.-based peace activists.

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“The Peace Foundation, Contributing to World Peace by Working for the Unification of the Two Koreas”

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim realized that the problem of starvation in North Korea could not easily be solved despite continuous aid efforts. Perceiving that the lives of the North Korean people could not be improved without the relaxation of military tension on the Korean peninsula, he established the Peace Foundation in 2004 in order to pursue specific and concrete efforts for a peaceful reunification. Through the Peace Foundation, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim focused on establishing peace on the Korean peninsula and improving US-North Korea relations. For instance, he contributed anonymously to the drawing of the September 19 Agreement in 2005, at a time when the North Korea nuclear tensions were at their peak.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also realized that however many good policies are drawn up on North Korean nuclear and security issues and reunification based on peace research, they were useless without a group of people to execute the policies. He set up the Peace Education Center and Peace Leadership Academy to foster social leaders. He further perceived that it was important for ordinary citizens to participate in politics. To encourage people’s political participation, he started out by helping people to resolve various personal problems they were facing in their lives through his talks.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim said, “There is a Korean saying that goes, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of the heavens.’ I am holding talks all over the country with the hope that visiting every corner of the country, meeting people to listen to their problems, and helping them is the way to move the heavens. His Q&A Dharma talks, which he started in order to move public sentiment, have now become widely known and loved by people of all age groups, from children to the elderly.

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Q&A Dharma talks are not consultations. Rather, they are completely based on the way the Buddha spread his teachings. In his talks, the Buddha also held conversations with the questioners and helped them to realize their contradictions or ignorance so that they could alleviate their own suffering. He stated, “In my Q&A Dharma talks, I am not giving out answers. Life has no answers. One must make a choice and take responsibility for it. In Q&A Dharma talks, people find their own way in life while holding conversations with me.” Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has been travelling tirelessly all over Korea and the world to explain the teachings of the Buddha in a very realistic and easy manner so that people can realize their own contradictions and become happy.

The Peace Foundation

The Peace Foundation opened its U.S. office in Washington D.C. in 2007. In 2007 and 2008, it hosted U.S.-Korea Expert Workshop, where a group of Korean senior scholars and former government officials visited New York and Washington D.C. to have discussions with U.S. experts on the Korean peninsula. With Good Friends USA, it has hosted Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s talks on bringing peace in East Asia and the Korean Peninsula, improving U.S.-North Korea relations, resolving North Korean nuclear issues, and reunifying the two Koreas.

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The Righteous People for Korean Unification

When individuals assume responsibility for their own happiness, they are also able to take more interest in society, and such involvement becomes the driving force of social change. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim formed the “the Righteous People for Korean Unification” by gathering volunteers willing to devote themselves to the Korean reunification efforts.
By doing so, he is following in the historical footsteps of the righteous volunteer soldiers who fought for their country in times of great peril. The members of the “Righteous for Korean Unification” are cultivating the ability to read the signs of the times and are operating “Happiness School with the Ven. Pomnyun Sunim” and “Citizen School for the Righteous People for Korean Unification” in various locations in South Korea with the goal of realizing a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas.

At a time when there was absolutely no interaction between South and North Korea and the danger of a war between North Korea and the U.S. was at its peak, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim hosted the 2017 Korean Peninsula Peace Rally on December 23, 2017. It was attended by more than 10,000 people. During this event, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim emphasized that South Korea should send a presidential envoy to North Korea, make the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics into the Peace Olympics, and contribute to making the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Olympics into festivals of peace in order to create a historical opportunity for peace in Northeast Asia. Aided in part by such efforts, North Korea participated in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and things are moving fast in the direction of peace talks since the North-South Korea summit meeting has already been held and a US-North Korea summit meeting is scheduled to be held in a few weeks. On March 15, a petition for a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula was created in “We the People” page of the White House website and received more than 100,000 signatures.

According to “We the people,” petitions on the page that receives more than 100,000 signatures within 30 days will be reviewed by the White House, which will then send an official response to the petitioner within the next 60 days. As of now more than 112,000 signatures were given to the petition of the peace treaty on the Korean peninsula. The Peace Foundation and Ven. Pomnyun Sunim will continue to do their best to bring peace and unification on the Korean peninsula and contribute to world peace.