Why I Fast: An Interview with Korean Monk Pomnyun

Half of the population of North Korea doesn’t have enough to eat, according to 55-year-old South Korean Buddhist monk Pomnyun, who has been fasting since May 26, 2008.

Why I Fast: An Interview with Korean Monk Pomnyun

New America Media, Q&A, Jeong Taesoo, Posted: Jul 29, 2008

Editor’s Note: Half of the population of North Korea doesn’t have enough to eat, according to 55-year-old South Korean Buddhist monk Pomnyun, who has been fasting since May 26. Pomnyun, the 2002 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed the Asian Nobel Prize, was interviewed by Korea Times-San Francisco editor Jeong Taesoo.

Famine is estimated to have killed 2 million people in North Korea since the 1990s – nearly as many as the 2.5 million people reported killed during the Korean War.

Link to Original

Vo.1 "The Essence of the Practice"

Questioner: I have studied the Buddha’s teachings for 5-6 years, but I still find it difficult to exercise control over my mind. Recently, I retired from a company that I was with for 20 years and opened a restaurant. Among the Buddha’s teachings, Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani (Dharani - Great and Magical Spell) is one of my favorites, so I chant it while I am working at the restaurant.

However, I’m interrupted when I have to greet customers. I feel I ought to chant the Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani without any interruptions, but I fail to do so when a customer comes into the restaurant. I reproach myself for losing concentration so easily. I would like to remember to chant Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani continuously no matter how busy I am. How can I do so?

Ven. Pomnyun: There are two ways. First, I would like to emphasize that the essence of the practice is to be awake here and now. In your case, when a customer comes into your restaurant, you should concentrate on greeting the customer cheerfully. If you are unaware of the customer coming into your restaurant, it means you are not awake.

In your current situation, to be “awake” means warmly greeting the customers who come to your restaurant, carefully preparing the food, and promptly serving that food to the customers. You need to be awake to each and every action you perform. That is practice. Chanting Gwanseumbosal (AvalokiteĊ›vara), Jijangbosal (Ksitigarbha), or Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani, by itself, is not practice.

When you drive, you should concentrate on your driving. Since you own a restaurant, giving your full attention to running a restaurant is practice and the way to succeed in your business. Your practice and business are not two different things. If you neglect to pay attention to the customers who come into your restaurant or greet them halfheartedly because, for instance, you are chanting Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani, it is neither good practice nor the right attitude towards your customers. If you are constantly torn between practicing and operating your business, you cannot do well in either of them.

That is why when you wake up early in the morning to pray, you should focus solely on chanting Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani. All kinds of thoughts occur while you chant. Simply be aware that any thoughts that arise are illusions, and you should let go of them. Do not dwell on thoughts such as, ‘Why do these illusions arise in my mind? Why can’t I concentrate on the Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani?’

Thoughts arise in the mind unconsciously, so you cannot control them at will. You shouldn’t let yourself be bothered by them. Simply concentrate on Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani, whether illusions arise in your mind or not. When you go to work after the daily morning prayer, you should give your complete attention to running the restaurant. Greeting your customers warmly when they enter the restaurant and putting your heart and soul into the food preparation are all part of the practice.Second, we chant Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani or other sutras so that we won’t be hindered by external conditions.

If you are chanting, you should only say, “Gwanseumbosal” whether other people criticize or praise you and whether customers say the food tastes good or bad. Also, once you have begun chanting Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani, you need to keep on doing it, and prevent yourself from being hindered by external conditions. You should not be distracted by other things because nothing else is important while you are chanting Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani.You can choose between these two options. If you decide to concentrate on chanting Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani regardless of what people say, you should chant it all day long whether your business does well or not.

Then you simply need to accept the consequences, whether you earn a lot of money or not and whether the customers compliment or criticize you. This option is to practice this way without being hindered by external conditions. The other option is to be awake to the situation at hand. That is, you can focus completely on what you are doing at each and every moment, being fully aware of your mind and the external conditions. One option is not better than the other, as they are both good. Since you have your own business, it would be better for you to be awake to your current situation. I suggest you chant Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani early in the morning with deep concentration for an hour.

During the rest of the day, focus your attention on running your restaurant in the same manner as when chanting the Shinmyojanggu-Dae-Dharani. Thinking of your son, for example, or worrying about something else while working at your restaurant is comparable to being beset by illusions while chanting. Having a clear mind and concentrating in the present are no different from chanting.

Questioner: Thank you for your great answer.

Sunim: How do you know if my answer is any good? (laughs)

Questioner: The moment I met you and saw your gentle expression and demeanor, I decided that I would like to be just like you. Do you think it’s possible?

Sunim: (laughs) Since you are my guest...Yes, it is possible. (laughs)