The Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist monk and activist, addressed audience members’ personal conflicts and discussed North Korean politics at the Goodson Chapel Wednesday.
Pomnyun is renowned for the humanitarian efforts he began in North Korea following the 1995 flood and the resulting famine. Since then, Pomnyun has established relief campaigns for North Korean refugees—a role most would call unorthodox for a South Korean Buddhist monk.
Deviating from a conventional lecture format, Pomnyun initiated an audience-led question-and-answer session in which he addressed personal conflicts and the unification of North and South Korea, as well as gay rights issues. The question and answer format was inspired by Dharma talk, Pomnyun noted, a tradition of Buddhism in which Dharma teachers provide appropriate answers to any questions from Dharma talk attendees.
Pomnyun asked audience members to deeply reflect on both the questions they asked him as well as the motives behind those questions. Many people, Pomnyun noted, approached him for advice on issues about which they had already formed strong opinions.
“I am not here to merely re-assert your opinions,” he said.
When asked to give advice on how to solve relationship problems, Pomnyun answered by asking the audience to reframe their mentality by focusing on their own problems, as opposed to those of others.
“Only by refusing to involve yourself in others’ business can the problem be solved,” he said.
The monk also spoke about marital relationships and elaborated on his opinion towards gay marriage.
“You do not choose how you were born. Sexuality can not be chosen,” Pomnyun said. “On that basis, others do not have the right to discriminate someone for something they did not choose to be.”
On the topic of North Korea, Pomnyun asked audience members to think of those personally affected by the political climate.
“World leaders and the media focus only on North Korea’s leader, missiles and nuclear weapons,” Pomnyun said. “What about the North Korean civilians?”
Pomnyun is the president of both the Peace Foundation in Seoul-—an organization that supports policy research on Korean unification and humanitarian efforts in North Korea—and Good Friends for Peace, whose weekly publication provides detailed information about the conditions in North Korea.
Students and faculty members said they appreciated the more intimate format of the talk, noting Pomnyun’s ability to answer personal questions in such a way that resonated with all members of the audience.
“Even though [Pomnyum] himself is a Buddhist, he embodies people from all religions by answering questions from both a personal and rational basis,” senior Luke Oh said.
Given Pomnyun’s prominent status as a religious leader, Oh said he believes that Pomnyun is “very capable” of influencing the political situation in Korea.
Hwansoo Kim, assistant professor in the department of religion, noted that a monk’s involvement in the tumult of South Korean politics can be seen as a “precarious move.” He added, however, that the Buddhist monk has had a history of associating with many political figures, including the current South Korean president Park Geun-hye.
“Most importantly, his voice provides a sort of oasis [amidst] the fighting and tension. His voice reminds us to stand back and look for the bigger picture,” Kim said.