The traditional goal of Buddhism is to reach a state of enlightenment, which can be achieved by a lifetime of meditation and quiet contemplation. But one Buddhist monk, the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, long ago decided that his contemplation had to be paired with activism. Since then, he has pursued a very different, more worldly goal: bringing an end to the human rights crisis in North Korea.
For decades, Pomnyun, a native of South Korea, has worked tirelessly to bring aid to the North Korean people, leading relief efforts, speaking with international leaders and social activists, and reaching people through his Buddhist school, the Jungto Society, and his popular newsletter, which helps spread the word about North Korean issues. In the '90s, his relief organization, Good Friends, released some of the first photos that showed the world the atrocities of the North Korean famine, which killed as many as 2.5 million people.
When he first began doing aid work in North Korea, Pomnyun was deeply affected by the terrors he witnessed -- among them, emaciated children and corpses lying along the shores of the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. North Korean refugees told him stories of how their friends and family suffered and died.
"At first, I was crying all the time because I had no choice but to be impacted by what I saw," said Pomnyun, while visiting The Huffington Post's New York office last week. "And no one believed me when I related the stories [about North Korea] because they couldn't see it themselves."
One of the most difficult aspects of doing humanitarian work -- and, in fact of being a human being -- is learning to control those negative emotions, Pomnyun said. When the situation in North Korea felt the most hopeless, meditation gave Pomnyun the strength to keep fighting for peace.
"At that time, meditation really helped me to control my emotions, because I was angry at times," Pomnyun said. "At times, I was really sad. But I realized that my sadness does not help that person. It's important to remember that action only will help that person."
Pomnyun has seen many South Korean activists give up, frustrated by North Korea's rejection of aid and by the seeming impossibility of getting change to take hold in North Korea.
"They weren't able to control their anger and disappointment, so they gave up and despaired," said Pomnyun. "If you are angry when you are doing something, even if you speak of peace, you are actually engaged in war."
Only if your mind is at peace first, said Pomnyun, will your efforts be constructive and sustainable.
"If we allow ourselves to be emotional, then the work has to stop," said Pomnyun. "A lot of people who started working with me stopped doing so because of that. When they were just in South Korea providing help in the background, they were able to go on. But when they visited North Korea and had to deal with North Korean officials, then they stopped. They started criticizing North Korea."
Pomnyun saw that his colleagues struggled to manage their frustration in the face of the challenge of dealing with North Korean officials. He'd often stop to remind them (and himself) that this was the only way to help the North Korean people.
"There are a lot of times that I lose hope or don't want to help when I have to deal with North Korean officials," said Pomnyun. "I, like every other human being, feel emotions. But I practice so that I can control my emotions a little better, and that allows me to go on."