During my trip to Korea in March 2013, I was invited to a private audience with the Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, whom I was told is the most famous and respected Zen monk in Korea and a globally-noted humanitarian leader. I really enjoyed meeting him. He radiates an abundance of wisdom, compassion, and joy. I hear many people say they greatly admire him, and it is easy for me to see why.
The most memorable part of our conversation was when Venerable Pomnyun, knowing I’m a practicing Buddhist, wisely reminds me not to promote Buddhism, but instead serve the welfare of all people. He puts it this way, “Becoming a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, for example, domestic violence and divorce rates are no lower for Buddhists than the general public.” I pointed to him and said, “True, but the divorce rate for celibate Buddhist monks is zero.”
I think it is pretty remarkable for a highly prominent Buddhist monk to tell a well-known lay Buddhist, in private, not to promote Buddhism, but instead focus on serving everyone. My non-Buddhist friends were stunned when they heard this, but this attitude is not new in Buddhism. In fact, the example was set by the Buddha himself. This is the story of how Upali became a disciple of the Buddha:
Upali was one of the chief followers of the Jain master, Mahavira. Because of his intelligence, Upali often appeared in public debates on behalf of the Jains.
There was one incident where Upali had a debate with the Buddha. At the end of the debate, Upali was so impressed with the Buddha’s teachings that he asked to be the Enlightened One’s follower. “Venerable Sir, please allow me to be your follower”.
To that, the Buddha answered, “Upali, you are at the height of your emotions. Go home and reconsider it carefully before you ask me again.”
Upali was extremely impressed. He said, “If it was any other guru, he would parade a banner saying, ‘Mahavira’s chief lay-disciple has become my follower.’ But you, Venerable Sir, you asked me to go home and reconsider. Now, I want to be your follower even more. I will not stand up until you accept me.”
Finally, the Buddha agreed to accept Upali, under one condition, “Upali, as a Jain, you have always given alms to Jain monks. After you become my follower, you will CONTINUE to give alms to Jain monks. This is my condition.”
Upali agreed to this condition. He became a disciple of the Buddha.