Before I came to the US from Korea, I was under the impression that middle-class Americans were living a worry-free existence. They were materially affluent and had access to technology that streamlined their lives, and from where I stood, that seemed like enough for a flourishing human life.

In 1979, I moved to Pittsburgh, and the following year, I started my doctoral studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Around this time, I learned just how many people around me were in therapy or undergoing some kind of psychological counseling, and my notions about Americans living without suffering started to waver. As my life in the US progressed, I felt more and more compelled to understand why, despite the material abundance, mental suffering was rampant around me. 

When I started looking at this conundrum with some depth, and as I continued to study and read Buddhist teachings, I came to realize that the dominance of material wealth was weakening the human spirit. The US had started to show signs of a material illness by that time, and now, I think, the whole world shows signs of this same phenomenon.

Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—said immediately after his awakening: Life is dukkha, which means suffering or dissatisfaction. This lesson is probably pretty familiar to everybody now.  Gautama declared that “life is dukkha” regardless of any human situation: rich or poor, young or old, from a noble family or not, with or without power. He also explained that we have no choice about what happens to us physically: getting old, being sick, and eventually dying. We must face this reality, whether we like it or not. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the boundlessness of dukkha. How much loss we have experienced during this pandemic! We have endured separation from those we love, and many of us have faced material losses—all against the already changing and transient nature of life itself. 

One way to think about suffering is as a failure of getting what we want. But have you ever been successful in getting everything you want? The Buddha diagnosed desire and greed as the causes of suffering. Despite the pandemic, our contemporary worldview remains quite different, or even opposite to, the Buddha’s position. Capitalism, which has become the driving ideological engine for business and the economy, promotes profit above all, and this has also become the lens through which we think we can satisfy our human desire. But we can never get all that we want. 

Venerable Sotaesan, the founder of Won Buddhism, defined suffering as enduring what we dislike. Ven. Sotaesan categorized suffering into different types: everlasting or temporary; appropriate or inappropriate; self-created or happening inadvertently or accidentally. But even within the realm of “accidental suffering,” we have a measure of responsibility. (As the pandemic has shown, is any one of us truly free from responsibility?) 

During my first semester of my PhD studies at Temple University, I faced many challenges due to my limited English-language capacity. In the beginning, I couldn’t even understand the simplest instructions, such as “There will be no class next week,” or “Read this chapter for homework.” 

I was overwhelmed and frustrated. I would come home from class, and to escape this miserable feeling I would start eating sweets. And I wouldn’t stop eating until I felt really sick. The sweets, I realized, consumed me, instead of me consuming the sweets. I think this represents a universal expression of any addictive behavior: the drink drinks me, the drug drugs me, the shopping shops me. In light of the pandemic, I revisited this particular struggle. At that time, I was eating a lot of sweets, but I didn’t have the awareness that I was doing so. My struggle stemmed from the absence of awareness; I avoided facing negative emotions by burying myself in the sensory taste of sweets. This lack of awareness I came to understand as a weakened spirit, or the spirit that has lost its sovereignty. 

As a result, I actually started to blame the sweets and the external environment for my suffering. It may sound funny, but it’s true. I would wonder: Why does the store sell sweets? Why do my roommates bring me sweets? Why does a factory make sweets? Why were sweets invented in the first place? I went through seven years of this vicious cycle, feeling lost in a dark tunnel. The moment of awareness happened when I visited the hospital for an indigestion problem. There I met patients senior to myself—I was in my thirties at that time—who had very similar symptoms. I identified with their suffering. Their suffering was the same as the suffering I saw in my mirror. 

At that moment, I realized that my suffering was not going to end by itself. I had created it. I had caused it to happen. I realized that I needed to own the suffering and its cause. It was now in my hands to change the situation. From that moment of awareness grew a moment of determination. 

COVID-19 seems like a snapshot of the present human situation. The 21st Century is characterized by the dominance of matter and our weakened spirits. We can think about the dominance of matter in terms of desire, craving, and addiction. Any food, any medicine, any matter can cause addictive behavior. If that is so, is matter itself the cause of addiction or suffering? 

To recognize suffering is the beginning of healing. The weakened spirit must recognize its source of suffering in order to recover its sovereignty, which characteristically is calm and clearly aware. We can, as the Buddha taught, recover the sovereignty and soundness of our spirit. 

Adapted from Dr. Bokin Kim’s Dharma Talk, “Material and Spiritual Balance