The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, and social activist, to name a few. As a widely respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.
This column, shared by Jungto Society, presents a series of highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, public talks, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.
The following teaching was given in Paris on 5 September. This article is the fifth in a series taken from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Dharma tour of Europe and North America—his first overseas tour since the pandemic—titled “Casual Conversation with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Come Talk about Life, Wisdom, and Happiness” from 1–22 September 2023, taking in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*
It’s difficult to handle my husband’s infrequent showering.
Q: A couple of years ago, my husband and I married. Unfortunately, he lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since he’s home every day, I’ve started to notice some of his bad habits that I wasn’t aware of before we married. The most difficult to deal with is his poor personal hygiene. Even in the hot summer weather, he showers only once a week, and during the winter, he showers only once in 10 days. It’s quite challenging to share the same space with him. Although I love him, I’d like to change this habit of his, but he doesn’t seem to care to change. Most of the time, I try to be understanding, but sometimes it really upsets me. I even tried to threaten him by saying that I wouldn’t cook for him if he doesn’t shower regularly, but it didn’t work. Do you have any advice for me?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I don’t see any issue here. Wouldn’t you agree that your husband is doing something positive? In this time of looming climate crisis, he’s taking a bold step to cut down on energy consumption. Taking a shower every day consumes a lot of water, soap, and energy, which can be costly in the long run.
Q: You sound like my husband! (Audience laughter)
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I recently had a conversation with Korean parents who had emigrated to Germany. They expressed concern for their son, who is in middle school. According to them, their son only wears old clothes and shoes as he doesn’t want to contribute to the climate crisis. He has also started showering less frequently. A similar concern was shared by another mother in Düsseldorf, whose child is also in middle school. Her child had started eating simple meals and wearing minimalistic clothes to contribute to the fight against climate change. While the child’s actions are commendable, the mother was not entirely supportive.
In my opinion, we need more people like these children, who are willing to make sacrifices to save the environment. The Buddha renounced his throne and left the palace even though his father and wife didn’t understand his choice. And his story continues to inspire people even today.
Regarding your husband’s habit of showering less frequently, it’s important to note that he hasn’t done anything wrong. He hasn’t cheated or indulged in excessive drinking. Instead, his habit of showering less is actually contributing to saving water, soap, and energy. So rather than threatening him by not cooking, you could try to be more proactive by cooking even more delicious dishes for him.
Q: Well, it seems like my husband’s habit stems from laziness rather than thinking about the environment.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Even if your husband’s behavior is due to laziness, the outcome of caring for the environment is the same. So why is one behavior tolerated while the other isn’t? Ultimately, it seems that the issue lies not with your husband’s behavior, but with your personal preference. It appears that you don’t want to live with someone who doesn’t take regular showers.
Q: Wouldn’t this habit harm his health?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Even if it does, it’s the consequence of his own choice. His choices shouldn’t be a concern of yours.
Q: He doesn’t brush his teeth before bed! His dental health will suffer.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: When I was young, I couldn’t afford toothbrushes and we only bathed once a year, on the day before Lunar New Year. As a result, my skin cracked and bled and I had scabs all over my body.
However, I learned that our skin can naturally clean itself. If you don’t bathe for about a month, your skin will start to peel, like tree bark. I remember in the winter, when I took off my clothes, white flakes of dead skin would fall to the ground like snow. When I swept the room, I would see more dead skin cells than dust.
Likewise, animals stay clean without bathing. As part of a cycle, their bodies produce oil, which causes dirt to fall off naturally. In certain regions, such as Nepal or Tibet, it’s common for people to apply oil to their skin instead of bathing regularly. This oil forms a protective layer that allows the skin to withstand exposure to the sun during the summer months.
Infrequent showering isn’t necessarily a problem. The issue isn’t that your husband isn’t showering enough. But I do understand that it’s not your preference that he’s not showering frequently.
Q: It’s difficult to live with.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It seems like you’re trying to make your partner conform to your preferences, which can be a difficult task. Instead, you can try to adapt to your partner’s habits. I understand that living with someone who doesn’t take regular showers can be a challenge, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a problem as it doesn’t harm anyone. On the other hand, showering too frequently, such as three times a day, can be a problematic behavior that raises environmental concerns. If your partner’s hygiene habits are causing an issue at bedtime, it’s important to discuss that with him. However, it’s also important to remember that having different habits is not necessarily a problem. Your husband is not the problem, it’s just a matter of differing habits, and it’s important to respect each other’s habits and let others be the way they are. If you really can’t stand your husband, it may be worth considering separating from him.
Q: I don’t want to be separated from him.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It appears that you only want your partner to alter his lifestyle to suit your preferences. Although you dislike his showering habit, you want to remain together. Therefore, the only choice left is to modify his behavior. Doesn’t this come across as authoritarian and dictatorial?
Q: Then should I control my feelings?
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: I don’t think it’s necessary to suggest controlling your feelings about your husband’s infrequent showering. In my opinion, many skin conditions can be caused by harmful influences on the skin, such as showering too frequently or poor dietary habits, among other factors. Historically, people didn’t use chemical soap as much and their skin was fine, which suggests that our skin is designed to handle some dirt naturally. Therefore, your husband’s infrequent showering is not a significant issue.
Furthermore, from an environmental perspective, your husband’s showering habits are beneficial. Instead of being critical, why not approach him with appreciation for his efforts to reduce water usage?
Q: I will consider him to be a goodhearted person and value his choice. (Audience applause)
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: The Buddha wore discarded rags, ate alms, and slept in the forest or under trees. Did he take baths? The Buddha we admire bathed far less than your husband, maybe a hundred times less. But you view the Buddha as great, why?
Q: That’s true. I’ll remember that!
Seeing the questioner’s heart lightened, Sunim also smiled brightly. As the lecture concluded, Sunim gave his closing remarks.
You Are Alive Today
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: It’s common to perceive some issues as problems when in reality they might not be. Every experience we have is a reminder that we’re alive. This is what life is all about: we make connections, we part ways, we find work and experience happiness, we lose jobs and feel sad, we have gains and losses.
In the grand scheme of things, what we perceive as problems are not actually problems. In a game, there are moments when we are ahead and moments when we fall behind, and that’s what makes it a game. If one player always dominates, others will lose interest and quit. To keep the game interesting, there must be times when I fall behind and others get ahead. Such challenges keep the game going.
When living in France or Korea, there are unique benefits that can only be enjoyed there. If we accept this as part of life, we can live freely anywhere. We can simply say: “Wow, that was my experience today,” and move on.
Through these talks, I gather an incredible amount of data by listening to your concerns. I doubt anyone else in the world has as much data on life’s problems as I do. In the future, data will be the most valuable asset, which is why I host these talks for free. In fact, I should thank you for providing me with so much valuable data. (Laughter)
With this perspective, I hope you live a happy and meaningful life in France.
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