The Korean master Seon (Zen), the venerable Pomnyun Sunim (Buddhist monk) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, and social activist, to name a few. As a highly respected Dharma teacher and tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives and projects that are active around the world. Among them, the Jungto Society, a volunteer community based on Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simplicity of life and sustainability, is dedicated to solving modern social problems that lead to suffering, including the degradation of environment, poverty and conflict.
This column, shared by Jungto Society, features a series of highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim's writings, teachings, public lectures, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q&A sessions are accessible worldwide.
The following teaching was given in Paris on September 5. This article is the third in a series drawn from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s 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 September 1 to 22, 2023, in 21 cities: six in Europe and 15 in North America.*
Il'My husband's infrequent showers are difficult to deal with.
Q: A few years ago, my husband and I got married. Unfortunately, he lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since he's been home every day, I've started to notice some of his bad habits that I didn't know existed before we got married. The hardest thing to deal with is poor personal hygiene. Even in the hot summer weather, he only showers once a week, and during the winter, he only showers once every 10 days. He'It's quite difficult to share the same space with him. As much as I love him, I would like to change this habit, but he doesn't seem to care. Most of the time I try to be understanding, but sometimes it really bothers me. I even tried to threaten him that I wouldn't cook for him if he didn't shower regularly, but it didn't work. Do you have any advice for me?
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: I don't see any problem here. Wouldn't you agree that your husband is doing something positive? In this time of looming climate crisis, it is taking a bold step to reduce energy consumption. Showering daily uses a lot of water, soap and energy, which can be costly in the long run.
Q: You look like my husband! (audience laughter)
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: I recently had a conversation with Korean parents who 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 because he does not want to contribute to the climate crisis. He also started showering less frequently. A similar concern was shared by another mother from Düsseldorf, whose child is also in middle school. Her child had started eating simple meals and wearing minimalist clothing to help fight climate change. Although the child's actions were commendable, the mother did not fully support him.
In my opinion, we need more people like these children, willing to make sacrifices to save the environment. The Buddha renounced his throne and left the palace even though his father and his wife did not 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 didn't cheat or drink excessively. Instead, her habit of showering less actually helps save water, soap, and energy. So rather than threatening him by not cooking, you could try being more proactive by making him even more delicious meals.
Q: Well, it seems like my husband's habits come from laziness rather than thinking about the environment.
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: Even if your husband's behavior is due to laziness, the result of being environmentally friendly is the same. So why is one behavior tolerated while the other is not? Ultimately, it seems the problem lies not in your husband's behavior, but in your personal preferences. It sounds like you don't want to live with someone who doesn't shower regularly.
Q: Wouldn't this habit be harmful to one's health?
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: Even if this is the case, it is the consequence of one's own choice. Their choices should not concern you.
Q: He doesn't brush his teeth before bed! His dental health will suffer.
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: When I was young, I couldn't afford toothbrushes and we only cleaned ourselves once a year, on Lunar New Year's Eve. As a result, my skin cracked and bled and I had scabs all over my body.
However, I learned that our skin can cleanse itself naturally. If you don't bathe for about a month, your skin will start to peel, like the bark on a tree. I remember in winter, when I took off my clothes, white flakes of dead skin fell to the ground like snow. When I swept the room, I saw more dead cells than dust.
Likewise, animals stay clean without washing. As part of a cycle, their body produces oil, which causes dirt to naturally fall off. In some regions, such as Nepal or Tibet, it is common for people to apply oil to their skin instead of bathing regularly. This oil forms a protective layer that allows the skin to resist exposure to the sun during the summer months.
Infrequent showers aren't necessarily a problem. The problem isn't that your husband isn't showering enough. But I understand it's not your preference that he doesn't shower frequently.
Q: It's difficult to live with.
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: It sounds like you're trying to get your partner to 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 shower regularly can be a challenge, but I wouldn't say it's necessarily a problem because it doesn't hurt 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 a problem at bedtime, it's important to discuss it with them. However, it is also important to remember that having different habits is not necessarily a problem. Your husband isn't the problem, it's just a matter of different habits, and it's important to respect each other's habits and let others be who they are. If you really can't stand your husband, it might be worth considering separating from him.
Q: I don't want to be separated from him.
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: It seems like you just want your partner to change their lifestyle to suit your preferences. Even if you don't like his shower habits, you want to stay together. All that remains is for him to change his behavior. Doesn’t that sound authoritarian and dictatorial?
Q: So should I control my feelings?
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: I don't think it's necessary to suggest controlling your feelings about your husband's infrequent showers. In my opinion, many skin conditions can be caused by harmful influences on the skin, such as too frequent showers or poor eating habits, among other factors. Historically, people used less chemical soap and their skin was thin, suggesting that our skin is designed to naturally handle certain dirt. Therefore, your husband's infrequent showers are not a significant problem.
Plus, from an environmental standpoint, your husband's showering habits are beneficial. Instead of being critical, why not approach him with appreciation for his efforts to reduce water consumption?
Q: I will consider him a good-hearted person and appreciate his choice. (Audience applause)
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: The Buddha wore discarded rags, ate alms and slept in the forest or under the trees. Did he take baths? The Buddha we admire bathed much less than your husband, perhaps a hundred times less. But you consider the Buddha to be great, why?
Q: That's true. I'll remember it!
Seeing the interrogator's heart lighten, Sunim also smiled brightly. At the end of the conference, Sunim delivered his closing speech.
You are alive today
Fri. Pomnyun Sunim: It's common to perceive certain issues as problems when in reality they might not be. Every experience we have reminds us that we are alive. This is life: we make connections, we break up, we find work and experience happiness, we lose our jobs and feel sad, we have gains and losses.
Overall, what we perceive as problems actually aren't problems. In a game, there are times when you are ahead and times when you are behind, and that is what makes it a game. If one player always dominates, the others will lose interest and give up. To keep the game interesting, there have to be times when I fall behind and others get ahead. Such challenges move the game forward.
When living in France or Korea, there are unique benefits that can only be enjoyed there. If we accept this as a part of life, we can live freely anywhere. We can just say, “Wow, that was my experience today” and move on.
Through these discussions, I gather an incredible amount of data by listening to your concerns. I doubt that anyone 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 conferences for free. In fact, I should thank you for providing me with so much valuable data. (Laugh)
With this in mind, I hope that you will live a happy and meaningful life in France.
* Dharma Sharing: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim will give first in-person teachings in Europe and North America since the pandemic (BDG)