Cultural Differences

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Cultural Differences
G Sakamoto

In the postscript of the Tannisho, Yuien recalls the words of Shinran,

“In truth, myself and others discuss only good and evil, leaving Amida’s benevolence out of consideration. Among Master Shinran’s words were:

‘I know nothing at all of good or evil. For if I could know thoroughly, as Amida Tathagata knows, that an act was good, then I would know good. If I could know thoroughly, as the Tathagata knows, that an act was evil, then I would know evil. But with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world – this burning house – all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.’ “

We make decisions all the time. The choice we make is influenced by our perception of the circumstances. Our perception in shaped by our experience. Our experience is limited, we cannot know the full consequences of our decision. Yet, we do make decisions. We choose to go left rather the right. We choose others over ourselves. Usually, we choose life rather than death.

When I was young I was terrified of the dark. I tried not to show how scared I was. Even as I became an adult this fear continued. One of the earliest terrifying experience I remember was at a science fair. My father was with us so I must have been eight or nine. Walking up and down the exhibit aisles I suddenly saw peering over the divider walls a skeleton. It was at the end of the aisle we were walking down. As we walked down the aisle I paid no attention the science projects we passed. We were getting closer to the skeleton standing menacing, waiting for me. I’m sure there were other projects on display. Projects that demonstrated keen observations and sound conclusions. But of all the projects we walked by and looked at that evening, the fear of that skeleton looking over the dividers lingered in my memory. That feeling stayed with me for a very long time.

Growing up in Hawai’i is not the best place to carry these fears. Everyone has a ghost story. Newspapers carried reports of sightings. At the old Waialae Drive-in people reported seeing a faceless woman in the bathroom. I still get chills reading about it. Of course you can google the story. Fortunately, it sounds like the drive-in may have been demolished in the 1980’s. When the Halawa Stadium was being built there were an unusual number of accidents. Workers complained of sightings. Eventually, a priest was asked to bless the construction work. The stories of Hawai’i are filled with night marchers, Pele sightings, menehune and other stories of things that go bump in the night. Not all are scary. Some are friendly and helpful. Just hard to remember those stories.

Experience will influence our thoughts about these stories. We might think of these stories as just things to scare kids around a campfire or just stories of superstitious people. But if you experience something that evades explanation, some framework of beliefs may help put it in context. For someone who does not share these views these stories may seem quaint. For many in Hawai’i these beliefs are common place and to be respected.

Not sharing a common set of beliefs can put someone outside a circle of inclusion. Acknowledging we include and exclude based on shared experiences can lead to softening the boundaries that can separate and result in conflict. What I think is appropriate may not be seen in the same way by someone from another culture. Yet from the other’s cultural perspective my behavior may be completely inappropriate. Cultures can be other than nationalities. Cultures can be any group of people who share a common set of values and behavior. Our culture is filled with subcultures. Democrats and Republicans. Religious and non-Religious. Biker gangs and motorcycle clubs. Shared values. Shared experience. Each of these cultures may have values that come into conflict with my values. I may disagree with another’s beliefs just as much as the other may disagree with my beliefs.

Buddhism begins with acknowledging my inability to see things as they are. I impose my preferences on the world. I recognize good and bad from my experience. That experience is limited and finite. This does not mean we should not try to distinguish. Within our culture there are accepted behavior. We should try to do good as we understand it. But we should always remember, be mindful, that what I value is limited to my experience. It is a way of seeing the world that I choose to see, not a way of seeing the world that is necessarily shared by others.

I am a foolish, unenlightened being, unable to see things simply as they are and yet who is sustained by infinite wisdom and compassion.