Re­spect­ing Clash­ing Re­li­gious Tra­di­tions

MidWeek (Hawaii) - - Front Page - MIS­FIT SPIRIT Jay Sakashita

Iam on the whole re­luct ant t o give per­sonal ad­vice t o read­ers and s t udents r e gard­ing how they should go about prac­tic­ing their re­li­gion. I do my best to ex­plain the schol­arly point of view con­cern­ing re­li­gion, but I am not com­fort­able with ques­tions that seek guid­ance r egard­ing pri­vate mat­ters of faith. In my view, as long as one’s re­li­gion does not pro­mote in­tol­er­ance or hate and does not hurt any­one, be as re­li­gious or un­re­li­gious as you want to be.

But per­haps it is due to the sum­mer-long bon dance sea­son — when Bud­dhist tem­ples and prac­tices garner pub­lic at­ten­tion be­cause of Obon-re­lated fes­tiv­i­ties — t hat I t end t o r eceive more ques­tions from Chris­tians about how to be­have at Bud­dhist ser­vices dur­ing this time of the year.

A com­mon ques­tion I re­ceive is sim­i­lar to this one:

“My hus­band and I are Chris­tians, but my hus­band’s fam­ily is not. They are Bud­dhists. There is a Bud­dhist fu­neral ser­vice com­ing up, and we of course will have to at­tend. Dur­ing the ser­vice, we will be asked to come for­ward, bow, put our hands to­gether in prayer and of­fer in­cense to the de­ceased and the Bud­dha. What should we do? We don’t want to be dis­re­spect­ful to the fam­ily, but we are de­vout Chris­tians.”

My re­sponse? The an­swer is com­plex yet sim­ple.

Com­pli­cated b e c a u s e the an­swer to the ques­tion largely de­pends on the at­ti­tude and in­ten­tion of the one per­form­ing the ges­ture at the Bud­dhist fu­neral. In gen­eral, press­ing one’s palms to­gether and bow­ing in Bud­dhism does not have t he s ame mean­ing as it does in Chris­tian­ity. Putting one’s hands to­gether in the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion (gassho) is not a form of wor­ship or prayer to the dead. It is a form of eti­quette meant to con­vey re­spect and grat­i­tude.

Bud­dhists pl a c e t heir palms to­gether as a sym­bol of the unity of op­po­sites or com­ple­ments: one­self and oth­ers, past and present, life and death, the sa­cred and the or­di­nary. In other words, op­po­sites are re­ally one. In Bud­dhism, plac­ing the palms to­gether ex­presses the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness we share with each other and the grat­i­tude that arises from this re­al­iza­tion.

As such, Bud­dhists will of­ten greet each other by plac­ing their hands to­gether and bow­ing. They are not pray­ing to each other or wor­ship­ing one an­other. In a sense, it is the Bud­dhist equiv­a­lent of a hug or hand­shake. Not un­der­stand­ing t his can l ead t o awk­ward sit­u­a­tions and un­nec­es­sary strains in re­la­tion­ships.

For ex­am­ple, I know some peo­ple who don’t al­low their chil­dren to par­tic­i­pate in the mar­tial arts be­cause t hey mis­tak­enly think bow­ing in the dojo and be­fore matches in a tour­na­ment is a form of idol­a­try. I’ve also wit­nessed the strange sce­nario where one per­son bowed while the other per­son re­cip­ro­cated by ex­tend­ing a hand for a hand­shake in­stead.

Un­der­stand­ing the cul­tur- al con­text of a ges­ture is im­por­tant. The shaka sign, for ex­am­ple, can mean dif­fer­ent things in dif­fer­ent places. Mak­ing shaka too close to your face — where the lit­tle fin­ger is near your mouth and the thumb near your ear — is a ges­ture for hav­ing a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion. In China, the shaka sign is the ges­ture for the num­ber 6. The ges­ture is also the sign for the let­ter “Y” in the Amer­i­can Man­ual Al­pha­bet.

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters fur­ther, plac­ing one’s palms to­gether is not a re­quired or in­her­ent act for prayer even among peo­ple who wor­ship t he same God. Jews and

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