Respecting Clashing Religious Traditions
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