Buddhism and the virtue of ‘respect’
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Are we setting good examples for our children when it comes to ethics, morality, and honesty? Are we not tacitly teaching our kids that it is o.k. to lie sometimes and get away with it? We lie to them on religious matters like Santa and Christmas and later on we complain why our little ones and teen agers lie so much, even though at Church they are preached not to? In an old movie called, ‘The miracle on the 34th street’ this question about Santa Claus is dealt with in an interesting way. On the one hand, our teens live in a Capitalistic society in which inequalities breed freedom and meritocracy is the game in town. In this society people of high talent and ability or intelligence receive the greatest rewards. On the other hand, our kids are treated like they are in Plato’s Republic, a Utopia (no space) or a communist country in which there is equality (Jeffersonian Declaration of Independence) for everyone when it comes to gifs for all but with not much freedom to become creative. It is ironic that we as parents either do not know what is happening to our children or pretend everything is allergic as long as our youngsters are not getting behind and are catching up with the way the American kids behave in society. Before we know it, the roles will change and they become parents and we become children so much so that we let them decide for us as where we should go or what we ought to do next.
We think we can do the impossible, namely, have kids in this Western culture and also think they can be immune from any influence what so ever. Cultures color the people in their own ways and make them act in certain way. There is definitely a contradiction between having reverence for the absolute Reality on the one hand and having none for those who are older than us. This hierarchy of respect existed in the cultures like China for thousands of years. Japan at one point set an example for many Eastern countries in being able to meet the challenges of the modernity and Western technology while they still preserved their Religious tradition of Shintoism, their ancient nature oriented Religion. However, this seemingly impossible task ,which had been made possible by the Japanese after the Second World War, was short lived and gradually came to an end to many imitators’ surprise about three decades ago. Assault on nature is hundred percent against everything traditional Japanese culture stood for. The irony here is that the Western animal rights activists are the ones who chase the Japanese ships to ward off whales killers. The Japanese people who suffered and still are suffering as a result of the two nuclear bombs dropped on them by the United States of America during the Second World War are now suffering again. But this time it is because of the recent earth quake and Tsunami which led to the destruction of many of their nuclear reactors. Although they are the third largest economy after America and China, their traditional values have been on the verge of complete destruction. These are the same people who fought the Western domination and Christian values imposed on them for a long time but finally when they were not able to battle these influences they had no choice but join them. Perhaps one of the major reasons for this gradual decline did not come from the West but emerged from within the Japanese culture. This was a cathartic or purging movement which occurred several centuries ago that led to the Nationalism of the 19th century long before the Western one hit them. This was about purging the Japanese cultures from foreign religious influences such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism in the form of Zen Buddhism. This attempt to purify Japanese culture from all these foreign elements and going back to the roots, namely, Shintoism, paved the way for Western intervention. Because it had weakened the foundation of what it used to be which was solid and unbreakable. After the two bombs the War was over and Japan surrendered. The religious tradition of the Emperors of Japan, which had a Divine origin, that is, the Sun Goddess Amatrasu, also came to an end and the last Japanese Emperor of Japan, Hirohito (1901-89), was forced to step down and deny his Divine right. Remember Rome did not fall from without but from within. A decayed Rome was easily defeated by the Germanic tribes. We can learn a lesson from what Japan has gone through. When they gradually lost respect for nature, this meant they also lost reverence for their ancient Religion Shintoism. There is no doubt that Japan paid a great price for this loss and who knows what nature or the Greek Goddess Gaia will have for this nation in the future. This lack of respect for nature manifests itself in the family and if there is disrespect in the community will in turn show itself in nature.
As soon as our children walk into the Temples they totally forget that there are elderly and older people present and their respect is a cultural ‘ought’. We just cannot have our cake and eat it too. In other words, we cannot live with contradiction all our life. The moment our kids see the older crowd, they begin staring at them and sometimes even without any smile on their faces to at least acknowledge their presence. Some parents who are embarrassed by their youngsters’ actions immediately appeal to a lip service by asking them: “Honey did you say ‘Hi’?” Of course, when our children feel they are put on the spot, they either completely rebel against their mothers’ fast food teaching or just smile and expect the grandparents or grandmothers to go on the floor and kiss their feet. After all we are youth oriented society, even though we will leave nothing for them by the end of this century! Unfortunately our parents are quick to brush their children’s behaviors under the carpet by just saying: “she or he is shy”. They think as long as our kids get doses of Buddha’s teachings through Dhamma classes and participate in Sila (virtue, morality) they will be strong enough to battle the Tsunami of the Western secular education. Unfortunately they will be in for a rude awakening! We must wake up and smell the coffee before it is too late. We need to teach our little loved ones how to swim before dropping them in the pool. Keeping up with two very different cultures is not an easy task. Whether we like it or not Western ideas are dominating Eastern world as we speak. Modernism as well as Secularism have changed the entire maps of many nations in the third world. With the advent of Radio first and T.V and now the Internet these ideas are spreading as rapidly as possible reaching our youngsters even in our own countries, in fact much faster than we could possibly imagine.
The Axial Age of which Karl Jaspers talked about, which was between 200 B.C. and 800 B.C., gradually came to an end in the West when Aristotle died. In this period the great wise men and prophets, who were Axises around whom their cultures rotated, taught men and women, though they were in this world, they were not of this world. The new axial age began about 500 years ago in the West in which there are no longer Axises around whom the Western culture could rotate to accelerate in morality. Therefore, many philosophers and scholars in the West have currently said that we have indeed been witnessing the moral and spiritual decline of the Western civilization in our days. The same deterioration of morality led to the fall of the Roman Empire 1600 years ago. These great thinkers have not been exaggerating the importance of these moral and spiritual problems, nor are they like some scientists still in denial concerning global warming. They are very much like those who warned the Roman Emperors and Roman senators regarding the decline of morality and increase of corruption in Rome before the fall.
Buddha, who was one of the Axises of the Axial Age along with many other outstanding figures of this period, taught us about the significance of respect in our life. However, he did not speak of the God or gods and the necessity of our reverence for them. Buddha always taught that we ought to start with ourselves first. Basically we should primarily be concerned with us and then others. Therefore, he said: “However much one is engaged in activities for the good of others, one should not neglect his own (spiritual) purpose. Having discerned one’s own task, let him apply himself to that task with diligence.”(Dhammapada, Verse 166). Of course, Buddha was not advocating what is called ‘Ethical egoism’ discussed in courses on Ethics at our academic institutions. A Greek expression says: “A fish rots from the head first”. For example, once the prophet of Islam (570?-632) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) were both approached by two mothers. Since they were unable to stop their children from eating certain fruits, which were bad for them, they asked if they could help them in so doing. However, both of these great leaders refused to do so. The reason being, both were eating the same fruits in front of those children. Self-respect breeds respect for others. When we love ourselves, of course, not in a selfish manner, we can then love others the way we love ourselves. When we respect ourselves, we can then respect others the way we respect ourselves. Having done that, Buddha would say, then teach your children to respect themselves first and then respect others accordingly. Thus, self-respect is the key here. Buddha said: “By self alone is evil done; by self alone is one defiled; by self alone is evil not done; by self alone is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.” (Dhammapada, Verse 165).Therefore, we ought work on ourselves first and show our children how they also should work on themselves. Before preaching and teaching, we must act responsibly and then expect our children to follow us. This teaching process begins at home and then it is tested publically. If we see our kids just stare at the grownups as they enter the Temples and quickly bow before the monks, this would mean there are still more works to be done. At school they learn ‘Justice’ is for all people. At the Temples or other gatherings, however, they are very selective when it comes to ‘respect’ and ‘reverence’. We parents who are in the West have a lot more works on our hands than those who are still within their own cultures. Cultures protect their own people. But we who are here and still want to safeguard our cultures against the Western culture need to be watchful and more vigilant. Now that we cannot bring our kids to the Dhamma classes, the least we can do is teach them at home by setting good examples for them to follow. Otherwise letting others do the job and expect the monks to do the miracles is very much like leaving our children with the babysitters or the teachers at school and think we have done our duties as parents. Yes, there is no doubt that this herculean task is not easy. However, let us not forget that this difficult work on the part of the parents are a lot more valuable than those who bring up their loved ones in their own particular cultures. Either we are strong enough to fight the influences of the culture we are in or if not we will have no choice but join it. We in the West are dealing with a moral dilemma. On the one hand, we want the best education for our children that the West can offer. On the other hand, we do not want to accept the fact that we are bound to lose our children in the process. Some parents might think once they are gone and left this world, the rest is up to their children what they would do to their life. In other word, once we have passed on, who cares what happens to them! Then let us not be upset when the anniversary of their parents’ departure is not even remembered by them let alone giving Dana for them either at their houses or the Temples. We do not want to admit that we are facing a trade-off: we get something but we also lose something. The question is: “Is it worth it?”. Buddha said: “As the parasitic maluva creeper destroys the Sal tree which it entwines, so the immoral conduct of a man gradually makes of him what his enemy would have him be.” Here the enemy is the culture which is challenging our values we have lived by and will not be satisfied until replace them with its own in our children. Therefore, it is for us to be like a rocky mountain which does not move even by the strongest wind.
Dr. Parviz Dehghani