Since differences in personality, background, and philosophy inevitably keep people apart, knowing how and when to approach someone can be difficult. For instance, some young people avoid older people because they think there is a generation gap and that the elderly are rigid in their attitudes. Many of the elderly, meanwhile, refuse to have anything to do with the young, claiming they are impossible to understand.
The two groups keep such a distance from each other that opportunities for contact are hard to come by. This is a great loss for both groups, since it does not allow the young to benefit from the wisdom and experience of the old and keeps the old from being stimulated by the fresh ideas and flexibility of the young. Little creativity and progress can result if people associate only with others like themselves, with whom they agree on everything.
Love and respect are needed for smooth relations between young and old. When both the young and the old love and respect one another, flexible relations based on mutual respect and exchange of ideas become possible. Love and respect are equally important between parent and child, teacher and pupil, and friends. Warm relationships are possible when a sincere regard for others - the very meaning of love and respect - is central to our thinking.
The Li-chi (The Record of Rites), one of the Five Classics of Chinese literature, says that the relationships of the virtuous are as fresh as water and their friendship is unchanging. This means that true friendship never changes and is a powerful bond.
Human relations are not necessarily strengthened, however, by familiarity. Indeed, we tend to become overly aware of the failings of people we are with all the time. Consideration for others is most important. Whether or not people are close to us, we can communicate with them from the heart as long as we are considerate.
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In 1986 I traveled to South Korea for the first time. In Seoul and a few other cities, I saw for myself the strength of the Confucian tradition in that country. Parents and the elderly are respected, and strict observation of seniority is the foundation of society. Firm adherence to morality and manners is reflected in the almost complete absence of litter and graffiti from city streets. Japan also inherited and long honored the Confucian tradition. But after World War II, with the new insistence on individual rights, the important spirit of respect for parents and elders and of consideration for the young and inexperienced was unfortunately lost.
A passage in the Analects of Confucius says that without respect human beings are no different from other animals. The implication is that true harmony is possible in society only as long as we are all imbued with the spirit of mutual respect. Egotism and indifference to other people's feelings frequently lead to clashes that spoil relationships.
Overcoming egotism and indifference to others, and thus easing relationships, requires the modesty to give others the benefit of the doubt whenever there is a misunderstanding. Moreover, a modest attitude is important to the preservation of harmony in the world as a whole. By cultivating respect for our parents, who gave us life and reared us; for our elders, who have amassed experience and wisdom; and for brothers, sisters, friends, and associates, we can help preserve order in the world and contribute to the creation of universal harmony.
Egotism, or self-centeredness, is the opposite of consideration for others. In the workplace, when superiors and subordinates have similar ideas, a generous superior is willing to learn from a subordinate. It is not always necessary for subordinates to defer to their superiors. Superiors should always make the best use of subordinates' talents by respecting their views, but without allowing subordinates to become conceited.
Sometimes agreement between superiors and their subordinates is impossible. When this is the case, we must recognize what is important and not be carried away by personal desires or concern for our reputation. To avoid being carried away, we must not rely on our own experience alone but must constantly seek more information and try to learn from the wisdom of the sages of the past.
Nonetheless, as one saying has it, not everything that goes smoothly goes well, and not all collisions are bad. In other words, even though harmony is important, people must not allow themselves to become obsessed with trying to make things go smoothly lest they become afraid of failure and challenge. The British historian Arnold Toynbee interpreted history as a series of challenges and responses. For the sake of progress a clash, or challenge, is necessary from time to time if we are to help one another improve.
The spirit of harmony and consideration is demonstrated in the Lotus Sutra by the story of the Bodhisattva Never Despise, who reverenced the buddha-nature, the potential for buddhahood, in everyone he met. With that spirit, it is possible to build a society of harmony and love.
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With some 90 percent of its citizens identifying themselves as middle class, Japan today enjoys an unprecedented sense of prosperity. Material well-being, however, does not always bring spiritual fulfillment. More and more Japanese yearn for a rich spiritual life, recognizing that spiritual values are more important than material possessions. But a truly spiritually oriented society is still far in the future, as is vividly indicated by the growing number of broken homes.
A divorce is granted in Japan roughly every three minutes. In addition, an increasing number of estranged couples continue living together. This arrangement is especially worrisome, since it is common not only among the middle-aged and the elderly but also among young nuclear families.
Founded on love and trust, marriage should be the cooperative effort of two people to build a home and create a new life together. Since the partners usually come from different environments, it is only natural that they have different attitudes and values. For the sake of a happy future, the betrothed should talk things over sincerely until they understand each other and, if possible, arrive at a common approach to their new life.
Wedding receptions in Japan become more ostentatious each year. It worries me that as people focus on the receptions, the wedding ceremony itself--sealing one of the most significant of all human contracts--is becoming a mere formality, and its true meaning and spirit seem to be no longer well understood.
Wedding vows ought to carry over into married life. Each spouse should strive to fulfill his or her proper role so as really to be a lifelong "better half." People's image of the ideal family life differs but usually includes children, prosperity, warmth, and affection. As newlyweds cross the threshold of their new home, they are no doubt filled with hope and joy. But after the first freshness passes, they may cease to love each other and may forget their wedding vows. When worst comes to worst, each spouse wants only to have his or her own way.
The Chinese classics teach that courtesy is an aspect of love. The secret to a harmonious and happy marriage, therefore, is mutual respect.
Married life can be made difficult by any number of problems: hurt feelings, clashes with in-laws, disagreements over a child's education, and so on. Such problems are aggravated when one partner adopts a narrow, selfish view, insisting that the other is wrong. But if the spouses respect each other, they can discuss problems calmly and rationally and admit their mistakes. When crises arise in their marriage, husband and wife need to remember their wedding vows and remind themselves that courtesy is an aspect of love.