What is Culture?
For years I've been searching for a good definition of “culture.”
For instance, most people, when defining French culture, would speak of wine and cheese and personal characteristics of the people as a whole.
In defining or discussing Chinese culture, many would focus on things like tea and silk and rice.
These things are part of the definition of a nation’s or people’s culture, to be sure, but they are not the part that to me is really the defining center of culture, and if you don’t know what culture is, you can’t know how to uplift a people and elevate them. That’s why I’ve struggled with this question…. Without knowing what culture is, you have no one to know what to concentrate on to uplift it.
From my own point of view, I think culture must have a definition that includes the teachings of the sages prevalent in a particular society, combined with how much of those and other cultivation teachings have penetrated the society and become reflected in worldly life.
That’s a definition of a high or low culture based on the level of cultivation teachings and their penetration or lack thereof in a people. The definition of culture must include the humanistic relationship between human beings, the virtue of a person, how human beings should treat each other, what they should do for others and society, and then also the deepness or width of worldly wisdom in regards to technology, science, worldly phenomena (such as tea, silk, wine, cheese) and how to do things. Whereas most people focus on this worldly wisdom aspect, it’s just a fraction of what matters in terms of the cultured or cultivated individual.
This last factor is where the topics of tea and silk and rice and so forth come into things. Yes, some part of whether a culture is advanced or not has to do with worldly wisdom regarding such matters such as whether should you be drinking wine, at what age, how you should make it, store it and so on. These are human technology type things but they are NOT what predominantly defines culture. Those things expediently evolve over time because of the environment and worldly conditions. They are just part of the definition of culture rather than its center, though this is what people usually focus on.
What really defines culture, in my opinion, are the teachings of the sages that have penetrated a people and society, and how they have developed into that society’s characteristics. And remember, some spiritual teachings are from low level samadhi masters rather than enlightened masters, so there is a highness or lowness to this just as there is a highness or lowness to stages of gong-fu or samadhi.
So there are high cultures and low cultures in the heavens and in the world. The topic isn’t like art where people are afraid to criticize anything and say some things are not art, saying “everything is art.” Nonsense…imagine there’s a nuclear war, you dig up some pictures 500 years later, and if you can’t tell whether they were made by a 10 year old or 50 year old with many years painting experience, … well you’ve got a problem then.
Now some cultures have high cultivation teachings that are reflected in life and in the relationships between people, and others are sterile in this respect. They are NOT very advanced in these regards and people know this, but don’t want to say anything for fear of criticism. Nonetheless, what’s true is true. A culture needs teachings about virtue, ethics and morality, and teachings about spiritual cultivation for the Tao (or samadhi), methods to get there, and a transmission vehicle of practice among other things. The purpose of life, and what people should devote themselves to is part of this as well.
If a society doesn’t have samadhi teachings, merit teachings and teachings about enlightenment or serving others, don’t tell me that it’s a high stage cultural vehicle. That’s just nonsense talk, even if the society/nation is advanced prosperity-wise or technology wise.
Remember that there are countless layers of heavenly realms and being reborn in these realms all depends on your degree of virtue and merit as well as your degree of samadhi attainment -- and how much a society or culture reflects these things or offers ways to achieve the highest good is therefore a way to rank its greatness or not. What it achieves in real time to help uplift the people and elevate them towards the Tao is the most important aspect of culture.
For instance, the US is very, very strong in the sciences but not deep in terms of the worldly wisdom regarding how to use those sciences or interpret its results. It’s not deep in terms of true cultivation teachings as well, but that’s something for you to ponder, as well as how to improve things.
The real big thing for ranking cultures (and yes, I do believe you can rank cultures somewhat as to the high and low) is how much a culture has teachings of cultivation within it because that's what uplifts a culture. Money, wealth, prosperity, science and technology do not uplift a culture – look how stressed Americans are, look at the lack of relationships between husband and wives or children and parents, and then make your own decision.
But enough of that.
If you have teachings of cultivation within a culture, if people practice them, and they’ve become reflected in the cultural relationships between people -- in terms of behavior, how one should deal with others and conduct themselves, how people should deal with events, how they should conduct their lives and what they should devote themselves to -- that's an admirable culture.
The extent to which true cultivation teachings and behavior penetrates into regular life is a way by which you can know an advanced society. You want a society to have teachings whereby if you follow them, at the very minimum you can be reborn in the heavens when you die even if you fail to achieve samadhi or enlightenment.
This is then something I want you to ponder – what can you do to uplift your country’s culture? It comes down to personal behavior and cultivation, doesn’t it? It’s not about wine or art or literature, unless they are UPLIFTING the people to higher heights rather than disseminating ugliness and pessimism.
Of course I reserve my right to broaden my definition over time, but the majority of a nation’s culture deals with spiritual cultivation in some form or another. How deep, how wide, how broad spread are cultivation teachings in a particular society or nation?
That’s a crucial component of the definition of a nation’s culture.
Now…being the Buddha or Bodhisattva you are, now that you know this definition, what can you do to help your nation, society or people now that you know this?
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