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Cultural Diversity in the Medical Field


Cultural Diversity in the Medical Field (en Español)
by Ven. Thubten Jigme

I was invited to participate on a panel for a Culture and Diversity course for Washington State University College of Nursing. The goal of the panel was to inform a group of first year nursing students about how to best care for patients from a variety of religions. There were four of us on the panel with the Buddhist, Islam, Wiccan, and Native American spiritual traditions represented. We each introduced our spiritual tradition and spoke about how our spiritual traditions intersect with health care. There were over fifty nursing students present, and our presentation was streamed live to two other nursing schools in the state.

Robbie Paul, the Director of Native American Health Sciences at WSU, is from the Nez Perce Tribe. She began her presentation by acknowledging that the campus was built on native land. Eloquently, she described two difficult situations regarding hospital experiences and not being allowed to practice her faith in that environment. She appealed to the nursing students to take the time to ask their patients questions so that they can understand how their patients’ religion can support them during illness. She reminded the students that even though we are all different in many ways, we all belong to the “human tribe.”

Kawkab Shishani is an assistant professor in Nursing at WSU and spoke to the students about being a Muslim. She began by acknowledging how interesting it is to have such a diversity of students in the class. She then addressed common misconceptions about the Muslim faith, making the important distinction between religious practices and cultural mores. Many of the behaviors of some Muslims is not condoned by others who follow the Muslim faith. Dr. Shishani stressed that she follows the Koran, which is based on love and compassion for all.

Reverend Joan Medina represented the Wicca or Neo-pagan Religions. She spoke about the parallels and differences between the Native American beliefs and Wiccan beliefs, especially concerning the connection to the earth. Wiccans strive to live in harmony with all living beings. She also talked about how many Wiccans, when hospitalized, do not disclose their religion for fear of being judged for their beliefs due to misconceptions about them.

I shared the Buddhist world view by describing the Buddhist notion of the mind and how the body and mind are interrelated but have different continuums. When we die, the body and mind separate, and the continuity of the mind goes on to take another rebirth. For this reason, as Buddhists we pay close attention to our actions and the causes we create. Death is not just the cessation of breath, heartbeat, or brain, but occurs when the very subtle mind leaves the body. Our state of mind at the time of death is very important in influencing our next life, so we try to keep the environment quiet and calm, encourage the person to have virtuous thoughts, and do not touch the body until necessary after death. At that time the crown of the head is touched first. Buddhist friends help guide those that are dying by chanting mantras and reciting prayers and practices.

At the end of the presentations we were asked by the professor to say one sentence that would sum up the essence of our religions and all of us spoke about cultivating  compassion and extending kindness to all beings. Although, all the traditions have very different practices, there is the strong unifying thread of compassion running through each of our faiths. We have far more similarities than differences!  

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