Category: Language

Crazy Wisdom and the Imperial Examination

Right now I am editing a book of Chinese Buddhist Literature, and as such am chin-deep in Chinese Buddhist lore. I find the stuff immensely fascinating. I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.*

That being said, the one thing that shakes me is that, time and time again, it seems like the way to know that a given figure is enlightened, the way to know that they’ve really got it figured out, is when they don’t act anything like one would think an enlightened person would or should behave.

It makes so little sense, but, coincidentally, that seems to be the very thing that such a trope is least interested in making. The concept of the enlightened person as the antithesis of an enlightened person assumes that this latter ideal, the standard and agreed upon garden-variety, halo-wielding enlightened being exists.

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To the limits of Western Buddhism (and beyond)

There’s some interesting discussion going on about Western Buddhism. Scott Mitchell blogs about the problems with a notion of Western Buddhism that’s a simple intersection of “Buddhism” and the “West.” His post was interesting enough for Tricycle to re-blog, followed up with the question of whether it’s even kosher to talk about the “West” at all. Brooke Schedneck writes about Western Buddhist teachers who define themselves in opposition to other Western Buddhists. Most recently, Kyle Lovett satirizes of 15 types of Western Buddhists, with “insular Asian Buddhists” segregated to a spot at the end.

This collection of posts all deal with the struggle of defining Western Buddhism as a singular concept. Scott’s venn diagram harks back to a constant refrain in Buddhist studies—that there is not just one Buddhism, but many “Buddhisms.” Much the same can be said about the “West”—i.e. which West are we talking about?

When used as a geographic demarcation, a term like “Western Buddhist” is simple and straightforward. Any Buddhist denizen or native of a Western locale is a “Western Buddhist”—at least in the case where “Western” refers to the Western world (rather than, say, a Buddhist of Western Australia), including locales on all inhabited continents. With his signature crass humor, Kyle writes in this direction. He points out that Western Buddhists include a vast medley of very different (and potentially) annoying types.

On the other hand, “Western” can have strong cultural—even racialized—undertones. “Western” becomes a proxy for us or them, drawing lines through nations, neighborhoods and even congregations. When defined in contrast to Asian, the designation cuts out the majority of those who have practiced Buddhism in Western nations—individuals like myself.

I doubt there will be any solid ground where we can refer to the “West” and not step on the cultural and historical sensitivities of this term. Nevertheless, people do identify as Western—myself included. Perhaps the paradox is that we cannot refer to Western Buddhism without at the same time compromising our Western ideals, such as democracy, egalitarianism and fairness.

Update: I have no idea why I wrote that last line earlier yesterday, or what I meant by it. The conclusion that I’d rather have added is that it’s important that we challenge our notions of “Western Buddhism.” This term is real and substantial insomuch as individuals use it with deliberate meaning; however, I am very wary of this term’s divisive potential, often wielded as such. The authors above make clear that “Western” is not a straightforward concept, of whom Kyle Lovett most unambiguously makes the point, even amid satire, that one need not draw coarse cultural or ethnic distinctions by the use of “Western.” (18/07/2010)

Bodhi Branding

A friend passed along a question from a sibling on whether or not bodhi is an appropriate word to include in a professional logo. My short response is, “It’s fine.” I’ve shared the longer reply below.

Bodhi means “enlightenment” in the ancient Indian language of Pali. It’s also the name for the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened as the Buddha. This word has a special spiritual meaning for Buddhists, but it’s also crossed into mainstream English usage with a broader range of associations. Just look at what sort of brands use the term “bodhi”…

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Exegesis of a White-privileged Notion

I’m going to take the amateur linguist in me for a spin. C.N. Le’s blog post on Asian Nation last Thursday was perceived as ridiculously offensive, even racist, by a number of White bloggers. I walked away from this post with different conclusions, perceiving no racist finger pointing, and instead a strong affirmation of the very same sentiments I occasionally experience at multicultural Buddhist retreats. In spite of heated back-and forth-comments, which have made liberal use of the terms racist, racism and white privilege, I believe further discussion is necessary. How did we come to these different conclusions from the very same words?

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What is karma? It’s simple.

optical illusion

I recently posted an article about “karma” that I found on the Examiner that I thought was very well written. As with any concept in Buddhism, describing what “karma” is the length of an article can be very tricky and difficult to do in a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand manner. I thought the author of this article, Emily, achieved both and therefore posted it on my Facebook account.

My friend pointed out that the way Emily described karma diverged from the way another author, Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, described karma from another article I had posted on Facebook a while back. I reread both articles and she was right, they did conflict in the way they described “karma”. But both descriptions seemed valid. Both authors seemd to know what they were talking about and I never thought twice to think they conflicted until my friend brought it up. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Who has the more accurate description of karma?

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A while back, Bengali monksAshin Sopaka and I had some discussion about what the best English translation of ariyasavaka should be. We were each influenced by different experts. He preferred the translation “Noble Disciple,” while I preferred the translation “disciple of the Noble Ones.” It’s important to keep in mind that these translations are not mutually exclusive, but they are indeed different. Noble disciples comprise individuals who have achieved Noble attainments, while disciples of the Noble Ones have not necessarily reached that level. The latter translation is much broader than the first. As neither Ashin Sopaka nor I consider ourselves Pali authorities, the question was forwarded to the experts themselves…

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Zen in the Economist

I was reading the Economist’s Gulliver blog, when I came across this line: “EXTRA fees get under the skin of all but the most zen travellers.” It looks as though the new sense of Zen isn’t just an American phenomenon. Of course, not all writers for the Economist are British, so perhaps it’s some New Yorker contributing here. This usage of Zen seems to mean ‘dispassionate’ or ‘detached’, as used in many other contexts.

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Noble Speech and Sarcasm

Tongue In CheekOn one of my posts from last week, I swung the spotlight over to another post without realizing it was written tongue-in-cheek. The author complained: “I would have thought that my ‘tongue-in-cheek’ joking was fairly clear.” And this brought me back to something that I’ve been struggling with for months now: sarcasm/verbal irony.

I’ve been trying to avoid sarcastic comments and verbal irony, mostly because I’ve come to believe that these are essentially breaches of the fourth precept.

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More “Zen” in the News

Yesterday the New York Times Carpetbagger blog put up a post with Zen the adjective: L.A. Dispatch: A Moment of Zen. Rev. Danny Fischer has previously kvetched about the implacable writers who use the word Zen in pop-culture because it doesn’t cling to its etymological roots. As I mentioned before, this pop-use of Zen is a little different from the use of Zen as a noun. Anyone who reads this is probably well-aware of this by now, but as for me, I have only just started to realize that this adjectival sense of Zen runs along the lines of “cool”, “dispassionate” or “untroubled”. Somehow, I’m perfectly fine with this. But then again, I don’t identify myself as a Zen practitioner. I haven’t yet scanned anything that the Buddhist language police’s written about this headline, as I’d seen over a similar gripe regarding a New York Times article was that mentioned the Zen Obama. I guess they’ve gotten it out of their system!

Zen Sensitivities

I just read Rev. Danny Fisher’s brilliantly titled piece Zen and the Art of Using the Word “Zen”.Dhyana It’s a good talk about something known in the linguistic sciences as semantic drift, or more simply, changes in a word’s meanings. The specific issue here is the word Zen, originally from Sanskrit dhyana, and it’s (mis)use in respectable mainstream publications like the New York Times. When a Buddhist word is used in a non-Buddhist context, should we be insulted?

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