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?

Rev. Danny provides a loose principle to work with: it might not be a bad thing for such Buddhist language to infiltrate popular culture just so long as “the roots” of those words come along for the ride. Accordingly, the problem with articles like the the New York Time’s piece on the president-elect is that the term is completely bleached of its religious heritage. If you read the article, there’s nothing in there about meditation or the Zen Buddhist tradition. Furthermore, Rev. Danny points out that this usage is even offensive:

As I said in my post about Burke’s piece last year, I’m sure it’s no one’s intention to demean anyone or confuse anything, but that’s still kind of what’s happening when specific language is used in this sort of slapdash way. Mr. Burke is quite right indeed, I think, when he says that the use of the term “Zen” in this way is both inaccurate and insulting to those who practice in one of the Zen traditions.

This sort of reminds me of my kvetching over the mainstream Buddhist media. I see the exclusion of Asian Americans from the MBM as a form of racial injustice, be it unintentional. The difference is that on the subject of language, while a misappropriation may be insulting, it’s not an injustice. But I have a suspicion that the real issue isn’t the desanctified etymology.

I want to be clear first that I think these complaints about misappropriation of Buddhist words are fully justified. If you feel slighted, say it out loud. When I make a “slapdash” reference to the Man Upstairs, I’m certainly not considering that my devoutly monotheistic friends might get offended by this sort of vain usage. They should let me know.

But when we complain about others’ misappropriation of our religious words by entirely neglecting the etymology, we should also be aware that we’re being hypocritical when we commit the same offense. Our everyday speech is clogged with mundane words of religious origin.

You probably already know that the valediction goodbye comes from “God be with you” (not to mention adieu) and that bead, the word for a small round object, comes from the word for prayer (Old English gebed). And most people are not invoking the power of the Almighty with Oh my God! or (my personal indulgence) OMG.

And as for religious terms from other languages, well I usually don’t see anyone launching a jihad over media references to the Boston Brahmins. It almost seems that, in the words of Rev. Danny, “anything’s kosher at this point.”

I should also point out that we Asian-speaking Buddhists are the worst offenders when it comes to bleaching Buddhist terms into the mainstream. For example, it wasn’t until I learned how to read and write that I realized that kankaung “lucky” comes from kan “karma” or that meittu “copy” comes from the Pali word mitta “friend”. Should you learn to speak (Southeast) Asian, prepare yourself for a never-ending wave of insults.

But that said, none of this is really the issue. I’m guessing that the real issue with the misappropriation of Zen is not that the word has lost its etymology. The problem is that the new sense of the word leads non-Zensters to make incorrect assumptions about the philosophy, history and practice of Zen. Or more personally, your practice. As a favorite example, I remember listening to a Dharma Realm podcast (yes, I listen!) where Rev. Harry told someone he was a Buddhist minister, and then this individual related it to his experience playing hackey sack. It comes down to trivializing your practice.

Language is as fickle a thing as anything else in this world. We only live under the illusion that we can actively control it. In the case of a word rubbing us the wrong way, it’s really a question of whether we choose to get angry or let go.

But before you let go, it shouldn’t hurt to write a blog post “in as relaxed and light-hearted a way as possible.”

3 Replies to “Zen Sensitivities”

  1. I can’t quite put my finger on what bothers me about this. I know what the words mean to me. I know they are not my words. It seems to me that I have no more right to them than anyone else, and that to try to control others’ use of them is sort of grasping. But maybe I’m confused. That happens a lot.

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