Strictly speaking, the word Buddhism is a faux amis – a false friend. Believe it or not, “Buddhism” has no counterpart in the canonical languages (Sanskrit, Chinese, Pali, Tibetan, and Mongolian) nor derivative commentary languages of Asia (e.g., Korean, Japanese, Thai, etc.). How so?
Western interpretation of buddhavacana (from the verb root vac, to speak – “voc” as in vocal and vocation (a calling) in the West) or buddhadharma (dharma = principles) invented an -ism word, buddhism, along with hinduism and daoism. Conditioned as we are in the West due to theology, we expect ‘systems of belief’ to be the concern of religions. While it remains an open question if non-Western spiritualities qualify as religions, it’s absolutely certain their non-linear orientations eschew formalized ‘systems of belief’ – on at least two counts.
Systems in religion are a way of summarizing the main tenets making a religious view orthodox or correct. The Zoroastrian-Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition rests on a conversion experience in which one makes a moral choice to be on the side of righteousness, abandoning adherence to evil and deception in order to ensure everlasting life in salvation. In that respect, supreme authority vested in a God include being a cosmic dictator who enforces, upholds and sentences offenders for their religious crimes – in a court devoid of appeal processes or even defense advocates!
When we reduce alien spiritualities to a ‘system’ we’re forcing them into a box: worse still, we mandate they behave in accord with the fashions of our familiar culture. In essence, they have no right to self-expression. A certain imperialist imposition results, one holding the alien native is inferior, that it’s the white man’s burden to competently represent the native. We just have to find out what his system of belief amounts to then articulate it.
Belief is the key problem. The very notion presupposes belief in some dictates are intrinsic to human spirituality. With discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels just after World War II, it became obvious that early Christianity included trends for whom belief was not necessary. Gnosis, related to our English word ‘knowing’ or ‘knowledgable’ upheld the virtue of not-believing religious gossip, instead having direct confirming experience.
Turning Eastward to the cultures of India and China, belief has utterly no presence in their spiritualities – they’re code free zones devoid of mandatory required beliefs as foundational to membership in a religion. Like the gnostics, they aim at gaining insight and knowledge, not submissive kowtowing to a rash of ideas devoid of evidence.
The buddhists are very precise in their language. They aim for liberating or freeing knowledge – just the opposite of binding, encapsulating belief. No small wonder Buddhists advocate ‘cultivating deep doubt’ – the knowledge arrived at by means of systematic doubt is solid and irrefutable.
So in vain attempt to pin folks of the buddha tradition down, the word buddhism was invented. A faux amis.
Those same folks decided the goal of their newly invented buddhism is that of becoming something called ‘enlightment.’ Ironically, both Sanskrit and Chinese don’t support such abstract nouns – what Maslow referred to as Helium Filled Words. Instead, those languages more orient us toward processes than things and abstractions. Buddha means something like awake (no, you can’t capitalize Sanskrit or Chinese to create words stinking of religion such as Enlightenment). Buddha has a sense of continuing, ongoing process such as awakening, waking up.
So what’s waking up imply of our blessed condition? We’re sleepers and dreamers, living illusionary lives of incredible stress, alienation, and igorance. Lives that bear tremendous cost. Modern illnesses are largely stress related as well as degenerative – our dominant social trance keeps us inactive, sedate, and wasting away resulting in such dis-ease as type II diabetes, osteoporosis, elevated cortisol, arthritis, hypertension.
So-called buddhism rests on deconstructing the context of our lives – all our cherished beliefs and the emotional addictions maintaining and preserving them. But that decontruction is pretty easy. Mindfulness (vipashyana or shikantaza) methods facilitate skill development in breaking out of the roller coaster ride of normal obsessions, find rest and peace in the privacy of your own heart/mind. It’s free, and it brings self-accepting peace. As your experience of inner peace grows, your values start changing – who in their right mind would chose perturbances, upsets, bickering and emotional warfare? That stuff starts dropping off simply because it’s disinteresting and unrewarding.
That leaves us somewhere between awake and coma like asleep. Welcome to my world: endarkenment. As a bona fide ‘buddhist’ teacher, people continually want my input about enlghtenment. I honestly have none. And I can honestly tell you a lot about endarkenment. If there is awakening, even enlightening experience, it can only occur by splashing light in the dark. Aha, the dark. Endarkenment.
Own it. Unless you’re 100% awake, you otherwise dwell in some degree of endarkenment. Embrace it, accept it – don’t make it you’re enemy, a sin, or something counterfeit.
After all, as we embrace our humanness, aren’t we sleepers joining hands? What a fellowship. In such honesty, the spiritual life begins not as a quest to outdo yourself, but as a drilling down getting to know the unique blessing that is your life.
December 29, 2009
Copyrighted © 2009, 2011 by Ken O’Neill. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited: all rights reserved by copyright holder.