Liturgical Language and Start-up Buddhism

Warning: this is a rant post.

Although I have happily taken up with a local Soto Zen group in my area, one of the first challenges I’ve noticed is that the group is probably 99% white, and have little or no knowledge of Japanese culture or language, despite the tradition they’ve inherited. This came into stark view when one the teachers, a very nice elderly man, proudly showed some Zen calligraphy that his teacher had composed for him. I could read it, but when I explained how it’s read in Japanese, he simply gave me a confused look.

Further, another peculiarity is that we almost always recite Buddhist liturgy in English. Hearing the Four Bodhisattva Vows chanted in English frankly feels a bit odd to me, though I have gotten used to it. Teachers also frequently mispronounce basic Japanese-Buddhist terms, which is a bit grating for a language student myself.

But then I started thinking about it: am I right to criticize the lack of grounded tradition, or am I just being a Japan-snob? Am I just nit-picking a bunch of minor things while ignoring the positives?

First, I admit I am a giant Buddhist-Japan nerd. I’ve devoted a significant chunk of my life to these two subjects, written more than one blog about it over the span of 15 years, read countless books and updated more than a few articles on Wikipedia. So, my perception of things may be rather skewed. It’s like one of those snobs in a sushi restaurant who insists that “it tasted better in Tokyo”. That’s me sometimes. I have to occasionally stop and remind myself “dude, you’re a huge nerd”.

Further, the Buddha in his own time, taught his disciples in the vernacular languages of the time (Pāli being a kind of lingua franca back then) and encouraged his disciples to continue teaching in whatever local languages were suitable. There was no “holy language” or “liturgical language” in the early Buddhist community. In fact the Buddhist teachings weren’t preserved in Sanskrit, by this point a literary language in India, until centuries later.

So, reciting Buddhist liturgy such as the Heart Sutra or the Four Bodhisattvas in English, even when it sounds a bit clunky, is both practical for disciples in the US, and less intimidating for new students. Expecting students especially new students, to know what Sino-Japanese (Classical Chinese preserved with Japanese pronunciation) is is admittedly unrealistic.

I suppose this is like liturgical language in Christianity. A pious person might wish to read the words of Jesus in the Bible in the original Koine Greek. A lot of Christians wouldn’t necessarily devote the time to do this, but they still go on to be pious, god-fearing Christians. Different people express their faith in different ways.

In the same way, I consider myself a pious Buddhist, so for me, studying and reciting the sutras as they are best preserved, in Classical Chinese, makes sense. Maybe it’s not for other people though. So, when you think about it, who am I judge other Buddhists based on their grasp of other languages?

Still, in spite of all this, the one thing that continues to bother me is the lack of appreciation for, and shallow understanding of, the tradition that we white Buddhists have inherited. When I read Xuanzang’s lament about the state of Buddhism in China at the time in the 8th century, and the need to go all the way India to bring more teachings and knowledge, I empathize with this.

From one shore to another. Speaking of shores

Buddhist immigrant communities here have maintained a continuous, unbroken tradition from the beginning, passing from generation to generation, in spite of discrimination and challenges adapting to a new culture. By contrast, a lot of start-up Buddhist communities in the US feel somehow half-baked: people trying to imitate “how things are done in Asia”, but there are just some things that can’t be transmitted through books sold at Barnes and Noble. Sometimes those “cultural accretions” that white Buddhists gripe about in their quest for “pristine Buddhism” exist for perfectly good reasons, and enrich the tradition, not detract from it. The problem is when white Buddhists don’t understand something and just write it off as unnecessary. I used to do this too when I first met my wife, now I see things pretty differently.

I was prompted to write about this after an acquaintance told me recently that they used to go to the same community “for the meditation”, and had since moved on to transcendental meditation. That was disappointing thing to hear, and makes me question her motives in the first place. It’s frustrating to hear things like this.

Then again, when I am in Japan and I visit a famous historical site, knowing the history of it, and the dramatic events that happened there, and yet others shrug it off, it frustrates me too. So, sometimes I really think this is just a bunch of snobbery and all in my head.

However, setting aside my self-centered and selfish feelings on the subject, I do think that’s important to keep sharing information, translating things as best as I can, and bridging the cultural gaps. If Buddhism continues to prosper in the West, and beyond, then things will look very different from now, and hopefully more mature (not to mention diverse) too. The little seeds we plant now can have big effects for others we will never see.

P.S. The second chapter of the Lotus Sutra has a verse related to this:

[Even] If persons with confused and distracted minds
should enter a memorial tower
and [only] once exclaim, “Hail to the Buddha!”
Then all have attained the Buddha way.

Translation by Burton Watson

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

3 thoughts on “Liturgical Language and Start-up Buddhism

  1. A special transmission outside the scriptures,
    not founded on words or letters.
    Pointing directly at the mind,
    see your own true nature and become buddha.

    Does the Dharma depend on culture?


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: