Thread: Why so much Japanese?

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    Why so much Japanese?

    Mushotoku has Japanese roots BUT the Abbott isn't Japanese. The students aren't Japanese. The temple isn't in Japan. So why so many Japanese words which need to be translated to American? I am not sure what purpose that could possibly serve. It seems to imply that it has less meaning without the constant Japanese references, which makes no sense.

    One person said "because some japanese words don't translate well". So then I think "okay what about the 80% that do translate well which you are still using Japanese?" So, not translating well is not a very good response.

    Why should American sit and chant in Japanese words that have no meaning to them? Are the words magical? They certainly can serve no purpose to those that don't understand them.

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    Forums Member Lazy Eye's Avatar
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    Hi Todd and welcome to BWB!

    Since this is the beginner's forum, and you are addressing people who may not be familiar with the Japanese schools, you might want to give some more background concerning your question. Many who read this post will not know what you are referring to. Please also feel free to post such questions in the Mahayana-Vajrayana forum. :)

    For what it's worth, I tend to think this sort of question is one to bring up with your temple and its abbot. Some organizations stress the Japanese aspect more than others.

    We could also ask why Buddhists use terms from Sanskrit and Pali instead of English equivalents. One answer is that the English equivalents are imprecise and can be misleading. Due to linguistic differences, sometimes there is no single English term which conveys the sense accurately. (This happens, for instance, with the term dukkha). To really grasp what is being meant, one should be familiar with the original term. This might be the case also with some Japanese and Chinese terms that are used in Zen.

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    Global Moderator Esho's Avatar
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    Todd,

    Japanise has been a corner stone for Soto Zen traditions. The translation problems are for all traditions. The same happens with Theravada when the English translations are from Pali and some are not accurate.

    Japanise language is ideographic.

    Are about some kind of symbols. A given symbol can radically change when it is joined to another symbol.

    Joining symbols give different meanings. And this is wonderful.

    Ideograms helps us not get attached to a fix definition that causes confusion.

    Language is a very important tool that shapes deeply a culture.

    As being symbols or ideograms this cultures do not hold tightly into definitions as we do. Is what is known in Language Anthropology, a contextual language.

    So, it is flexible. The meaning has to be grasped carefully looking how the Zen priest or the Roshi performs in actions his teachings.

    For example, the idea of Dukkha as -just- suffering (the romantic suffering) is wrong.

    Dukkha means many stages of discomfort and not necessarily the Western idea of someone who suffers.

    Discomfort can be experienced even when having sensual gratification as the moment we start to desire more of it.

    Like drinking. The first drinks are felt good, but are leading into anxiety, and, although the person seems happy, it's suffering; the next has some discomfort, and the last, ends in a chaotic behaviour.

    All that is suffering.

    Does are different stages of discomfort.

    Westerners have a different idea about suffering that do not fits with attachment to sensual pleasure.

    Last edited by Esho; 21 Nov 11 at 22:17.

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    I understand people saying that it doesn't translate well but unless the student learns how to speak and read japanese, it doesn't matter how well it does or doesn't translate because it has to be translated. Also, because we don't understand japanese it IS being translated. It seems as much respect is being paid to the original language as the lesson itself whish is crazy.

    By the way, I do support this thread being moved if it is better or more appropriate in another place :-)

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    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Todd View Post
    I understand people saying that it doesn't translate well but unless the student learns how to speak and read japanese, it doesn't matter how well it does or doesn't translate because it has to be translated.
    I have to disagree with you, Todd.

    Many words do not have an exact equivalent in another language, so a translation is always an approximation. In its own language, a word carries connections with the history and the customs of the people. These connections are lost in translation. And all this is especially true of words used in a spiritual context.

    But you or I do not speak and think in Japanese. If we are to get an understanding of the wisdom and content of Japanese Zen, we have to do it in English.

    Therefore, some words or terms are retained in Japanese so that when we use them we don't fall into the trap of assuming we know exactly what they mean, we don't assume they are identical to the nearest English word with all its English connections. It's like retaining a respect for the original meaning, and accepting that our inadequate translation is just approximate.

    I hope that helps you to make better sense of the use of Japanese words in the context of bringing Zen to the West.

    Woodscooter.

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    I guess what I am trying to communicate is that it feels to me like the lesson should be without culture. The lesson is bigger than culture. While it may have japanese roots, it is a human lesson first and should therefore be able to be taught in any language. The lessons are ideas, a way of thinking (or not thinking). The lesson lies in the idea or thought, not in the language. It feels like the language is a distraction to the lesson itself.

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    Global Moderator Esho's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Todd View Post
    I guess what I am trying to communicate is that it feels to me like the lesson should be without culture. The lesson is bigger than culture. While it may have japanese roots, it is a human lesson first and should therefore be able to be taught in any language. The lessons are ideas, a way of thinking (or not thinking). The lesson lies in the idea or thought, not in the language. It feels like the language is a distraction to the lesson itself.
    Todd,

    When it is about traditions and schools in Buddhism, we can not separate them from their cultures from where that specific teaching developed.

    That do not mean that you have to become a Japanise to do Zazen in Soto tradition, but Zazen was developed within a specific cultural setting and that setting is what has made Zazen, Zazen.

    For example, the ideal situation is to know well Pali in order to know the real meanings of many words and their correct context when reading the Nikayas.

    From there you will be sure of what Buddha really taught.
    Last edited by Esho; 21 Nov 11 at 22:37.

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    Forums Member andyrobyn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Todd View Post
    I guess what I am trying to communicate is that it feels to me like the lesson should be without culture. The lesson is bigger than culture. While it may have japanese roots, it is a human lesson first and should therefore be able to be taught in any language. The lessons are ideas, a way of thinking (or not thinking). The lesson lies in the idea or thought, not in the language. It feels like the language is a distraction to the lesson itself.
    My conclusion is that even the Pali canon is not without culture - it is influenced by the culture at that time. We are dealing with factors of human existance and culture will always be a part of it. Language is all that we have to communicate with - sometimes the inadequacy of it is sooo obvious, isn't it?

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