&#91VIEWPOINT&#93Language and distorted prisms

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&#91VIEWPOINT&#93Language and distorted prisms

In the April 14 J-Style page of the JoongAng Daily, your writer and editorial staff showed an ignorance of several very important aspects of the Buddhist tradition. You have subtly degraded the beauty of one of the world’s great religious traditions by conflating it with the value systems of another of the world’s great religious traditions.
In the article, “On Paper and Off, It’s a Spiritual Life,” you claim that “[the subject’s] daily life begins at 4 a.m. with worship in front of a statue of Buddha.” Buddhists, almost as a rule, are not taught or encouraged to “worship” the Buddha. Such a verb as “worship” implies more the attitude of (mono)theistic religious traditions, which Buddhism is precisely and emphatically not. By claiming that someone ever “worships” the Buddha, you are implying, however unconsciously, that the Judaeo-Christian mindset is the ruling standard defining a spiritual relationship to one’s spiritual guide or teacher. Such an act of worship has no role in the practice of Buddhism.
In the very next line, the same assumptions about Buddhism creep back in. “After chanting some sutras, Mr. Kim bows to the deity 108 times.” The Buddha is not a deity in any sense of the word. The word “Buddha” means “enlightened one.” When bowing to the Buddha, Buddhists are bowing to their own, fundamental true nature, which is the nature of all things and which the statue temporarily represents in a crude form.
But there is a much deeper issue at stake here, and one which lurks behind the point I am raising about this article and many similar articles of newspapers here. People unfamiliar with Buddhism who view this tradition through their own religious prism will always attempt ― consciously or unconsciously ― to conflate Buddhist teachings with those traditions. There is a very insidious process of evaluation, comparison, and unspoken judgment. The teachings of Judaeo-Christianity are considered to be the “gold standard” by so many today, especially in a Korean society so desperate to ape the West: every other teaching, and the subtle nuances of its own vocabulary and teachings, are aberrant, or primitive or just inconsequential. The “other” tradition is held ― trapped, suffocated ― by the standards of the viewer and his or her vocabulary.
Buddhism could not speak for itself, as it were, in this article; its particular tradition was “spoken for” by the dominant vocabulary of another tradition. By viewing Buddhism through a different value system and expressing its unique teachings through that vocabulary, Buddhism is denied its voice.
That artilce also said that someone “transgresses the Buddhist commandment.” There are no Buddhist commandments. There are Buddhist precepts, rules and promises to guide our spiritual enlightenment, and they are in manifold ways spiritually different from the Ten Commandments that your staff has interpreted into their place. Precepts are guides, rules of a far less legalistic and dualistic nature than the commandments that the article assumed to be, well, the standard.
Perhaps you may say that this is all a simple matter of splitting hairs over language. But every Korean today knows how painful this ignorance of language can be. For by representing Buddhism’s extraordinarily rich tradition of teachings through the vocabulary of Judaeo-Christian eyes, we are perpetuating another kind of hegemony. It is a hegemony of language, and more than just the words, a hegemony of the values of one conquering religion over the subtle values of another tradition. When Koreans hear “Sea of Japan” to refer to the East Sea, they react not just to the term but to the unspoken judgment contained in those words that implicitly posits the Japanese world view. Korea has a legitimate claim to its usage and that idea and that history. Diplomats, scholars, and writers may legitimately claim consistency for preferring “Sea of Japan” to “East Sea,” but the pain inflicted upon a good Korean’s soul by this act, only a Korean (and Korea’s many admirers, like myself) can know.
Westerners often dominate and even subtly subvert the teachings of one subtle tradition with the assumed vocabulary ― and more importantly, the values ― of another tradition, and therefore give rise to all sorts of religious misunderstandings. The use of words is a highly privileged act, and one which I hope that we all apply with greater responsibility, sensitivity, and most of all, compassion.

* The writer is a Buddhist monk living at Hwa Gye Temple in Seoul.

by Hyon Gak
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