Saturday, March 27, 2010

Economy of Language and the Body/Mind

Arun over at Angry Asian Buddhism has an intriguing post about labels used for different groups of North American Buddhists. He takes issue with the term "cradle Buddhists," which lumps together such disparate groups as 6th generation Chinese-Americans and white Zen practitioners whose parents were "converts," yet another tricky term. There are many important points in Arun's post about the problems with this term, but what I'm interested in is the human mind's quest for easy to remember phrases.

On the webzine I've been writing for, Life as a Human, the editor, Kerry Slavens, wrote an interesting post about St. Patrick's Day and the ubiquitous "I'm Irish!" that comes with it in North America. The following comment was made to her post by a guy named Kev:

You know what the Irish can’t stand? (the REAL Irish, as in, born and raised in Ireland) Americans. They are the bane of our existence. Worse yet is Americans who say “I’m Irish”. Worse still are the Americans who say “Oh, you’re from Ireland? Do you know Mary?”.

You are not Irish. You have Irish descendants. You are American. (Well, Canadian in this case but you get my point. By the way, we love Canadians).

I have French descendants actually, my second name is Roche, which is French for something. That does not mean I am French. In fact, every human on the planet has African descendants, that doesn’t mean we’re all African.

It’s a rule. To call yourself Irish, you have to be born here, or at the very least live here long enough to see that the predominant colour of this country is not green, but gray. Gray clouds covering the sky 4/5ths of the year, gray, dull buildings, gray foot paths, roads, dirt and gravel.

I, myself, often say "I'm half Irish," because it's easier than saying something like "Half of my ancestors came from Ireland." This starts to get at part of what's going on here, which is an economy of language issue. We want to communicate. And we also want to do some in a way that people remember what we have said - frequently anyway. Look at any effective political campaign, or corporate advertisement. There's always a catchy slogan or set of slogans that get repeated to the point of being burned into the mind.

And if you pick up any song, or poem - it's all about saying as much as possible in the fewest amount of words. Even several hundred page poems, that deliberately spew language across the page - like Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, which is a several hundred page romp through a linguistic forest - there is still an effort to erase any excess. To hell with grammar conventions. Forget the "necessary" introductory words, or cuing. No need for pleasantries that might ease a reader in.

Or, on the oppose end, you could take up a Buddhist sutra and notice how much repetition there is. Or how the same introductory phrases, like "Thus I have heard" appear over and over and over again. Even though things are repeated, there is meaning contained within every word of the sutra. People had to recall and speak these things to others, and some still do rely on spoken sharing as a prime focus of their Buddhist practice, even if they have access to books, magazines, and the internet.

So, the human mind loves an easy to remember phrase, and I'd also argue that what's taken in and remembered, also lives in our bodies. I've experienced both ends of this. Seven years ago, I jettisoned my TV for a variety of reasons, but partly because I became highly aware of how my mind, and thus my body, were being colonized by commercials. While a lot of people love that they can recite the jingle for Wal Mart or Coke, I find it to be an insidious invasion that saps energy and focus from my life's purpose. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but think about the saying "You are what you eat." People are now starting to wake up to the fact that ingesting processed, hormone-infested meat, to give just one example, has a highly negative impact on your body and mind functioning. And I'd argue that if you have a heavy diet of corporate advertisements, there is a different, but also negative impact that results.

On the other hand, I have memorized and taken in gathas, dharma poems, and short sutras to the point where they are a part of me, completely. They have imbued my body and mind in such a way that sometimes, they simply appear when an occasion calls for their wisdom.

What I have noticed about the process of learning, though, is that the most compact versions of any teaching are the ones I gravitate towards when going for ingestion. Taking in the most technically correct translation of the Heart Sutra, for example, just doesn't work. A good thing to study, but it isn't going to stick in whole.

And going back to the beginning, part of the problem with the efforts to come up with labels for various groups of Buddhists is that desire for an easy phrase, which can be taken in and sent back out into the world with ease. It doesn't mesh well with the complicated reality we live in, where such labels can only be pointers at best.


Kyle said...

Once we begin to split the world into smaller and smaller labels, there is no end to how small we can divide people.

I am concerned at the amount of social ideologies that split humanity into so many little packages, that we forget why we became Buddhists in the first place.

spldbch said...

I think our brains do this automatically - try to break things into their smallest components in order to simplify them. Labels and categories help us to organize the world, something we are constantly doing without even realizing it. I agree with you, however, that it's important to remember that the world is not really simple and that things cannot always be neatly segregated into mutually exclusive categories. It's important to be aware of the nuances and not to assume that our labels are the "end all, be all."

Vagabonde said...

I agree with you about labeling – but I think this is predominant in the country. I am French (I was born there and have a French passport) and now an expat who became a citizen too. I have met quite a few “French” people who were only French because their ancestors came here during the French revolution in the 1700s and do not speak a word of French. They are American by culture and everything else. I remember reading a book by an “African American” who went to Africa to find his roots and came back knowing that his roots were really in the Deep South, that everything in Africa was alien to him and even the Africans did not think he was one of them. Why such labels when people here are so patriotic and frankly don’t like foreigners very much (I know.) The same about Buddhism – when my daughter told her first grade teacher (in Georgia public primary school) that we were Buddhist, the teacher said that she was mistaken, that her mother was French and could not be Buddhist, because of her accent she must have meant “Baptist” and forced my daughter to say Grace before the cookie break . I do not think this will change in this country – not for a long time – because this is the way the culture is here.

Nathan said...

I hear ya. We in the U.S. do seem to have a particularly hard time with seeing past our own doorstep, and attaching to patriotic labels and images that are ultimately empty.

As for categories and labels, I'm not against them. In fact, it's pretty impossible to go through everyday life without them. However, we all need to hold them lightly, or else they take over.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

I'll have to check out Arun's post as I tend to enjoy his writing, but I wrote about this a bit a while back "A Proud Fundamentalist Buddhist Scholar White Guy in America"

To sum up: labels ARE useful. If they're used oppressive, that's bad, if they're used in a way that doesn't illuminate things, that's ho-hum. But for the most part, they're good. As you say, "we all need to hold them lightly, or else they take over." :)