“For the dignified Shambhala person, an unwaning authentic presence dawns.” Chogyam Trungpa
Words allow us to enter into new worlds. They allow us to inhabit new spaces, evoke new feelings, receive different ideas and come to the see the world differently. They also allow us to experiment with the creation of those same things. The opposite is also true, familiar words can permit us to reinforce boundaries that separate what is experienced as ‘me’ and ‘other’ and build and sustain allegiances, whilst creating distance from all manner of forms and possibilities. Language is a network of possibilities and worlds.
We have what is called an idiolect, which is our own personal dialect, made up of specific chunks of language, favourite words, and phrases that we use again and again and that stimulate certain feelings and posturing whilst formulating and stabilising our own subjective realm of being and the ground on which we build our ideas and beliefs. Groups have their own dialects too. We usually learn this when we go to university and find a whole lot of specialist terminology to memorize and then use appropriately in order to be able to inhabit a new world of ideas successfully, and importantly, reproduce it. The same is true of religions. In Buddhism new followers of the different traditions begin to learn the lingo and in doing so reproduce the dialect, and therefore the ideas and beliefs, of the group. If they choose to become integral members, they assimilate into the group in great part through the reproduction of the group’s language, which forms a significant part of the glue that binds the members into a shared sense of meaning and perspectives. Such actions have the potential to entrap as much as free and sometimes the line between the two is difficult to perceive.
The more educated, intelligent reader will likely be all too aware of the power of language and the close knit relationship between a basic understanding of language and the ability to think for one’s self, as well as enter into the thinking, ideas and discoveries of our great historical thinkers, writers and innovators. Words matter.
One of the ideas that is central to a post-traditional approach to Buddhism is to examine and reconsider the language that we use when discussing Buddhism. This has two facets. The first is to find our own voice and to use our own words to capture and describe accurately our own experience, thoughts and opinions: where those words are missing, to find other linguistic forms to use through an expansion of the network of ideas that we have at our disposal. The second is to find a way to talk about Buddhism, and experience within and of Buddhism, without relying on the dialects that fill dharma halls. To do so is to challenge assumptions, unpack beliefs and liberate the potential of Buddhist ideas and practices to come into dialogue with the wider world of human experience and knowledge.
This is a key theme that runs through much of my writing and this concept runs counter to many of its more conservative and insular expressions and their claims to absolute authority, with Tibetan Buddhism being a ripe example. To do this, attention to language is key. The choice of words we use is important and an understanding of the relationship between loaded terminology and the uncritical reproduction of ideas is doubly important. Why? Because when a person reproduces such loaded terminology uncritically, it typically leads to the creation of a new self, the blind acceptance of artificial beliefs and the parroting of those ideas, language and behaviour. This is essentially what occurs in any form of committed social alignment of course.
Such language in Buddhist circles consists of a great deal of Buddhist buzz words, such a karma, dharma, Buddha and so forth. For quite some time I have been bothered by the overuse of certain English terms in Buddhist environments: ego being one of them. In the way that it is used, I think it would be quite fair to label it under buddheme. In Buddhist circles, I have heard the word ego used to describe all manner of ills and painted as a bogey man, often becoming the imagined source of all our sins. Although ego can imply an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance, and arrogance too, it is a term that gained real usage in western culture due to Sigmund Freud, who understood it to be a factor of our psychic make-up that allows us to manage the extremes of our selfing process. The ego for Freud was the healthiest part of the human psyche and essential to our ability to participate functionally in the world. Nowadays, amongst Buddhists, it often gets used interchangeably with the self, which is unfortunate. It is funny how such a concept has gotten turned into a big bad wolf that doesn’t exist, but is somehow responsible for our suffering and naughty ways and vilified as a sort of collective enemy to be shunned. Although most modern dictionaries will include a definition of the ego as the self, a quick concordance search shows that its actual usage in society is predominantly negative and overwhelmingly associated with arrogance. Its mention in texts is predominantly found in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychology where it is discussed in Freudian terms. Confusing such a negatively connoted word with the self creates all sorts of unhealthy ideas regarding the goal of Buddhisms, as many of the first generation American Buddhists discovered when paying large fees to psychotherapists to help them deal with spiritual bypassing and all manner of suppression.
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