Buddhist Jargon

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Buddhist Jargon

Postby Blue Garuda » Wed Dec 07, 2011 8:02 pm

It seems that in every form of group activity a vocabulary arises which is shared.

Now, it could be that the terms allow discussion with greater precision - shared understanding maybe, a useful shorthand.

However, I wonder if it is partly 'exclusive' and even a potential form of elitism.

Even if a vocabulary is useful, does it need to be Pali or Sanskrit?

We choose to deem that English words are sometimes incapable of expressing exactly what the Buddha meant, and then use English to explain what he did mean.

I would argue that, just as kids use 'cool' for a specific meaning in their group, we could just as easily use an English word for each Pali or Sanskrit word. I'm no expert, so I can't manage that, but it must be possible.

I focus on English but of course all world languages could do this.

The problem with scattering Pali and Sanskrit into our English is that it may put off beginners who think it necessary to learn this vocabulary - shouldn't we be trying to make Buddhism more accessible through language?

However, I'm all for simplification and whilst 'imputing' a 'valid cogniser' sounds great I've seen beginners go cross-eyed, or should that be 'sight sense organ invalid orientation' . LOL :)
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Jikan » Wed Dec 07, 2011 11:17 pm

I think it would be outstanding if there existed a consensus for English-language translation of Dharma concepts, as there is in Tibetan for instance. It'll take time before this settles out, though, because it takes time to figure out what works well and what does not. Tibetan translators were able to reconfigure the language out of whole cloth. English-language translators face a different problem, because English has a literary and philosophical tradition that extends for hundreds of years. You can't use the word "charity" to translate "dana" without evoking John Milton in someone's mind, even though the Buddhist concept and the Puritan one diverge in important ways. And that's just the egghead side of the equation.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Terma » Thu Dec 08, 2011 12:42 am

I am kind of in the middle on this one. On one hand, I do think that it needs to be accessible and that sometimes that language and all of the meanings can be a bit confusing for some, especially when just starting out. On the other hand, after practicing and studying for a period of time myself, I can see how it is useful to use a Sanskrit or a Tibetan word once one can have a much better understanding of its meaning once it has been explained a little better.

In my case, i am just starting to look at some of the meanings coming from the Tibetan words. and quite often i can see that there can be so much lost in a simple translation to a corresponding English word. With Tibetan being a multi-syllabic language, I have already seen the more in depth meanings of certain words, and that the fact that Tibetan appears to be quite a beautiful language (at least in explaining Buddhist words!).

And once one learns a more definitive meaning of a certain word or term, then they can simply refer to it in Tibetan or Sanskrit.

But I guess all of this is based on one's desire to learn or understand more. For some it may not be neseccary or wanted. I still think that the essence of Dharma can be kept quite simple too. I suppose it is down to one's needs and conditions.

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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Dechen Norbu » Thu Dec 08, 2011 2:55 am

One of the problems is that many English words have previous connotations which are widely accepted and don't match the meaning of the original. That may mislead people when they read the teachings.

In Biology, for instance, the name of a specie is written in Latin. If I say Canis lupus familiaris, everywhere in the world this means a dog. If I see an Iberian wolf, his specie is called Canis lupus signatus. Even if it looks like a dog, if I refer to it as canis lupus sigantus, there will be no doubt that I'm talking of an Iberian wolf. The Eurasian wolf is called Canis lupus lupus and so on. So when we need precision, there are specific terms that can be useful which will never change.

Languages like Sanskrit and Pali may work similarly. I've seen terrible translations and groups that attempt to hastily translate everything. In the end, the result is so bad that it's not even wrong! So I feel rather safe that such languages are there to decrease the speed of the corruption of the teachings.
Slowly we will manage, I guess. But this is something that is likely to take decades or even centuries.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Indrajala » Thu Dec 08, 2011 10:30 am

Blue Garuda wrote:Even if a vocabulary is useful, does it need to be Pali or Sanskrit?


As a "professional" translator of dharma texts I prefer to use where possible Sanskrit terminology if only because it sounds and "feels" better, and it conveys meaning more precisely than English translations, which are not standardized yet.

Even in Classical Chinese a lot of dharma vocabulary was transliterated instead of translated. Though semantic translations for a lot of terms do exist, there is often a preference for a transliteration. Take for example the term niepan 涅槃 for nirvana, which can also be rendered as rumie 入滅 (literally "entering cessation").

In many cases using the original Indic terms is better for the simple fact that they are less prone to be misunderstood.

Jargon as it might be, most religious and scientific traditions develop their own precise lexicon for the purposes of transmitting precise meanings.



I would argue that, just as kids use 'cool' for a specific meaning in their group, we could just as easily use an English word for each Pali or Sanskrit word. I'm no expert, so I can't manage that, but it must be possible.


Cleary translated bodhisattva as "enlightening being", which in the Flower Ornament Scripture leads to a less than agreeable reading experience in many places having it repeated again and again.

It is possible what you propose, but I personally just don't like the idea. Indic terms are easily inserted into English as is, if only because they are Indo-European languages. Chinese is different because of the script and morphological structure of the language. There are a number of Chinese Buddhist specific terms that have no Sanskrit equivalent, and rendering them into English is up the abilities of the translator.


The problem with scattering Pali and Sanskrit into our English is that it may put off beginners who think it necessary to learn this vocabulary - shouldn't we be trying to make Buddhism more accessible through language?


If you're serious about buddhadharma, you will pick it up naturally as you read and absorb a lot of material.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Indrajala » Thu Dec 08, 2011 10:34 am

Dechen Norbu wrote:In Biology, for instance, the name of a specie is written in Latin.


Even in Asia where there is really no Latin culture, in biology texts they reference the Latin classifications.

It is a good common standard that all languages with their differing terms for various animals and insects can utilize and refer to.



Slowly we will manage, I guess. But this is something that is likely to take decades or even centuries.


I think a lot of terms are already embedded into the vernacular lexicon. Words like karma, nirvana, bodhisattva and so on have gone native, so to speak.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Blue Garuda » Thu Dec 08, 2011 2:06 pm

Thanks for the replies. :)

A few thoughts:

I have worked in Marketing and in Education - both are riddled with jargon, which I divide into two types:

There is the jargon which is 'exclusive' nonsense without which you'de be lucky to get through a job interview.

There is also jargon which is a commonly understood and highly specific vocabulary. This is also bound up with the language in which we choose to express it. I understand airline pilots all use English when communicating and that doctors and botanists use Latin.
Doctors also have a hilarious set of acronyms as well, which they write on people's notes for other medics to understand like 'AWFB' - Angel Waiting at Foot of Bed, or 'LONH' - Lights On but Nobody Home'. :)

Whatever I am involved in, for example martial arts, I tend to seek out the oldest and hopefully 'purest' exisiting source for it. So I'll practice a modern art like Aikido but also seek out ancient Ryu for swordsmanship or unarmed techniques. However, although I am interested, I don't go even further back to the Chinese arts or the origin of many, Kalari from India.

I'm the same with languages. Although I chant it a lot, I am not a fan of the Tibetan pronunciation and try to seek out Sanskrit mantras etc. I must admit, though, I get completely lost with scrupture that has possibly first been written in Pali, Chinese, etc. or in a language predating consistent use of Sanskrit. It's tough enough to be taught in English by a Tibetan who is translating from Sanskrit. ;)

I think the best way for Buddhists to share understanding is through a commonly shared jargon, a precise shorthand.

I think integrating some of the terms into our everyday (English) language creates familiarity, but we must also guard against corruption - 'karma' as 'fate' for example, as if it is all in God's hands whether our autorickshaw hits the Tata truck.

Although I doubt that we will ever get all the schools and scholars to agree on every aspect of terminology, it is still very useful IMHO to have a jargon for Buddhadharma in the sense of a specialised vocabulary. Mind, you, some teachers seem to latch onto a few key words and repeat them again and again. The teachers of one sect all use 'impute' and 'bliss' and 'Geshe-la says' dozens of times in each class and it really does grate after a while, I agree. I guess it is a very valuable part of the transaltor's role to avoid words with a very different traditional cultural coinage but these things do settle into new host cultures, as did Christian vocabulary.
Last edited by Blue Garuda on Thu Dec 08, 2011 2:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Huifeng » Thu Dec 08, 2011 2:17 pm

Depends on who one is talking to.
A good teacher will express themselves in a manner understandable by the audience.
However, on an internet site like this, we can't know who will read a post,
so each of us flips onto our kind of default mode.
That doesn't imply elitism at all, at least in my books.

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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Blue Garuda » Thu Dec 08, 2011 4:40 pm

Huifeng wrote:Depends on who one is talking to.
A good teacher will express themselves in a manner understandable by the audience.
However, on an internet site like this, we can't know who will read a post,
so each of us flips onto our kind of default mode.
That doesn't imply elitism at all, at least in my books.

~~ Huifeng


I agree, the 'exclusive' or 'elitist' use of jargon tends to be in either workplace or social groupings.

Teenagers love to use, like, contemporary slang like, innit blood! It also extends to the non-verbal. The kids from the 'hood' in downtown Bristol UK also have a 'signature swagger' - one social worker I was chatting to thought it was hilarious that they all cover their faces and then invent a new way for cops to identify them on CCTV. ;)

Some managers also love to use neologisms etc to feel as if they are part of an elite, others would prefer plain words. There's even an 'app' to 'download' for those who aren't in the know:
http://www.appolicious.com/finance/apps ... oomingsoft

Within Buddhism there are words, phrases and non-verbal actions (e.g. mantras and mudras) which are restricted and therefore 'exclusive' in its literal sense, but not for elitist reasons. I'm thinking of HYT and other Tantric practices, for example.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Indrajala » Fri Dec 09, 2011 8:43 am

Blue Garuda wrote:Within Buddhism there are words, phrases and non-verbal actions (e.g. mantras and mudras) which are restricted and therefore 'exclusive' in its literal sense, but not for elitist reasons. I'm thinking of HYT and other Tantric practices, for example.


Not so exclusive. Mantras in Tibetan are rendered into Tibetan pronunciation. For example, om mani padme hum is pronounced as om mani pema hung. Whether pronunciation is really important or not is up to the individual of course.

Likewise in East Asia where characters, which once phonetically represented in a coarse way Sanskrit pronunciation of mantras, were used to transcribe those mantras, but many centuries later the pronunciation of said characters has changed and now don't resemble the original pronunciation at all. Ironically, Japanese borrowed readings more accurately represent the original pronunciation than modern Mandarin does.

The problem, however, is that in many cases the meaning of the mantras in East Asia has been effectively lost and reconstructing the Sanskrit (or some other Indic language) from transliterated lines made up of characters can be difficult. Nevertheless, they are still recited.

Some Japanese schools also maintained use of Siddham script, but even then the proper pronunciation was only loosely understood.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby maybay » Fri Dec 09, 2011 5:41 pm

Calling these other languages jargon is as if they were conferred subject-hood but denied citizenship. Denied entry into the inner sanctum of our most protected and treasured - the public space and the common man. It is the common man and the public space that should be doing the adaptation.

The fear of elitism is nothing more than that. Rather, we should be asking why we're afraid.
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Re: Buddhist Jargon

Postby Malcolm » Fri Dec 09, 2011 6:30 pm

Huseng wrote:Mantras in Tibetan are rendered into Tibetan pronunciation.


No, Tibetans may pronounce mantras however they do, but they accurately represent the long and short vowels, consonants, the the ṭ series and so on correctly.

My take on this issue (as a professional translator) is that for general translations, there should be a short list of about 20-30 terms that are back translated into Sanskrit -- dharmadhātu, dharmakāya, vajra, prajñapāramita, dharmatā, etc. Then, depending on the specific literature, there may be more technical terms rendered in Sanskrit or not depending on circumstances.
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