Tuesday, March 20, 2012

南無, Translations, Worship, Buddhism and Being Stuck

“We don’t worship Buddha,” says pastor Dennis Terry, introducing Rick Santorum while preaching to the choir in the newly posted video... Well, that’s not something most Buddhists say they do, either — at least not many Western Buddhists; rather, it’s more often the case that we look at the historical Buddha as an example of a real human being who proved that liberation from suffering was possible.

I noted that

This is a very interesting point, but actually more than a few Western Buddhists do express worship to the Buddha when they chant the Vandana  

To which Rod/Worst Horse replies

Well, that’s true, except for some this is a vocalisation of recognizing a quality inherent in ourselves and in others.

Yah, you got that right.  But Neal in the comments says,

@Mumon It is my understanding that the English translation of the Vandana is “I venerate the Sacred One, the Great Sage, the Truly Enlightened One.”
It is also my understanding that the word “venerate” means to revere or respect. Not quite the same as worship.
Please correct me if I’m wrong.
 I want to explore Neal's comment a bit, especially in regard to how it reflects Western Buddhist thinking, but first I'm afraid we'll have to go on a language excursion.  OK, well, let's go to the dictionary:


[wur-ship] Show IPA noun, verb, -shiped, -ship·ing or ( especially British ) -shipped, -ship·ping.
1. reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.
2. formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage: They attended worship this morning.
3. adoring reverence or regard: excessive worship of business success.
4. the object of adoring reverence or regard.
5. ( initial capital letter ) British . a title of honor used in addressing or mentioning certain magistrates and others of high rank or station (usually preceded by Your, His,  or Her ). 
 Since in many translations that I've seen of Buddhist liturgies the word "homage" is used, this might be enough, in my opinion, but just to be sure,  the definition of "veneration" does indeed list reverence as a synonym for veneration.

As I said, Rod/Worst Horse is right about this being a vocal expression of a quality that inheres to us. The operative word that is worship/homage/veneration here is 南無, expressed in Japanese chanting as "namu" (なむ)and Mandarin and Pali as "namo." That 南無 in Chinese and Japanese is obviously a transliteration of the Pali is evident from the meaning of the characters composing 南無; 南 means "South" and "無" is the mu meaning "not" or the prefix "un" as in "wireless" being 無線 ,  (musen) in Japanese.    Jeffrey's Japanese-English dictionary's definition of 南無 lists several uses the term, none of which use the term "worship," but all of which seem to be dancing around the word somehow.  I do think the case can be made that indeed, "worship," "homage to," and "venerate" can be used interchangeably for 南無 here, because of the uses of the term where we find it, and noted translations of it.
 For example, Jeffrey's Japanese-English Dictionary includes the Nichiren chant 南無妙法蓮華経 (namu myouhourengegyou) - oh, I should note the "ou" usage connotes an extended "oh" sound, in case you're interested.  南無妙法蓮華経 is translated as "Homage to the Lotus Sutra."

For us Zen folks,  many of us chant 延命十句觀音經 ("Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyou").  Hakuin scholar Philip Yampolsky translates that sutra as:

Kanzeon! Salutation and devotion to the Buddha!
We are one with the Buddha
In cause and effect related to all Buddhas
and to Buddha Dharma and Sangha.

Our true nature is

Eternal, Joyous, Selfless and Pure.
So let us chant every morning
Kanzeon with Nen (attention)

Every evening Kanzeon with Nen!
Nen Nen arises from Mind
Nen Nen is not separate from Mind.
(Note to Prof. Yampolsky: Please forgive my bad editing; I'm wrestling with Blogger.) The phrase "Salutation and devotion to the Buddha" is what is rendered from 南無佛, ("namu butsu") and yeah, 佛 means "the Buddha."

The most common expression of the use of 南無 would be the Pure Land use of it; which is rendered in Japanese as "阿弥陀仏," (namu amida butsu) or, evidently, 阿弥陀佛.  It's also the most common form of Buddhist homage in Chinese (where, to the best of my knowledge, it would be rendered in Mandarin as "namu amito fo.")  In Chan Buddhist temples in China you'll be greeted with 阿弥陀佛.
Ok, I think I've beaten that ...oh, I better not use that metaphor- as I said Rod/Worst Horse is right.

 I didn't want to write this because I wanted to bore anyone with my meager knowledge of comparative linguistics or whatever you call the stuff I wrote above. The real reason I wanted to write about this is because I think it  -and that rage filled pastor that Rod/Worst Horse referenced, underscores a kind of fault-line in Western convert Buddhism.  I first encountered it when my teacher, leading a ceremony honoring the Buddha's birth, invited us to engage in a ceremony by saying, "Let us worship the Buddha." I, myself, felt it right there: Hey, wait a second!  Nobody said anything about worshiping anything!  Later I read stuff such as the above and I became convinced: what we regard as "worship" is a "good" thing when we mean reverent honor, respect, and veneration, but we think it's a "bad" thing when we mean "bowing down before the other evil guy's false deity," or something like that.   We associate "worship" with what that hateful pastor does, whereas we venerate, reverently honor, etc. But they both mean the same thing!

Now I find that pastor's brand of fundamentalism repulsive; that is, I am viscerally repulsed by a crowd of angry people being stirred up by a person displaying anger conveniently speaking for a god who is only present as anger.  And he may not - he certainly is not worshiping, reverently honoring, or venerating that aspect of us which transcends suffering, greed, hatred and ignorance.  But I don't think I'm adequately doing my own transcendence if I let him - or rather my perception of him - if I let my perception of him  get to own the word "worship" as a bad thing in and of itself.  If we are venerating the separation of ourselves from others, if we are venerating our own greed, hatred and ignorance, if I am acting out of my own visceral repulsion, I find it very difficult to see past where that pastor is; I limit my own freedom to act out of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

And that's why I wanted to mention this.


Jeff said...

Good post, thank you for offering it. I think we should acknowledge that worship is what the vast majority of Buddhists do as their basic daily (or whatever frequency) form of Buddhist practice. It is the most common practice across all traditions and sects, all Buddhist cultures, and among both laypeople and monastics. Many Buddhists never do anything other than worship; extremely rare are Buddhists who never worship. Buddhism is a devotional religion, like most religions (especially, like all numerically successful religions).

Buddhism lacks native terms to differentiate "worship" and "veneration" not because it doesn't worship, but because this distinction was meaningless in the pre-Christian-contact period, when worship was a natural Buddhist activity and carried no hint of stigma. It still carries no such stigma for the vast majority of Buddhists, who continue to engage in it regularly, through devotional and petitionary prayers, altar activities, respectful gestures toward monks, and so on.

In the West, the Christian hatred of worship figures other than God is so intense that even Buddhists feel troubled by it. Whereas in Asia Buddhists not only worship their own buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints, and gods but also deities of other religious systems with ease, in the West Buddhists often feel pressured not to even worship their own traditional objects of veneration. This leads to a lot of work among newer Buddhists to obscure the practice of worship or recontextualize it as _only_ veneration of one's own superior qualities (not a traditional understanding, including among Asian Zen). The tragedy is that instead of dropping the Christian baggage that causes so much psychic turmoil and just worshipping figures authentically like other Buddhists, recognizing devotional frames of mind as natural, healthy, and conducive to progress along the Dharma path, people often spend consider effort trying to strip Buddhism of elements they hardly understand and deprive themselves of normal Buddhist tools for transformation, all due to their internalized oppression from the prejudice of a non-Buddhist religious system.

Mumon said...


Thanks for your comment; you're right about how we've been inculcated by Western Christian cultural norms. I greatly appreciate your well expressed thoughts here.