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Buddhist Jargon and Terminology

“Bad Language”

A Reader recently wrote:

Often, as I read English-language Buddhist resources, I am bombarded with terms from Pali, Tibetan and Sanskrit. Perhaps it would be more helpful if Buddhist teachers translated (as accurately as possible) the various Buddhistic terms into English (or whatever language needed for the culture) rather than expecting the practitioner to keep a vocabulary list going. Since clarity is beneficial and if Buddhism really is adaptable, then using one’s own language in its study should not be a big deal. I’m not trying to be Anglo-centric but it seems like we all lay it on thick some times.

When I was involved in the Southern Baptist Church, many pastors would often revert to Greek or Hebrew words from the Bible in an apparent effort to gloss over a difficult passage for the congregation. We should be able to communicate Buddhism clearly in any language without reference to its antecedents.

Plus, I feel like some beginners may attach to an idea that may be verbalized as follows: “Wow, this Buddhism is really cool because it uses Asian words of which I am unfamiliar. That means it is special because of the words” (rather than the concepts behind the words). Sometimes, you can almost hear the condescension when a teacher begins to pour out these words (“I know Pali, what a good boy am I”) It’s just something to think about.

Buddhism is a philosophy that transcends continental boundaries — so should its concepts and linguistics.

And my response:

I get that impression a lot. Some people and groups act like the words themselves have some kind of power. I’m not sure if I have related this story here yet or not, but the only local sangha nearby (in Dayton, Ohio) is a Tibetan group. They chant in Tibetan every week. The chants are printed on little cards with phonetic ‚Äúsounds‚Äù printed on them. Why? No one there is actually Tibetan, and I would bet my bottom dollar that few of the attendees can translate. What is the point of that?

Last week I used the phrase ‚Äúmystical mumbo-jumbo,‚Äù but that’s not the same as simply using too much jargon.

Obviously, I agree with you completely on this, and I’ve tried to keep the ‚Äúbig words‚Äù to a bare minimum. When I introduce a topic, I will also tell you the ‚Äúterm‚Äù that accompanies it, but if I use that idea later, I try not to assume the reader knows it. Lots of people are new to the list, or haven’t heard all the audio shows, or whatever. Why assume the reader knows all the terms? For the most part, Buddhism is made up of many relatively simple concepts. Why get bogged down in terminology?

That being the case, I think the Daily Buddhism Website should have some kind of glossary of terms. I have introduced some of the jargon already; karma, anatman, dharma, mudras, and the like. There are some concepts where it’s just easier to use the common word; it’s not hard to learn the difference between dharma and karma. Still, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have one easy place to refer to these terms. I’ll start adding to a list and get something posted soon.

In the meantime, has anyone come across any terms, concepts, or jargon they would like me to help explain? Send it in!

1 comment to Buddhist Jargon and Terminology

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    I would partly agree that sometimes there is an “overuse” of “original” words and it is deplorable when they are used to hide the speakers ignorance.

    On the other hand I do like to know the “correct” term, especially when it is very context dependent or it is the term generally used. One problem with translations it is difficult to get them accurate especially across cultural divides. Take a look at the simple English word “wicked” – generally it means “not nice, bad, mean”, but in some parts of society it is also used to mean “cool, excellent, fantastic” – and that’s just within English!

    Over the last 1000 years English has become fused with Christianity and its concepts… which can make it difficult to simply “reuse” and English expression, which might be the correct translation, but that does not share the same conceptual space.

    Brian, I think your idea of a glossary is a great one – it might be worth allowing URL links as well so that we can link to wikipedia or wiktionary – I looked up sangha as an example:

    As to chanting in Tibetan – I actually like that… and sounds have power, it’s not only the words that have power, it’s the vibrations that come with saying them… at least to some people 🙂


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