Friday, 24 February 2012

What's with the Japanese lingo?

Ok, someone shakubuku-ed you. You went to your first zadankai, maybe a toso or two, did some daimoku and started learning how to do gongyo. Someone maybe gave you a juzu and encouraged you to "have a strong ichinen". You sort of know what a Butsudan is, you grasped easily the meaning of Butsuma, but when you heard someone, packing a suitcase full of paraphernalia, complaining their Butsugu was incomplete, you had enough.

For goodness sake, what's with the Japanese lingo?

First, a bit of history. You can find more comprehensive and certainly better researched articles here, but I will give you the long and the short of it.

Nichiren Buddhism is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, that developed in Japan during the 13th century. It is named after the priest Nichiren, who reached enlightenment through the practice of the Lotus Sutra. 

The Soka Gakkai (Organisation for the Creation of Value) is a lay organisation that was founded in - yep, you guessed right - Japan in the 1930s, starting off as a study group really. After the war (and the death of the two first presidents: Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda), it developed into a huge movement and eventually in the 60s was given an international breadth by the third president, Daisaku Ikeda, becoming Soka Gakkai International, or SGI.

The first people who practised Nichiren Buddhism around the world were all, somehow, connected to Japan. They were either Japanese themselves (emigrated or sent abroad by their companies), married to Japanese people or they had spent a long time in Japan for work or study.

This gives us reason #1 why we have so much Japanese terms used on a daily basis. Quite simply, they were the only terms they knew.

Before you can start objecting, I'll move onto reason #2, which can be called "inaccurate translations".

Japanese is quite a dense language. Most of the Japanese words we use (especially the old fashioned Japanese you encounter in the daily practice) has two, three or more meanings. It is almost impossible to translate accurately, retaining ALL the additional nuances.

Try translating our basic mantra, an innocent little phrase of six syllables (or seven Kanji characters). Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. Sure, as I explained before, it has a basic translation - "I dedicate my life to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law", but try to look at the characters individually and you might as well prepare for a long night of study. It is ENDLESS, man. They are so multilayered it is insane.

However, this is not valid for everything, and as a buddhist who has practiced in different countries, I noticed some differences in the way certain terms were used.

For example, in Italy no-one would ever translate the word zadankai, whereas in the UK the translation "discussion meeting" is commonly used, and a lot of young members would look at me funny if I used the Japanese word.

Conversely, here in the UK everyone uses the term tozo (the correct Japanese spelling of which is actually toso), which baffled me the first time I saw it on a district schedule, considering in Italy we commonly use the translation "recitazione" ("chanting meeting").

And how about the word Keibi? In Italy, it would be a special brand of Byakuren or Soka-han (AKA in the UK Lilac and Soka. Ha!), who, during a meeting, chants constantly for the protection of the Gohonzon. As a child and a teen, I considered doing a lot of Daimoku an absolute chore, so the Keibi activity honestly scared me. 

Although it does retain the basic idea of someone protecting the Gohonzon, in the UK, a Keibi is a member of the Adult Division doing protection and/or reception activity at the Buddhist centres. (I'm not telling you how we call those in Italy or you might scream).

How to explain all that? Well, I'll first call for reason #3, which is plain and simple "cool factor". Foreign, exotic words are just cool. Everyone must agree to the fact that doing daimoku with a juzu to strengthen your ichinen sounds a million times more cool than "chanting" with "praying beads" to strengthen your "determination". Aye?

And to conclude, reason #4, a healthy dose of "habit springing from sheer fortuity", which is self explanatory.

In my next post, I will create a glossary of the most common Japanese terms we use in everyday Buddhism ^^

1 comment:

  1. This a wonderful (throwback) article that I'm looking to share
    I look forward to reading more.


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