Noisy Water Review

A Language Not My Own

Jaymie Wakefield

I was excited to sign up for this honors class on applying a Buddhist view to literature. I never remembered the full title of the class and when asked by friends what the class might be about I honestly had not a clue. I like literature and was very interested to learn something new. For me, “Buddhist’ meant new. Very new. So new in fact that my first journal entries during the class focused on grappling with definitions, coming up with my own arguments and picking at small points. I found myself surprisingly argumentative and at risk of being narrow-minded. This was particularly true with the first book assigned us, the back bone of our learning, What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. While I risk offering an unsolicited review of What Makes You Not a Buddhist, I must say I honestly struggled with this book. The tone in particular was hard to adjust to and I felt resistant to learning from someone I perceived to be a smug author. Putting that aside, I continued on in hopes of in fact learning something new. That is why I was thankful for the second book.

The second book assigned to read alongside What Makes You Not a Buddhist was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.  Now this was a book I could dive into, head first, open minded and willing to understand; I was thankful for the narrative style and the story-like manner used to explain the Buddhist beliefs. This narrative was a perfect complement to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s more technical and direct definitions of the four seals,  the pillars of Buddhist beliefs. These truths recognized by Buddhists are as follows;

All compounded things are impermanent
All emotions are pain.
All things have no inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond all concepts (Khyentse 3).  

I was tripping over the second truth, “All emotions are pain,” and concentrated on understanding this idea.  My argumentativeness was apparent and in full swing trying to understand some of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s claims and explanations. For example he states, “Moreover, [the Buddha] discovered that, as real as they may seem, emotions are not an inherent part of one’s being” (40). As a Psychology major I am being taught otherwise. Beginning at birth, babies express their feelings to increase the chances of their needs being met, at basic survival levels, like crying when hungry.  In Psychology these are identified as in-born emotions.

While I am reading this book my little dog, who has been plopped from my lap to the floor, begins to whimper at me. Sad face, ears flat back, I recognize that even my dog has emotions. Yet, what I might consider is that if my little dog realized that my lap was temporary, non-existent as soon as I stood, that maybe the amount of emotion spent on this want, this temporary, impermanent place to be, would be nullified. This impermanence is the first seal, based on all things being impermanent, what are we investing our emotions in?  Yet, when I continue reading Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s What Makes You Not a Buddhist, I begin to understand how he might define emotions. I begin to realize quite a few differences in our definitions and how we might use language. I realize that even the word “born”, when I argue that we are born with emotions, would mean something different to a Buddhist if I start to understand that they believe in a continuing cycle of life, and do not have a beginning (birth) and end (death) the way I would define. Yes, now I begin to realize part of my dilemma is the need to read this book outside of my own language, holding on to my own definitions only loosely.

I began by rejecting my desire to help Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse out by replacing his words with words I feel he actually may have meant. Instead of deciding to correct what I initially felt was a translation issue, I decided to let his words stand. I decided to accept that in my newness of understanding Buddhism, I needed to reconsider the meaning behind concepts I had zero practice in, requiring me to suspend my interpretation until the book was read in completion. I came to understand two things during this process; first,  changing words, altering the language of a truth, changes the meaning, and by that right it is simply disrespectful. Secondly, in understanding anything as substantial and complex as a religion, I must remember that concepts are foreign and unnatural unless they are practiced and accepted.

I can see this same to be true with Christianity as well. When I was first coming to understand my husband’s Christian faith I had a lot of arguments, wanting to change wording to make sense of foreign concepts and new ideas. It was later, while reading a different translation Bible, that this really struck me. I was reading a favorite Psalm when the original word “blessed” was translated to “happy” and that startled me. It felt wrong and incorrect, and while I would be hard pressed to clearly define the differences between “blessed” and “happy” I know they are different words, and the meaning of the Psalm had been altered. While remembering this, I now understood the conflict in changing key words to try to understand new concepts. With this new understanding of language and the need to suspend interpreting until the reading is complete, I continued on with both Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s What Makes You Not a Buddhist and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.

A motivating unhappiness that Siddhatha feels in Hesse’s story grabs my attention, “Within himself Siddhartha had begun to nourish discontent”(6).  This initial feeling, this emotion of discontent, was a great motivator for what would become an incredible journey for Hesse’s version of Siddhartha. I now found myself needing to make sense of this, this idea of emotions that led his journey, emotions of discontent and yearning and want. First I had to consider what this desire of Siddhartha’s was about. “Siddhartha had a single goal before him, one and one only; to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and pain” (Hesse 13). I considered that his goal did align with the four truths even if the motivating emotions initially did not. Siddhartha’s goal was to reach Nirvana, not happiness.  For if happiness was his goal, he would need to define happiness, and define the conditions to maintain happiness and then his happiness would be contingent on those conditions. “Conditions”, that’s a key word in beginning to understand the ramifications of emotions. Conditions define and bind. So while the emotion itself is not inherently bad, reacting to it, responding to it can be the stumbling block, as the path to answer those emotions, to quench them, can lead away from enlightenment and Nirvana. We see this later in Hesse’s Siddhartha when late into his journey and well on his way to an enlightened state of being, Siddhartha once again becomes bound by his emotions:  “But the wound still burned, passionately and bitterly Siddhartha thought of his son, nursing the love and affection in his heart, allowing the pain to feed on itself, committing all the follies of love” (Hesse 102).  Siddhartha was bound by these emotions for his son.

Love! Why even the emotion of love has conditions; confines and binds. When we consider the four kinds of suffering;

You have something you want and you want to keep it,
You have something you don’t want and you want to get rid of it,
There is something you want and don’t have yet,
There is something you don’t want and you have to keep it away 

then we can apply every emotionally driven action, even ones based in love, to one of these four definitions of suffering. In Siddhartha’s story, his desire to have his love returned by his son is an example of wanting something and not receiving it, an unanswered desire that consumed him and blocked his journey to enlightenment. The language I have been tripping over begins to clarify; love and compassion as an emotion are not the same love and compassion defined as an action

Although emotions can be naturally occurring Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse explains that “we can still fall in love without the fear of being rejected” (105). A person need not be defined and confined by that love. While we may feel an emotion, Buddhism says you needn’t react to or “get worked up” by that emotion and you needn’t be defined by that emotion. Khyentse explains this best when he uses the dirty wineglass as an example:

Our true nature is like a wineglass, and our defilements and obscurations are like dirt and fingerprints. When we buy the glass, it has no inherently existing fingerprints. When it becomes soiled, the habitual mind thinks the glass is dirty, not that the glass has dirt. Its nature is not dirty, it’s a glass with dirt and some fingerprints on it. (91) 

The difference between “being” and “having some” is that “having some” is temporary, whereas “being” is defining. When we consider this idea and apply it to our emotions we can start to see the difference between having some emotion and being bound by that emotion. As Khyentse says, “When we think of ourselves as inherently angry and ignorant, and we doubt our ability to achieve enlightenment, we are thinking that our true nature is permanently impure and defiled. But like the fingerprints on the wineglass these emotions are not part of our true nature; we have only gathered pollutants for all sorts of unfavorable situations” (92). This was when I finally liked the book! There is an idea here that what we feel can simply be temporary! Just saying “I have sadness” versus “I am sad” is very different and very liberating; it gives the emotion “sadness” only a temporary station, instead of a more permanent home of self definition. The knowledge that these emotions, and our humanly way of responding to them, are in fact temporary, leads me to believe that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is speaking of a process, and Hesse’s book lends to this notion of a process, a journey.

The journey that Siddhartha traveled in Hesse’s account is full of recklessness, greed, love, scorn, temptation, impatience, questioning, anger, frustration, disillusionment, study, acceptance, patience, a myriad of emotions and experiences. For Hesse’s Siddhartha to fully understand all that he was renouncing he needed to experience and identify all that he needed to give up, be rid of.  Khyentse illustrates this with the story of King Ashoka:

One of the greatest emperors of the third century B.C.E. was King Ashoka, a ruthless warrior and tyrant who had no qualms about murdering his close relatives to consolidate his power. But even King Ashoka eventually found the truth of the dharma and became a pacifist (55).

This and other stories were initially examples of  responding to emotions, being held captive and bound by emotions of desire, greed. If one is able to understand and accept the second seal, “all emotions are pain” then one can begin to live in balance, where emotions are not invested in. Says Khyentse, “When you begin to notice the damage that emotions can do, awareness develops...Awareness doesn’t prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller. If you are enjoying a cup of tea and you understand the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, you will really enjoy the cup of tea” (54).

While I am sure I have barely scratched the surface in understanding the fullness of the four Buddhist seals, I have learned how to learn them. I went through a period of arguing and word bantering to try to understand concepts foreign to me. It was only when I recognized my own language barrier, trying to define concepts within my own understanding, that I was able to suspend the need to edit and to read with clarity and consider what the Buddha was teaching. And it was exhausting. And if learning to simply understand these concepts was this much of an endeavor I can certainly understand how the adventure to reaching enlightenment might take more than a single lifetime.

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