Buddhist Language
I was reading a Buddhist text recently when I realized how overwhelmed new members must be with the large vocabulary connected with Buddhism. This is also a problem for dedicated members who learned their Buddhism first in Japanese.

Doing the crossword in the Winnipeg Free Press is a morning ritual for me. Sometimes I get very frustrated by something that I know will be a simple answer but my poor brain will not come up with it. Yes, I do use on-line help. There are also several resource books I sometimes use. (I admit it!!)

In our services, we use Canadian English, local forms of Japanese, liturgical Japanese, Pali and Sanskrit—sometimes several of these in the same text, like when we chant the Triple Treasure at the beginning of the service.

To a visitor it must seem like being locked into a very difficult crossword puzzle with no escape. Just consider the often heard “Bodhisattva”. Many have heard this work for years. Then there is Nyorai=tathagata, Buddha’s favourite term for himself. It means the ‘thus come” and refers back to the Dharmakaya. Are you confused yet? Sometimes the Japanese is simpler, but still new for non-Japanese. An example is engi=prattya-sammutpada=interdependent arising. All beings are interconnected in a network of relationships.

I have struggled with these terms over the years, too. The world of text messaging also has made us impatient with any word that has more than 6 letters. A word like disrespect becomes dissing when texting, for example. Here are some things I have learned from my struggle with crosswords:

  • Relax, there will always be things you don’t know. Discovering answers is one of the joys of the mind.
  • Some things do not fit into generally accepted ways of understanding. That’s ok. It means you will become unique as your insights mature. That’s the fun of learning something new.
  • Simple does not mean simplistic any more that difficult means irrelevant.
  • We eventually have to get behind the words and experience things as they are. This is called insight—a worthwhile goal.
  • It is ok of ask for help from outside resources. That’s realistic.
  • Take a break from the puzzle--after the break the answers often come to easier—that’s the way the mind works.
  • It is ok not to finish the puzzle. Neither words nor people can be pigeon-holed anyway.

Some crossword puzzles can only be solved by a few gifted individuals---like the New Year’s puzzle that is two pages long in the newspaper with squares that are so small it is eyeball-breaking. But, the simplest crossword puzzles, like the nembutsu, are enjoyed by everyone. The nembutsu is the easiest and shortest part of the Buddhist puzzle. Namo Amida Buddha—Reverence for Life and Light, Awake. It is what all those big words are trying to say. It is the end of all crosswords and all puzzles. It can be completed in only a few seconds.

These are the eight things I learned from doing crossword puzzles. Someday I may stop doing them. But those three words of liberation will always be part of me.

Sensei Ulrich
September 26, 2010

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