reading words

In English-language books about Buddhism, there are often Tibetan and/or Sanskrit words sprinkled through, in cases when a word doesn’t have a very good English translation.  This is a very fortunate occurrence.  It means that as you learn the word, you are actually picking up a new understanding that isn’t contained in English.

When you come to a foreign word in a Buddhist book and you don’t understand it, skip it.  Just keep reading.  I mean, you might want to do some research on the word sometime.  But don’t think you can’t keep reading without a complete understanding of the word.  In many cases, to get a full understanding, you’re going to need to see how multiple authors use the word anyway.  You aren’t necessarily going to get it from just one author.

Or don’t just skip it.  Take a second to stare at it and maybe quickly see if you can get a sense of what it might mean from context.  But don’t try too hard.  You have to move on without a complete understanding.

Some of the English words you see used by Buddhist teachers are imperfect translations of words in other languages.  So keep a loose grip on the English words while you read them.  The word “compassion” is often used by Buddhist authors, but this is an imperfect translation.  In Western countries, “compassion” is laden with notions of virtue and emotional connection.  Like, be compassionate, or you’re an unfeeling jerk.  But in Buddhist texts, the concepts most often translated as compassion really mean something more like oneness, and the concept is somewhat more intellectual, more rational, than our usual understanding of compassion. Compassion means that you are able to see that there is no real dividing line between your person and what surrounds it, and no selves.  Self is imaginary or less than imaginary.  Almost more like an empty syllable than anything we even bother imagining.