Modern Buddhism: Language and Culture in a Shrinking World

Seven years ago I was swimming in a lake in Tuscany. Nearby a small boy appeared to need help getting into his little boat — naturally I gave him a hand and he paddled off like a pro. As he made his way toward the deeper water, his father rushed at me screaming in Italian as if to say “what have you done, pushing my son unprotected into the middle of this lake?”

I felt really helpless to try to explain that I was just trying to assist the boy’s efforts and meant no harm. From the father’s point of view I was probably a criminal, a menace to society or worse! Language was completely useless in this case.

Years ago I was in Istanbul leading a workshop with Cyndi Lee, called Yoga Body Buddha Mind. The heart of the workshop from my side is presenting a basic meditation practice called shamatha — which is the technique of paying attention to one’s breathing as a way of calming and settling the mind.

Much to my surprise, I found out the first night that samata (pronounced the same way) means having wild crazy fun in Turkish! So when I presented the idea, everybody was laughing about that.

The teachings of Buddhism come to us in the West from Tibet, Japan, China, India, Burma, Thailand, etc. Translation has been an enormous part of the work that many great teachers and their students have accomplished over the last 40-50 years or so.

Language is translatable but we also have to be aware of the subtle shades of meaning, beyond literal translation, that cultural settings impart. Gender issues, forms of government, politics, socio-economics, scientific discoveries, technological advances and many other factors can color how we receive and process information — including the dharma.

Fortunately, when we talk about “monkey mind” — discursive chatter — it doesn’t seem to matter much what language somebody thinks in. It seems that human beings the world over have a plethora of chatter in their mind and the basic technique of noticing that and coming back to the breath seems actually to have universal application and universal benefit. Mindfulness is something that everybody worldwide can cultivate and benefit from with no cultural barrier whatsoever.

Similarly, developing our awareness — optimizing how we can use our five sense perceptions in their pure form to see colors, hear sounds (including music), smell, taste, touch — appears to have universal benefits.

The qualities of love and compassion — caring for oneself and others — as well seem to be present in one form or another in human beings around the globe.

And finally, our habitual pattern to divide the world into friends, enemies and neutral people (those we don’t even notice or care about), based on temporary judgments and conditional states of mind, seems to be common to all people. So the idea of spiritual development as a process of overcoming narrow minded and self-centered modes of thought and behavior seems to have universal potential.

If only I could have talked to that Italian father in a language we both understood I’ll bet we could have come to a happier place faster — language still can be a difficult bridge to cross sometimes.