Taking The Path Anew
Robert Aitken

I have heard that some Western teachers urge their students not to read. This is an egregious error in a number of respects. First, it has no basis in tradition. Zen monks I have come to respect over the years are learned people, who not only keep up with writing in their field, but who read broadly otherwise. When I first began my practice, I could find only the writings of D. T. Suzuki, the booklets of Nyogen Senzaki - later collected in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones - and some incidental ephemera. I devoured them all. Today there are hundreds of cogent translations, commentaries, surveys, and references. let your library angel guide you.

In addition, the admonition not to read is an error because of our cultural situation. As a beginner in Zen practice, I heard D. T. Suzuki address an academic audience at the University of Hawaii, back in the simmer of 1949. Listening to him, I felt that he was weaving a tapestry in a pattern I trusted was altogether congruous. But I was sitting on the other side of the frame, and the threads came poking through in a seemingly random manner that was completely incoherent for me. This kind of response to a presentation of Zen is one the average Western newcomer knows very well. Thus it is important to read about Zen to get a good sense of its tapestry.

It is important to learn about its context. Without a pretty good sense of the cultural background of the old teachers, Zen becomes just a kind of Western cult, like Theosophy, with only faint echoes of the original.

Another point is that powerful old words come with reading. I deplore the way the vocabulary of Zen is dumbed down in some English texts. The Dharma becomes simply teaching; samadhi becomes "trance"; bodhisattva becomes `enlightened being" - and so on. The rich ambiguity and associational virtues of the terms are lost, the message of the ancestors is diverted and diminished, and our practice is impoverished. The great early translators of Indian texts into Chinese, Kumarajiva, Tao-an, and Hsuangtsan recognised that many Sanskrit and Pall words were simply untranslatable because they had no equivalent in Chinese, or because they had many meanings and a rendering of just one of them as an equivalent would devitalize the Dharma. We must take their findings to heart in our own situation.

I suppose there are eighty or ninety Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, or Sino-Vietnamese terms that the English-speaking students learn in the course of preliminary Zen study, depending on the ethnic origin of their particular practice. In addition there are Sanskrit or Pall expressions to learn, and a significant number of terms that are specialized English translations, and thus have special English usages - lack, anguish, emptiness, mutually dependant arising, and so on.

It is not a heavy burden to learn these terms. The diligent student of a foreign language learns a hundred new words a week. New Irish Christians learned that many Latin words and more, and Indonesian Muslims face the same challenge with Arab liturgical language. In the misguided imperative to make Zen accessible, the teacher who reduces Zen with a kindergarten vocabulary is guiding students in a kind of blancmange in which nothing is distinct.

Pronunciation is a mark of fidelity. I sometimes hear "Buda" in place of "Buddha," and -sessheen-- in place of "sesshin." pronounce the old words faithfully. The "h" in "Buddha" is sounded, and with that one hears the etymology, "the enlightened one." "Sesshin" is, by its ideographs, setsu and shin The two are elided to give emphasis to the first syllable. The ambiguous meaning of setsu, "to touch_" "to receive," and "to covey," are thus retained, and shin, "the mind," is not obscured. By being precise you evoke the old masters and their intent here and now.


From The Morning Star: new and Selected Writings. (.Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003)
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Japanese Pronunciation
Vowels may be short, long or silent. Short vowels are very short.

Long vowels:
as in park (Pramit)
as in port (Sh Sai My)
as in rumour (Jsh)

Short vowels:
a as in and (kan)
e as in end (zend)
i as in machine (dhrani)
o as in forest (Kannon)
u as input (Jikku)

Diphthongs:
ei as in labor (Enmei)
ai as in fine (Dai)
ao as in now (Tao)

Silent vowels:
The vowels i and u are silent, or almost silent in many Japanese words, e.g., dokusan.

Consonants:
B, d, j, m, n, p, t, and y, have the same pronunciation as in English.
The letter g is pronounced as in go (gassho).
The letter r is between the English l and r sounds.

Double consonants are stressed by holding the sound of the particular consonant longer, e.g., sesshin.