Know That You Are Using Your Words

A while ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson pissed me off. Let me first say that I have immense respect for Neil. I consider myself a fanboy of his. However, no one is perfect. Not even the Tyson.

People who follow Mr. Tyson will know that he has no love of philosophy and philosophers. I think he would echo the words of Steve Martin in saying, “That shit can really fuck you up.” (In fact, I think Neil paraphrased that very bit in one of his interviews.) He often goes on about how studying philosophy is a waste of time when you could be studying science. On the day he pissed me off whoever, the example he used wasn’t even philosophy. He used the example of the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That doesn’t come from philosophy, strictly speaking. It comes from Buddhism in general and Zen in specific. It is not a question to be answered. It’s a statement meant to stop the student’s mind for a moment. In other words, it’s not philosophy, it’s more like psychology. This stuck in my craw, but I didn’t quite realize why until today.

You see, I am veteran of many conversations where people claim that Buddhism is a religion, and then I (which is typical of most Buddhists, from what I’ve seen) answer something like, “Well, sort of, but not really. It’s more of a philosophy.” But on the other hand, I have also had many conversations where people make the claim that Buddhism is a philosophical system, and the context of the conversation made me say, “Well, sort of, but it’s a bit more like a system of psychology.” In these different conversations, I was correct(ish) for as far as those conversations went. But, this begs the question: What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Yes, in a way. Is it a philosophy? Yes, in a way. Is it a system of psychology? Yes, in a way. Sort of. Kinda.

The trouble here is not with Buddhism being schizophrenic. The problem is not with Buddhism being very varied depending on the cultural context it lands in. (Though that is part of it.) The real culprit is me. I forgot I was using English. Buddhism predates English. By a lot. It started out mostly in the Pali language, then migrated to where Chinese was more popular, did a foray into Tibetan, then got some Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese in there long before it got any English. What I am saying is that the difficulty is not that Buddhism is hard to identify. The issue is that English does a poor job of identifying Buddhism.

I am not going to suggest a better way to refer to Buddhism and Buddhist practices and techniques in English. Frankly, I don’t have one. My point is that our language can very easily prejudice us against concepts and distinctions from cultures in another language group. Terence McKenna used to say that language is thought, and your thought can’t evolve faster than your language does. Language is what you have to think with. It’s best to not let that become a limitation on your exposure to the wider world of ideas floating in the human space.

So, it would appear that Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes me think deeply, even when he pisses me off.

Being mindful of your words can help you to stop the little buggers from biting off more than they can chew.

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