Sunday, May 15, 2005

postal scrotum: the Zen teacher speaks

Lorianne writes, with reference to my recent post:

Paying attention IS compassion. Any questions? :-)


Yeah, that's kind of what I was trying to get at re: core terms overlapping and interpenetrating. Paying attention is mindfulness (by definition), but you could just as easily say it's compassion.

However-- is mindfulness identical to compassion? I somehow don't think we're doing logic here, where

A = C (and)
B = C, therefore
A = B by transitive property.

Is it really a matter of

mindfulness = paying attention (Thich Nhat Hanh, thesaurus, millions of Buddhists)
compassion = paying attention (Lorianne, Sperwer(?), millions of Buddhists)
mindfulness = compassion (transitively)


I doubt the question is of much import to Zen teachers, but it's interesting philosophically. If compassion and mindfulness are absolutely interchangeable terms, why have both?

I tend to think they're not absolutely the same, but they do overlap to a great extent, à la Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblances."

Anyway, I agree with you: paying attention is compassion. But again, simple formulations obscure as much as they reveal. The trouble with words, eh?

NB: The Sino-Korean Buddhist term for "mindfulness" is yeom or nyeom (in which the "eo" is pronounced somewhere between "aw" and "uh"). It's formed from two other characters, stacked one on the other. The top character is geum, which means "now," as in the Korean word ji-geum, meaning "now." The bottom character is shim, meaning "mind" or "heart." Because the character conflates concepts that are largely separate in the West, I see nyeom as both "mindfulness" and "heartfulness." See this hoary old post of mine here.

The character for "compassion" is bi, or the phrase bi-shim. The character bi means, according to Bruce K. Grant's A Guide to Korean Characters, "sad, sorry, grieved, lament." The character is composed of two characters, stacked on each other. The top one is also named bi, and means "not be; be without; wrong; bad." The bottom character is shim (heart/mind).

So notionally, compassion is bereavement-heart or bereavement-mind. This puts the word in roughly the same semantic field as the English "compassion," which from the Latin would translate roughly as "with/together + suffering" (Ltn. passio, "suffering"). My point is that bi and yeom have plenty of overlap (in Chinese, they both share the mind/heart character), but aren't totally synonymous. A Zen monk might roll his eyes and say that they're interchangeable, but he'd be speaking as a man of the cloth (justifiably) impatient with my academic focus, not as a fellow intellectual who's curious about philosophical issues of language, thought, and ultimate reality.


No comments:

Post a Comment


All comments are subject to approval before they are published, so they will not appear immediately. Comments should be civil, relevant, and substantive. Anonymous comments are not allowed and will be unceremoniously deleted. For more on my comments policy, please see this entry on my other blog.

AND A NEW RULE (per this post): comments critical of Trump's lying must include criticism of Biden's lying on a one-for-one basis! Failure to be balanced means your comment will not be published.