Sunday, December 12, 2010

a recent tweet

On Twitter, and inspired by a line from "The Great Queen Seon Deok," I wrote:

去去去中知 行行行裏覺: 거거거중지 행행행리각. Very roughly: go-go-going is knowledge; move-move-moving is enlightenment. All you do brings some sort of wisdom.

Two observations:

1. Chinese and Korean are both more Twitter-friendly than English, I think: you can squeeze a lot more information into each tweet because Twitter treats Chinese characters and Korean syllables (which are bundled letters that are often phonetic renderings of Chinese characters) as single characters. Compare the difference between writing "學生" and "student"—2 characters versus 7.

2. In puzzling out the Chinese phrase mentioned in the tweet, I discovered that the Chinese character "去," which is pronounced "거" in Korean (geo, somewhere between gaw and guh), means "go" or "going." I've seen this character many times without knowing what it was. All I knew was that it was a component of a character I did know: the character for "law/dharma," which in Chinese is written as "法." The extra three strokes on the left side are the short form of the character for water (水). Basically, then, the concept of dharma, when broken down, means something like "(the way of) water's flow." Before Buddhism entered China, the character would have meant, merely and more narrowly, "law," not only in the legal sense, but also "law" in the sense of "natural law," i.e., principles governing reality's flow. I'll never look at the dharma character the same way again.

The "去" character itself breaks down into two sub-characters: "土," (토, to) meaning "earth," and "厶," (사, sa), meaning "everything." Somehow these two concepts together mean "go" or "going." Perhaps there's a metaphysical recognition here, that all the earth—everything on it and in it—is in ceaseless motion. This fuller breakdown of the "dharma" character, then, could be interpreted to mean "(the way of) water, earth, and everything." Academics have long noted the overlap between the concepts of dharma and Tao; this quick and superficial etymological exploration sheds some light into why that overlap exists, and what made "法" such an appetizing translation for "dharma" when Indian monks like Kumarajiva were translating their scriptures for the Chinese.

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