I’ve been reading Hubert Benoît (pronounced, Ol-behr Ben-wah) and, believe me, if Hubert is your choice of authorities on finding the path to enlightenment you’d better bring along a dictionary. This is more true in that he didn’t write in English so his ideas on Zen, insightful and deep as they may be, are translated from French. Why don’t translators make more of an effort to present the ideas of foreign writers in simpler language? OK, so Ben-wah likes to condense meaning by using single words that seem to succinctly convey ideas of deep complexity, fine. But I think the use of more, but simpler, wordage might produce greater effect. Within the first couple of chapters of the book I’m sloggingg through, Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine, I’ve looked up the following words in order to clearly understand what the author wants to say in context: ersatz, ternary, hypostasis, scotomy, nounenon, ulteriorly, in situ, chimera, revendicative, filiation, anodyne. This is the problem with translations, I think. I knew some of these words and most I could surmise the meaning from the root, but not the meaning used in context of the book. This might be a limitation of English. There’s no word for that thought in English so we end up with difficult reading. I think the basic ideas and rules of writing in general apply tenfold for the translator.
One of these rules is that you must never assume that the reader knows what you know. In short order this reader will toss you aside and turn on the television. I think this might be true in many cases but not every case–this is how I treat overly decriptive or flowery (as in gay) fiction. I don’t care for stuff like D.H. Lawrence’s, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, even though Lawrence wrote about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and modernity, things I am most interested in. I can’t seem to suffer through all the fluff that I don’t care about. Same with movies–I can tell the sexual orientation of a director from the font of the opening credits and so prepare myself for scenes of slender young men cavorting barefoot with their shirts open–right in the middle of a pirate movie. A Mark Twain quote springs to mind; the one about golf (“a good walk, spoiled”). I think this is one reason married people fight over the remote control and eventually hate one another, at least most of the time. But I digress. So, I’m saying that even though I might toss aside a wordy piece of fiction before I benefit from what insights are in it, if what I’m trying to understand is merely buried in difficult words I tend to lug out my dictionary and read till I acquire the understanding I’m looking for. Surprisingly, this understanding often lies beyond the knowledge and information one has to acquire to encounter it. It’s more like crossing a swamp to get to a picnic area. The swamp doesn’t actually have anythnig to do with the picnic area, but you still have to cross it if you want to enjoy lunch in a pleasant environment. I think we spend a lot of unnecessary time in the swamp talking about the difference between dragonflies and leaches and almost nobody ever gets to lunch.
Benoît (and others I’ve come across) says the majority of Zen masters won’t bother to try to explain anything at all—ever–and that this is in keeping with the core idea of awakening. If everything unfolds as it should, what is there to talk about? Why try to explain it all to some merely curious lackey who just likes to argue when everyone eventually finds their path or does not find their path, which is the same thing as finding it. “. . . in this passage of Zen:
‘Before a man studies Zen, the mountains are mountains and the waters are waters; when, thanks to the teaching of a good master, he has achieved a certain inner vision of the truth of Zen, for him the mountains are no longer mountains and the waters are no longer waters; but later, when he has really arrived at the asylum of rest, once more the mountains are mountains and the waters are waters.’
When I read that I not only felt keenly that I presently reside in that uncomfortable phase where “the mountains are no longer mountains and the waters are on longer waters” but I also saw a parallel in Jung’s model of the course of human development from infancy to individuation. But this is a blog–maybe I need a web site. Aw, man. I’m not enjoying learning all the ins and outs of blogging–now I need a web site.