Saturday, 24 June 2017

Who is a Meditator?

Thanks to Phillip Harbor for the photograph.

The common, contemporary term used by Dhamma practitioners in non-Buddhist countries is “meditator.” However, the way the word “meditator” is used outside of Burmese culture (i.e., as someone whose identity is implicitly connected to their meditation practice) has no exact equivalent inside Myanmar. While many Burmese do meditate, in Burmese Buddhist culture, meditation practice is rarely seen as being a totally separate activity from the rest of one’s overall dedication to the Buddha’s teachings. Rather, it is viewed as but one key component of the Buddhist path. Thus asking a devout Burmese if he or she is a “meditator” as a term of self-identification can lead to some confusion, since meditation is understood as but one of many ways that one must develop in the Buddha’s teachings.

The closest Burmese term for the English word “meditator” may be tayar shu hmat thu (တရားရႈမွတ္သူ); however, this term connotes someone currently engaged in sitting meditation, “in the now.” Thus, if one were to use this term to describe oneself, then one would by definition have ceased the formal act of meditation, rendering the term inoperable!

Another possibility is “vipassanā student,” which names the specific meditation in which many Buddha-Dhamma/Buddha-Sāsana practitioners engage; however, again looking from the outside-in, “vipassanā student” doesn’t work for the same reason as “meditator.” Neither term captures the dynamic, full sense in which the Buddha’s teachings are understood and practiced in Myanmar, which is not just formal meditation. Also, neither word has a true, meaningful Burmese equivalent.

“Dhammist” is a more recent attempt to address this conundrum. While “Buddhist” comes from “Buddha,” “Dhammist” is a derivation of “Dhamma,” taking its cue from the second rather than the first of the three Triple Gems. Looking from the outside-in, not only is this not a commonly used term by many foreign practitioners, but Burmese also do not have any exact equivalent in their own language. After all, many Burmese looking to convey the same meaning as “Dhammist” in English would simply fall back on the standard... “Buddhist”! (while Burmese do use the term “Buddha-Dhamma,” it is not a label of self-identification, but rather describes the overall practice and doctrine. Again, in terms of identifying terms within their own language, Burmese Buddhists most often describe the practitioner’s proximity to the Sāsana, and a profusion of words and terms may be used depending on one’s practice, gender, attainment, renunciation and precepts.) 

Some might further modify it as “true Buddhist,” “real Buddhist,” or would flesh out the definition as has been seen in some of the English statements by Sayagyi U Ba Khin. And, One also cannot dismiss the impact of a second language when discussing possible English terms used by Burmese (and vice versa).