The Magical Language Bias

Below I offer two personal examples of observing how people falsely attribute magic to nonsense.

Zen Buddhism

At the local Soto Zen temple which I use to attend, the Buddhists practitioners chant sutras which are Roman-lettered transliterations of Japanese. Almost none of these Americans know Japanese and so have no idea what they are reading. And worse than that, the translated Japanese is itself just transliterations of the archaic Chinese — so even Japanese speakers don’t know what it means.  In other words, these Zen practitioners chant complete nonsense.

Here, for example is some of the Heart Sutra which they chant without knowing the meaning:

“Kan ji zai bo satsu. Gyo jin han nya hara mita ji. Sho ken  (*)GO on kai ku. Do issai ku yaku. Sha ri shi. Shiki fu i ku. Ku fu i shiki. Shiki soku ze ku. Ku soku ze shiki. Ju so gyo shiki. Yaku bu nyo ze. Shari shi. Ze sho ho ku so. Fu sho fu metsu. Fu ku fu jo. Fu zo fu gen. Ze ko ku chu. Mu shiki mu ju so gyo shiki. “


At the Hindu temple I visited last week, the priests and many worshipers chanted the Ganesh Purana. There are two temples in town: one visited mainly by North Indians and this one visited by those from the South.  And at this temple the main spoken language is Tamil (a non-Indo-European Dravidian language).  Tamil is unrelated to Sanskrit yet the the Ganesh Purana is written in Sanskrit (not Tamil).  Since Tamil and Sanskrit use different scripts, these Hindu worshipers chanted in a Tamil script nonsense transliteration of ancient Sanskrit (which itself is a dead language and unknown to the chanters).  So like the Buddhists in their temple, these Hindu worshipers chant complete nonsense. They have no idea what they are reading.


See a pattern?  But please don’t think I am just picking on Asians.  It is not just Buddhist and Hindus who are drawn toward nonsense.  A Catholic Church here in town still brags of doing its Mass in Latin — a language precious few of the worshipers understand at all. Protestants are equally drawn to the mystique of ancient original languages in their awe-filled admirance of Greek, as my post describes here.

“Kane” (鐘)

I am not discussing the pros and cons of chanting. Mindless chanting may have benefits. All I am describing is the naive magical-original-language bias found in many religions. No matter how useful the chant or what theological contortions  a religion uses to justify unintelligible chants, it is obvious that the “magical language bias” is part of the picture.

Let me give one more example of the silly idealization that many Westerners have of Eastern religions: The Americans in the Soto Zen temple not only chant unintelligible transliterated archaic Chinese, the temple also has all kinds of objects labeled with Japanese words to help teach the believers Japanese.  For instance, there is a big dinner bell in the Zendo which has a beautiful calligraphied-labeled declaring “kane” which is a romanization of the character for bell (鐘).  Go figure.  Like speaking Japanese brings you closer to enlightenment.

Humans never cease to amaze me!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “The Magical Language Bias

  1. My personal favorite in this category is mnogopenie from old-style Russian Orthodox liturgy. They chant in Church Slavic, another dead language. At one point, the liturgy got kinda long, so to save time, they decided to divide the labor—one group chanted one bit, another group another bit, a third group a third bit, etc., at the same time.

    On a slightly more serious note, it’s often hard to disentangle cultural affinity and religious ritual. Some people are drawn to some flavors of practice. I just like the look and feel and sound of Zen ritual, including chanting phonetic nonsense. Namu Kara Tan No Tora Ya Ya!

    Another thing that anchors religions to cultures is text: most of them are based on a literary corpus which exists in some language or languages. They do not always translate well, and since they’re also often regarded sacred, there’s a resistance to translating them built in.

    It’s often the “top layer” of the sacred texts that determine which dead and/or exotic language rules. So we have Theravadins learning Pāli, Mahayanis and Hindus learning Sanskrit, Tibetan Buddhists learning Tibetan, Japanese Zennies studying Song dynasty Chinese, and Western Zennies studying Japanese, medieval or modern.

    And, of course, Muslims all around the world studying classical (and Modern Standard) Arabic, and Jews studying Hebrew. Maybe one of Christianity’s problems today is that it’s lost touch with its dead languages!

    Anyway, I’m a big fan of tradition in ritual, including the dead or nonsense languages. I also like it when there’s a big palette to choose from, so you can drift into one that speaks to you.

  2. Gopiballava

    Don’t some Buddist sects believe that spinning prayer wheels on streams have an actual effect? If letters being spun by a stream have an effect, I don’t see any inconsistency with the belief that words you don’t understand could bring enlightenment – the stream surely doesn’t understand the words. A lack of internal inconsistency does not, of course, make it true or reasonable.

    Looking at it from another angle, starting from my personal viewpoint that religions are all bogus, the product being sold here is the perception of enlightenment. Few people of any religious faith genuinely understand what their religious texts say. Feelings of impressed incomprehension at the majesty of revealed scripture require reading lots of text in plain English before you are so overwhelmed that you decide that it must be deep and meaningful. Working with archaic English such as the KJV can help you achieve this feeling more quickly. Going straight to a language you don’t understand – brilliant. Deep and incomprehensibly meaningful in a few sentences!

  3. Have heard about Madrasa, especially in south Asia ? They know a language called urdu, which is very smiler to Hindi but script is like Arabic.

    So many people can read and chant and they don’t understand what it written in it.

  4. @ Petteri

    You said, “I just like the look and feel and sound of Zen ritual”
    and you said, “I also like it when there’s a big palette to choose from, so you can drift into one that speaks to you.”

    To me another interesting element is how something “speaks to us”. Many times I think it is simply resonating with a very deep personal brain patterning. For instance — I have liked Shakuhachi and Sitar from the day I heard them. When I first heard them I had no experience in religions but enjoyed them.

    Likewise, my favorite script is Tibetan, though I can’t read it (and I read several scripts). But I liked it before I knew much about Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism.

    But sometimes, our preferences are invisibly tied to cultural (not brain) components. Those are hard to separate and probably can’t be. But one point of my post is that there is much reverse-bigotry with things Eastern among many Western followers of such things. I think that stopping and watching our minds as they attach these prejudices when the perception strikes is useful: (as I was alluding to in my previous “Bell” post, but few picked up on).

    @ Gopiballava
    Yes, I think Tibetan prayer wheels are equally silly. Aesthetically they may be fun and hope inspiring for some, but they are superstitiously silly. I am primarily a skeptic and not a defender of any tradition — not even the tradition I call “me”.

    Gopi, I hope you are not just blasting through and following this thread.
    I think we agree on much of the delusion that is in much religion. I would not personally say “religions are all bogus” only in that I think truth can be found in unexpected places.

    Urdu and Hindi were my graduate school languages. They are very, very similar to each other (except, as you mention, for their scripts). Speakers of both can essentially understand each other pretty well. I did not know that some South Indian Muslims chant in Urdu instead of Arabic. Since Hindi is the national language of India (though I know many don’t speak it, especially in Dravidian land), at least there is some chance they understand the Urdu.

  5. Ed

    Hi Sabio… I am having a hard time focusing my many thoughts on this post. I feel both pro and con. When I was a Roman Catholic I spent four years as an altar boy, assisting the Mass in Latin. I also was required to take Latin for two years of grade school and four of high school. I understood it a little. Plus all the pew books had Latin on one side and English on the other. I still feel that the Latin creates an atmosphere of mystery. Makes it more fun. At Dharma field, my zen center, almost everything is in English. On the occasion that we chant the Diamond or Heart Sutra in Japanese there is the English right along. When I am with my Hare’ Krsna friends, they always have the complete package; the Sanskrit, transliteration, word for word translation and then the final practical translation. I have never experienced the nonsense you wrote about. EXCEPT! When you got to your final point… which I think is the bet of the post. Whether you understand the language or not, do you really believe that knowing the word for “bell” will wake you up to Reality? Does acting holy, Hindu or Japanese bring you to enlightenment? Acting certainly does not. I hope in some post you tackle if attaining “it” is possible and what can get you there.

  6. From a quasi-anthropological perspective, your observations fit quite well with chant-and-dance rituals of native/aboriginal cultures around the world, ancient or contemporary.

    Often enough, when made to explain what they are chanting or singing, the participants say the words are not important, or the words just mean ‘dance’ or ‘gather’ or ‘prepare’, or are just gibberish “new words”. Some reports suggest that the words used for a particular ritual are used because the initiator of the ritual that time started saying something and so “the rest of us all just joined in.”

    These aren’t hard-n-fast rules or observations. Just a pattern of responses that’s been recorded sort of thing…

    Maybe we are wired to make no sense? Or to be curious about the things we don’t understand? The magical language bias is something put in place to justify authority structures, I think. But what’s weird is that the “gibberish” is now satisfying one of our (older?) inclinations to draw towards the unknown/unknowable.

    But it doesn’t necessarily hinder the transcendence or the goal either, does it? What’s important is the ritual, the transformation to trance-like states, or any emotional bonding that occurs.

  7. Having known many pre-Vatican II Catholics, and having attended Latin masses myself, I don’t think that the “exoticism” is the primary draw, and we definitely understood what the words meant. I think the appeal of Latin mass was the idea that is hasn’t changed for a thousand years, and is/was universal across the entire Catholic world. Kind of like the idea of the Muslim “Ummah”, and how one ought to recite the Koran in Arabic.

    Speaking of the appeal of the exotic, thouugh, G.K. Chesterton made this point more than 100 years ago; explaining that many people left Christianity (especially for Buddhism) out of a sense of mystery and exoticism; and out of a failure to see the wonder in their own cultural traditions.

    He expands on the idea in “Orthodoxy” with a cool analogy. When he re-discovered Christianity, he says, it felt to him as if he was an explorer who had set off in a ship from England, discovered a wonderful new land, and only later realized that his ship had circled around and it was actually England that he had discovered.

  8. This does look incomplete without the visit to a charismatic group!

  9. @ Ed & Andrew :
    I created the next post in hopes of answering some of your questions. Let’s continue those points there — if you have time. Thanks much for asking and help focusing my thoughts and presuppositions.

    @Ed :
    On another note:
    I too have seen folks chanting stuff they largely understood. For example, I attended a Reform Jewish synagogue and taught myself the hebrew script so I could read along even though I did not understand. On Saturday schule I asked folks and many were in my shoes. They “kind-of” understood.
    I have also seen places where people chant what they don’t understand at all. A physician friend attended that Latin mass and said he really didn’t understand any of it.

    But my point is that: Understanding the text is often not important at all the the chanter – or reciter. The other feelings of tradition or holiness or sacredness or special in-touchedness work for them.

    Heck, I have heard folks say that nonsense helps because they can then loose themselves in trance.

    I am being bold in analyzing what we do and of all the various components that feed our activity. I am not trying to reduce it down to the “It”. Nor is my goal to show how all leads to the “It”. Such thinking is not my style nor preference.

    But I do hope to do a post on “Enlightenment”. Maybe there you will see my mental preferences. But to put it simply. I actually don’t believe in Enlightenment nor think of it as a useful idea. More later. This is heresy in many forms of Buddhism, of course.

    @ Andrew:
    You confirmed what I wrote to Ed. Thanx. Except your last paragraph:
    First, in my mind I don’t really think very often in terms of “the transcendent, the unknowable, God, Buddha-Mind, the Divine” or the like. So I have a hard time talking to others who like to drop into this mode. (I hope to elaborate why in an up-coming post on “Enlightenment”).

    BUT, let me address your last paragraph’s intent in my next post (which I just put up)

    @ JS Allen:
    I agree, the “draw” is multifaceted. Some for tradition, some for exotic reasons, some for trance and many more. Please see my next post.

    @ Looney:
    Indeed, speaking in tongues may contain some of these components. I just realized that I have not yet written on my days when I spoke in tongues. Thanks.

  10. I too was thinking of tongues or glossolalia when reading this.

    I tend to be drawn aesthetically to some other languages, so I might label something with Kanji because I found it beautiful, not necessarily to give it more meaning.

    Regarding Christians, I’m thinking of several I have known over the years who called Jesus by what they perceive as the more accurate Yeshua. I know some Christians really get into studying ancient Hebrew and Greek and I’ve seen a lot of Hebrew used in praise and worship music, but usually there is some explanation given of the words either in the song or before it is performed. The most popular example I can think of is Michael Card’s El Shaddai, made famous by Amy Grant.

  11. @ Mike
    I am drawn to some languages vs. others too. I think everyone is drawn to languages like foods — it is taste.
    But being drawn to a language because it is suppose to carry some innate wisdom is just outright silly.
    I saw Hindus do this, Japanese do this and then religious folks do it to Hebrew and Greek. This silly habit of mind is universal. That was my issue, not that people aesthetically like language, it is inspecting WHY they like the languages.

  12. @Sabio Yeah, it’s when the words have magic that we step into the realm of Harry Potter.

  13. @ Mike
    Thanks — damn plagiarists!

  14. Sabio, I am equally frustrated when mantras are hailed as magical incantations… simply silly and shallow.

  15. @ Stamati

    Thank you. I am glad I am not the only one!

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