Getting Zen About the Meaning of Zen

The linguist John McWhorter was on NPR this morning. He's exceedingly convincing on why words are always morphing in meaning and pronunciation. Honestly, he makes the vigilance of the Language Police seem not just misguided, but useless and absurd. The idea is that words mean whatever people want them to mean and that definitions are gradually codified through usage as opposed to the top-down judgments of language authorities. Still, some usages grate. I mean, I'm totally fine with the use of words like 'totally' and 'like' as modifiers (or are they qualifiers?). But there are limits. In my view it's simply wrong to describe anything having to do with yoga as being "very Zen," as is the current colloquial practice. The Buddha created his mode of spiritual practice after explicitly rejecting the exertions and strivings of yoga as a path to enlightenment. In Zen, a form of Buddhism, enlightenment (or satori), occurs in a flash of insight into the nonduality that undergirds existence. Nothing could be less Zen than yoga, since the insight comes without effort. To me it would be like describing a mosque as being very Christian. All that being said, I realize that my objections are ultimately meaningless, and that the word Zen, like all other words, will come to mean whatever people want it to mean. What's hard about this one is that I'm watching the change happen in a real time, and, having been a student of world religions, acceptance is tough. But McWhorter has convinced me that I would be wise to let it go. That would be Zen.


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