Thursday, April 06, 2006

idiomatic expression

in language an idiom is a type of mannerism, quirk, or expression with personal meaning. cultures have idioms as well: tailgating at a brewer's game, a red light on a traffic signal, or shared linguistic expressions specific to one region or another (in milwaukee, drinking fountains are often referred to as "bubblers") are all idiomatic.

a child gave sand
to buddha
a child gave jewels
to buddha
a child gave form
to grace

the sapir-worf hypothesis in linguistics suggests that idiomatic expressions, that is, the language to which one has access, is a fundamental determinant of how one understands one's world. the ojubwe language, for example, does not use adjectives: if something is green, it is being green.

just as language and culture have idioms, the terms one uses for moral expressions can be idiomatic as well.

in america and much of the west the bible constitutes the foundation of many cultural, linguistic, and moral idioms. books of wisdom from other cultures have similar ethics to teach, but do so by employing a different idiom.

dogen, a japanese zenist from the 1200's said one must be aware of every opportunity to give; he also said a child gave sand to buddha. beyond asserting the importance of selfless giving as a sort of golden rule, dogen's statements set forth a profound metaphysical position: why does a child give sand to buddha? why would anyone give anything to buddha? simply because it is the act of giviing that is important.

according to general buddhist doctrine, all things are fundamentally equivalent; orthodox zen doctrine holds that all sentient beings are enlightened. a child giving sand to buddha is the same as a child giving jewels to buddha, or a monk alone in zazen. what is important is that giving is grace.

as a practical matter, and as a moral teaching, dogen does not mean that one should necessarily give up everything one has; what it does mean is that in order for one to realize one's nature as a bodhisattva, one ought to reflect upon each thing one possesses, upon what one finds important and why. in contemporary consumer culture it means thinking about who and what one gives one's money to, why one acuumulates money or belongings, and how one can donate those things one no longer needs (rather than simply throwing things away).

as a matter of daily practice, which dogen also emphasized as an essential part of zen, being aware of every opportunity to give also means trying to remember to pick up trash in the street (to give fellow citizens a cleaner neighborhood), recognizing that being able to give is a gift itself, and being thankful for every opportunity to give, no matter how ordinary or transient that gift may be.

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