12 February 2012

The Trouble With Adjectives

At one point in teisho today I had a grammarian moment.  A piece by Stephen Batchelor was being read, and the comments followed along his take-no-prisoners, radically skeptical, anti-dogmatic and anti-authoritarian brand of Buddhist practice (we had heard how talk of "Buddhism" made SB downright ill, so I'm avoiding it here in his honor).  One of the comments was along the lines that there is no Buddhism, if by "Buddhism" is meant a rigid teaching, and a rigid practice and a rigid structure (emphasis in original).

And then it hit me: the whole point rested on the adjective.  Buddhism, of course, does have a teaching and a practice and a structure; to all eyes and ears it's clearly distinguishable from, say, Seventh-Day Adventism.  I suppose that like all teachings and practices and structures, there is a stability to it.  But when I say "stable," and when I say "rigid," one walks away with very different ideas indeed.  We all like things to be stable; no one (and certainly not Boomer religious types) likes things to be rigid.

Take out "rigid" from the commentary, and there was nothing to the point at all.  We'd have to be fourth graders or younger to think that big, old things like Buddhism are unchanging, immutable, fixed and the rest.  Conversely we'd have to be fourth graders or younger to think that big, old things like Buddhism can be altered willy-nilly while remaining remotely what they are.

I did something of this same adjective nonsense (on purpose) in the second sentence from the top.  I could have just as easily said, "...followed along his brand of Buddhist practice," but I didn't.  I put in the adjectives in order to skew this in a particular direction, one slightly dismissive of Stephen Batchelor.  I did it again in making the crack about "Boomer religious types."  Playing with adjectives is fun, and it is the source of massive amounts of dry and sardonic humor.  It is also, though, the source of much of our troubles.

In the social landscape, for instance, adjectives, which used to merely serve to modify nouns, have now become the hot bones of contention.  How "conservative" must a candidate be to win a primary?  How "fast" does your download need to be to warrant switching machines or carriers?  Things and people are not nearly as interesting as qualities and attributes.

I'm going to add a practice to my attempt to walk the way of Right Speech:  minimize undue and unhelpful use of adjectives.  If someone says, "Which folder?" when I ask them to pass the folder, and if there are two, I will of course say, "The blue one."  Beyond that, though, I will work to stick to "the policy," "the candidate," "the idea," etc. without gloss and commentary. 

No comments:

Post a Comment