A. You have made a very interesting and very important observation that many in the West struggle with. Why indeed use ancient and obscure language to express the happenings of the present moment? Let me give you three important examples why I think we need to use these terms, for which there are often no English equivalents.

Dukkha has many meanings. You could use it in its extreme interpretation of suffering. But it could also be said to mean unsatisfactoriness. This has a much broader base in that it incorporates the whole of conscious experience – even happy experience.Because happy experiences are transitory, they too will soon go into change, and not being aware of this we try to hold on to such experiences, leading always to disappointment. This is a good teaching, and something to ponder regularly to help nurture our training in letting go. Dukkha can also mean a kind of continual “vibration” on the metaphysical level of our being. This creates perpetual movement, and reveals dukkha as the permanent companion of impermanence. Here are three different interpretations of the same word, all having important ramifications for our understanding and practice of the Dharma.

Dharma is another example. There is dharma with a small dto denote “things” that fill the mind and universe. Then there is Dharma with a large D, which is the second refuge for those who practise the teachings along with the other two refuges of Buddha and Sangha, the framework of practice. Dharma interpreted here has a very wide meaning. It is the teachings learned, which then help to orientate us to the real Dharma, which is the living truth of what is. When this living truth is discovered in our own mind and body, we realise that it is the Dharma that supports and carries us, and that it has been waiting to be re-discovered since time began.

Dharma is the mysterious movement of the living Buddha, and something we should learn to open up to and become intimate with. From the very beginning we have never been separate from the Dharma. Indeed, we are the Dharma. Find me an English word that could convey all of these meanings! We need to know the subtlety of this word in order to mature our direct understanding of it.

The last example I would like to give is shunyata. For me shunyata is the most important of all the “ancient” words to get some sort of a grasp of. It conveys the ultimate fruit of Buddhist practice and endeavour, yet it is the most misunderstood word in Buddhism.

When shunyata was first encountered by Western scholars it was given the quite dreadful translation of “nothingness” and “void”. We have at least now progressed to “emptiness”. However, whilst not nearly as inaccurate as the first attempts to translate shunyata, because of its negative connotations “emptiness” is still a misleading word.

Shunyata refers to levels of wisdom following the progressive dissolution of the notion of self, with the ultimate level synonymous with the body of reality (Dharmakaya) and interpenetration that characterises Buddha nature. Shunyata expresses the deep mystery and wonder of life that we, trapped in the duality created by the delusion of self, cannot even begin to imagine.

Shunyata, properly understood in terms of its deepest meaning, is not at all negative, as implied by words such as voidness, nothingness and emptiness, but actually expresses reality being devoid of any self-nature. But so many (especially those who wish to put Buddhism down) understand this important Buddhist word (through translation) as being negative and therefore state that Buddhism is life denying – how wrong can they be!

By insisting on translating every Pali and Sanskrit word we are in grave danger of losing the subtlety of Dharma teaching and experience. The concepts of reality as expressed in Buddhism have no real parallel in our culture and therefore our language will always miss the target. Rather than charging headlong into making Buddhism “Western”, we need to take a much more measured approach. Rather than translating these strange words, learn to understand and feel their subtle meaning until they become familiar, thus allowing them to become a part of the landscape of Western Buddhism.

The same could be said of much of Buddhist ceremony, rejected by many these past few years as being unnecessary for us Westerners. Bowing has been rejected by many, as has the display of Buddha rupas, clearly showing, in my view, the lack of wisdom of those individuals. In insisting on stripping down centuries of practice to its bare bones in this way we are running the risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. Rather, let”s take our time and let inevitable change take place naturally. Let us not be too keen on severing our Dharmic ties to the East.

Changes to external form should be guided by the wise, who have at least broken the fetter of attachment to “rights and rituals” and therefore have the clarity to know the difference in a ceremonial situation between cultural expressions and expressions of the Dharma, and be capable of retaining that which needs to be retained. Only by proceeding in this enlightened way will we protect the Dharma from irreversible damage and decline.