The Religion of Homonyms, Not Harmony

If we were in Hong Kong, you would not want to see me first thing in the morning. Why? Because the Chinese do not want to see a bald head first thing in the morning! A bald head is partly a homonym for emptiness (空), and as usual, the Chinese thinks about money and how that is symbolic of an empty pocket!

Food is such an important part of the Chinese culture and food selection among those with a penchant for lucky homonyms may determine their diet. For example, pineapple (黃梨 or 鳳梨) is a most popular fruit because in Taiwanese it sounds like “prosperity arrives” (旺來). A white sponge cake (發糕) is loved too because it is pronounced as fa gao, “get rich and climb high” in Mandarin. Stir-fried squid is an unpopular Chinese dish because it is the homonym for the slang, “You’re fired!” (Thank goodness for vegetarians!) Watermelon (西瓜) is unlucky because it symbolizes returning to the Western Pureland, a heaven after death.

Fear of death is so prevalent in the Chinese culture, and many cultures, that the Chinese avoid the word “death” and its homonyms, such as the number four (4). Conversely, a favored digit among the Chinese is eight (8) because it means affluence or growing wealth.

Avoided and favored as they are, the death rate has not slowed and the gap between the rich and poor has not changed. In fact, sometimes the same words take on utterly opposite meanings in different Chinese dialects.

Looking beyond the quirky surface of homonyms, they really are reflections of a culture and its values. Affluence (八), births (三), longevity (九), victory and other prized possessions are symptoms or the fingers doing the pointing, rather than the moon of superstition. These values reflecting a culture and thoughts running through the minds of individuals are entertaining, though somehow sad.

Reflecting on the intentions of those who arrange their lives around homonyms, I see, at the least, humor mostly at the expense of others; at its most egregious, self-preservation embroiled in a framework of materialism and progeny, us vs. them, and winning vs. losing. Using said and unsaid homonyms rather than straightforward communication only make the intention of the instigators more palpable. For example, repeatedly sending emails at 4:44 PM to someone with the tacit understanding that “four” bespeaks of death, the notes begin to take on a tone of “Death! Death! Death!” Is it a curse, a death wish, or a threat?

The intention of someone who attempts to cast mystery around his teachings may be: “I am going to use it on you until you get used to it!” “You should get ready for death anyway!” Note the smugness of “I have the teachings or Lady Luck on my side, and I am now pointing out how flawed you are. Yes, I have the power to reward you and condemn you! Damn it!”

(Well, I have the power to return your gift, thank you very much!)

This reminds me of a story. Two American disciples went with their teacher to Asia. During the tour they watched their teacher yell at everyone who came to him, a very different way of teaching than in the U.S. The students noted it and when their master was away for a couple of days, they imitated their master and started yelling at everyone in sight, screaming at women for desiring equality, telling the non-whites that it is their karma for not being Caucasians or using profanities like cow shit. Whether they meant to break people’s attachments or not, people got up and left. And deservedly so, they got a huge scolding from their master for their blind imitation.

I remember knowing some people in my life who were so good at communicating non-verbally using this type of coded language, not just to communicate personal desires to the universe, but to communicate with each other about collective action that is damaging — of course it is damaging, otherwise why would they not communicate succinctly, explicitly and openly?! It is a means of communicating without leaving a trace, so they may never be accused of having instigated any harm. This is especially practiced by those who love a respectable facade. Unfortunately, too many people interested in preserving their personal or organizational face become so entrapped in their “status”, their “status quo”, they skew the proper means that initially led to their current status.

In the West, there is superstition around the number 13. People alter their behavior and day because of it. I hear Nancy Reagan avoids travels on the 13th. The strange ritual of the soccer manager before the World Cup games fascinated many too. Psychological pressure among politicians, CEO’s, gamblers, sports figures and celebrities engaged in fierce competition may drive them to superstitious behavior. Superstition and ritualistic behavior impose a sense of control in the midst of fear, particularly fear over uncertainty.

For those who adhere to some faith tradition, superstition can also become rationalized as signs from God. To me, the difference between intuition and imagined messages is calculation. One slips in and acts before our rational mind even realizes while the other wraps itself in the shrouds of wondering and personal judgments.

The problem with any obsessive compulsive superstition or a constant focus on arranging externals so they somehow mean luck to us, is the lack of inner peace. The mind is actually a mess of thoughts garbled and gnarled several times over with different drama. As Walter Landon noted, “As soon as we wish to be happier, we are no longer happy.” The association of cultural patterns, personal fears and desires, and the maneuver to display them in exactly one way or another are like unceasing waves in the mind.

Even if we were able to go through life trying to arrange lucky signs around us, we may never discover the serendipity in the clarity of inherent tranquility and the joy from committing a random act of kindness.

Venerable Master Hua and many have said that the Dharma is on its decline in Asia. Religious about superstitious double entendre rather than a mind of peace and acts of compassion, faith is misplaced more often in win vs. loss, us vs. them, and holy vs. evil. In the West and increasingly in countries with better education, those on a spiritual path understand to trust their direct experience, to test their assumptions and examine their paranoia and hungers.

With less superstition and more mindful witnessing of our thoughts, speech and action, we can “lead all beings to the fruit of kindness and joy. It is not the fruit of the Truth or good and evil; it is the meditative absorption for understanding the nature of that entity emptiness.” (The Braham Net Sutra)