Misspeak or Mistake?

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto

One of the spokes of the Eightfold Noble Path is Right Speech. People usually take this to mean simply not to tell lies, but there can be much more to this. Many aspects Right Speech have become increasingly apparent recently. There have been many situations where the use or misuse of inaccurate terms or mistakenly understood terms used in ways can cause confusion or worse. Misunderstood and, therefore, mistakenly used words cause people to be uncertain about the topic being discussed and leads to confusion. Sometimes that confusion can be spread and lead to even greater confusion.

The temple setting seems to be full of terms that lend themselves to this misspeak that causes confusion. One of the more harmless ones is the misuse of gassho and oshoko. Gassho (合掌), literally means to put the palms together. This is what we do when we put our hands together in our nenju, or beads, and say Namo Amida Butsu. Oshoko (お焼香) is to burn incense. Literally, the characters mean to “cook incense.” To misuse these terms often causes confusion, but not at a level that would be harmful, simply irritating.

However, constant misuse could lead to everybody greater confusion as to which term refers to which action and the reasons for that tradition itself. An example of this is the use of the term koden (香典), the monetary gift given to families at funerals. This term refers to incense () and sutras () implying that this is a gift to the family of the deceased to help cover the costs of incense and sutras at the service. It seems that Japanese-American Christian churches are using the term koden, but it is clearly a misuse in this setting. They have other terms that should be used for this type of gift rather than the Buddhist terminology.

Another term that seems to be misused with growing frequency lately is the term naijin (内陣). People seem to think it means the altar, but this is not the case. In one sense, it is close because it does refer to the area where the altar is, but the importance of the term is in the area and not in the altar. This term is descriptive of traditional temple architecture and how it has changed with the development of the Pure Land tradition.

The naijin refers to the inner area or inner sanctum, if you will, of the temple where the ministers perform the rituals and the altar is located. In contrast to this is the gejin (外陣) or the outer area, where the lay membership would sit. In older temples (pre-Kamakura era), the naijin is larger than the gejin. This is because the older schools of Buddhism stress the monastic aspect and a person needs to be a monk or a nun to realize enlightenment and the lay people are to support those efforts to gain merits for the future. This required the area for the monks to be larger than that for the lay person. Some of temples even have the naijin in the very center and the gejin around that area. Imagine a large room with a mezzanine area above that allowed you to see what was happening in the area below. The gejin was the area where a few lay people could watch the monks and ministers perform their rituals and do their chanting.

This changed with the development of Pure Land Buddhism where the focus was changed from the ministers and monks to everyone and anyone who wanted to listen and learn about the teaching of Amida and the Nembutsu. This required the gejin to become larger the need for a large naijin was no longer necessary.

This is all to point out that there is a meaning and history to terms and we need to see what terms really mean before we use them. Using terms without fully understanding what they mean destroys that history and causes it to be lost. The more immediate problem is that it causes confusion and this is what the Eightfold Noble Path is pointing to and reminding us that we need to strive for. This is something we should be careful in all aspects of our lives and not just at the temple.

© April 21, 2014