Challenge, chance and wisdom of language diversity in Europe –
a Buddhist perspective
by Felix Baritsch
In Europe we live in a small place with many languages. We have to drive only a few miles to find ourselves in a different language environment, where we either know the local language, speak English or have to use intuitive and holistic communication resources. In all cases it allows us to take up another perspective on life, to get a new feeling for situations and to open and train our mind by making it more pliable and flexible. Finally, it makes us wiser, more enlightened, open and tolerant. The identity of Europe consists in different cultures and languages living close to each other in mutual respect while knowing and identifying with the greater whole – a healthy base for a mutually supporting and non-discriminating social system and a healthy sense of multinational community.
From the Buddhist perspective, our multilingual situation is not only a challenge and a chance on the conventional level but it can lead us closer to ultimate reality, the source of all happiness. The reason for this is the emptiness of reality: according to Buddha, how things are depends in largely on our mind and our conventional language, with its grammar and the words we agree upon. Language not only has a descriptive and epistemological function but also a constructive, creative function and a direct effect on phenomena and their ontological status1.
Without doubt, anyone who speaks the local language or at least English has at first sight some communication advantages over someone who does not. Whether this imbalance can be reduced by reducing languages to only a single language for all countries and regions of Europe is highly questionable. Certainly, this would create new injustices and imbalances.
The arguments for a generalization of English as the only official European language are mainly social justice and economics. In bio-cybernetics a system is the more stable, stronger, sustainable and effective the more interdependent element in mutual support it contains. I will argue that from a Buddhist perspective, the same is valid for language diversity because languages are not merely descriptive, but co-creative.
A multinational society will function more peacefully and sustainably, the more languages it contains and values in mutual respect. “Unity in Diversity” is the slogan for language diversity in European institutions [European Charta for Regional and Minority Languages].
An additional argument for language diversity is Buddha’s teaching on ultimate truth or ultimate reality. According to Buddha, ignorance about the true nature of reality is the source of all suffering. To understand the ultimate nature implies to understand language at its different levels.
The usual frame of discussion
When language diversity is discussed for Europe usually the alternatives are language diversity versus a unitarian language. That unique language generally is English or Esperanto: English still is the native language of a part of the European population and would give an unfair advantage to some and disadvantage to others, Esperanto is a completely new language to everyone in the same way – but it has not been introduced very successful until now.
A single language for all Europeans?
The defenders of a unitary language argue that a single language would enhance and strengthen the sense of identification with Europe – just as it historically did to strengthen the European Nationalities in the 19th Century.
Unfortunately, even within a single language, stigmatization and vertical discrimination are widespread: Even the slightest accent can trigger an unconscious discrimination of people originating from slightly geographically different places or of different social background.
An identity imposed through language by force on a European level, would lead to more alienation with the European idea.
Also, it does not seem difficult to learn several languages if this was common educational practice and positively connotated. Many countries live with several official and unofficial languages: Belgium, Switzerland, Scandinavian countries etc. In many countries all over the world people speak three to four languages and still live peacefully together.
An artificially unique language would not enhance a sense of European identity.
Costs of language diversity
The costs of translations are another argument against language diversity. For the European institutions (23 languages, 500 combinations) they are more than one billion €/year, but for the total population of 700 Million Europeans it is only 1.5 € to 2 € per person/year.
Is that too much for an efficient balance between unity and diversity? European integration and national identity? Compared to other costs certainly not: military costs in Europe are 200 times higher, costing every European citizen 400€ or more per year.
Also, do we want financial arguments to be the most important criteria for European decisions? An increased GNP neither increases social justice, nor personal or national happiness – it just benefits a few.
To reduce translation costs is not a weighty enough argument to abolish language diversity in Europe either.
What is language?
Another argument against language diversity stems from a very restricted understanding of its meaning that might replace spoken language completely by digitalized forms of communication. The usual definition of language is “any specific example of a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication” [Wikipedia].
In this definition language has been limited to and is only associated with its communication function although traditionally language was much more – also at the time of Buddha.
Since the Greek idea of logos, we in the West think that the phenomenal world is objectively one and language perfectly describes things are as they are. If not, it is the fault of language itself. Different languages, we think, describe the same reality with different words. Since the old story of the tower of Babel we even believe that all communication problems come from using many different languages. If we had only one language all problems would be solved.
But if language is understood deeply, we learn more that our world is being constructed according to [the deep grammar of] our language and not according to how things ultimately are [paramarthasatya]. The separation of subject verb and object, of separate “things” remaining identical to themselves through time, is a complete illusion with tremendous Samsaric effects. Just because words do not change very quickly, one cannot conclude from their inertia that everything with a name has an eternal essence, a svabhava. Not every “thing” cut out of unity has a corresponding non-thing in our reality; this duality is just not how things ultimately are – it is how we can speak about it.
Language is holistic – body expression and gesture, tone and tonus, poetry, situational, temporal, energy, art and especially music. The language of vibration always resounds together with any expression of life – whether it is expressed with words or not.
Once our brain has been imprinted with a certain language those subtle perceptions become unconscious and overruled by the gross dualistic imprints of the intellect. Also, our educational system adds to this. To access those dimensions again we have to dissolve our neurolinguistic programming, our Samsaric patterns. This can be done either by learning different languages or by meditation that goes beyond language altogether.
If languages were taught like music or like energetic healing it would be much easier to learn several languages and different feelings for life. Certain emotions can only be expressed in one and not in another language. One can translate the technical content of technical texts, but not the music in between the lines of a poetm. If it is translated it must be done in a creative way as every language transmits a unique and collective world view and understanding. Science uses words as if they were separated and clearly identifiable svabhava identities with sharp limits allowing us to say: this is exactly this and that is that – with clear-cut and unambiguous limits for all cases. But of course, if you look precisely, nothing exists that way: nothing is sharply delimited, independent of its parts and everlasting.
Language reaches beyond communication serving a creative participation in life and an energetic exchange and flow of energies. Our states of being are mutually understood by resonance and empathically by our whole body (mirror neurons) – not by our intellect only.
Despite our dualistic language we still communicate holistically on many parallel levels at the same time. We can have access to those through language diversity and/or meditation.
The specific Buddhist perspective on language:
Buddha did not say that there is an objective world out there – randomly described in different ways by different people. On the contrary: he said the world is co-emergent with our mind. Thoughts have an effect on reality. It does not mean that our thoughts are completely autonomous or “free” and then individual we create a whole new world. But our language has a constructivist effect on our individual world we live in – mind being the origin of all phenomena (Dhammapada). Collectively then, beings create whole new worlds or realms of reality.
That is a very important difference to the Western view considering language a mere cultural phenomenon. Buddha showed how reality is dependent on denomination, mind and language – and of parts, causes and circumstances – but that goes without saying.
One factor of [inter]dependent arising (pratityasamutpada) is language. If we follow the Mahayana view on language as shown by Nagarjuna’s catuskoti2, we arrive at a similar discovery as brain science and quantum field physics, namely that mind/thoughts and language have a constitutional effect on the world. It is an interdependent process of co-creation. No one arbitrarily creates the world we live in but everyone has an influence in the flow of mutual interdependence.
Satyadvaya: ultimate and conventional truth
Conventionally it might be true to call something a cup. But does it have a cup essence? Is it a cup from its own side? From its own perspective? The answers to all such questions are “NO”. The cup has neither a cup essence that was a cup before the particles came together and made it the base on which to impute the name cup and nominate it a cup. The cup is not to be found neither in the material particles, nor outside nor in the mind of anyone but of the interdependent arising of all of that. The name itself is also void of any cup essence, or can you drink from the word “cup”?
In this sense all its material and linguistical parts are empty of a self-being of a cup, thus leaving the beingness of something in an open condition or in a fluid state. You can still use true and conventionally appropriate words and thus communicate, but you become free of the illusion, that your words can ever describe things how they really are, describe their ultimate way of existence. This creates a humbleness in communicative interaction. Every person brings his own world view along and many problems only concern who is right and who is wrong and the struggle begins. Nowadays people are allowed to have their own world view and the ideal of a democracy and “diversity in unity” is a good expression of that.
Learning deeply different languages teaches you exactly that: not only can it teach you different world views and senses of reality; it can also teach you that the reality you live in depends on the language you speak and feel with. In this sense it is a direct introduction into some of the most central aspects of Buddhism. Instead of translating satyadvaya as two truths it can also be understood as a “dual truth”3, the understanding that – depending on your perspective – the outcome will be either conventional or ultimate, but always in interdependence or co-emerging with your input.
In a modern understanding of Buddha’s teaching, pratityasamutpada more fundamentally means “holistic interdependence”: our world view influences others and other influence us, both mutually influence the whole. In a holistic system all parts mutuality influence each other and the whole, which is more than the parts; but neither the whole nor the parts are prior to one another. Also, the whole system is open – just as in organic life.
Language is open, in constant exchange with its parts, its users, other languages, society and mankind as a whole and in a constant flow of transformation. It is empty of being other than that – a svabhava cannot be found.
Also, there is no differentiation between ontology and epistemology in Sanskrit: prapañca signifies at the same time the multiplicity of ideas and concepts, as well as the multiplicity of phenomena in the whole world. If one disappears, the other one disappears also. Words and worlds are two co-emergent expressions of oneness.
Furthermore, it is by discovering the otherness of somebody’s point of view, we discover our own point of view – so to speak in dialogue. Truth is always relational, an inter-truth. One language is not enough to understand yourself. To learn many languages helps to find one’s identity in a multi-language and multi-cultural environment and the healthy sense “I am what I am only in relation to you” just as a flower in a bouquet.
From all of this we should, as Buddhists, remember and train in the awareness, that the relativity due to different perspectives and due to different languages is not merely epistemological or descriptive but that we shape reality and the way we relate to it through our language. Life naturally wants to diversify and not to artificially unify. The old Babylonian paradigm “If we only had one language we could reach the heavens” is a fairy tale. Multiplicity of languages is the richest source for mutual understanding beyond the intellect, for wisdom, compassion and tolerance. For this the Buddhist wisdom of the “dual Truth” and codependent arising are of major importance. Language diversity is in accord with the essential reality, its multifaceted aspects and its layers of energy. It can be fostered by silence, meditation and mindfulness practices. Together they would create a sound base for a peaceful, just and prosperous humanity as a whole.
Let us create an
May all be auspicious!
Om Sarva Mangalam!