The Character for "Buddha"

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on February 1, 2016.)

The character for "Buddha" on a mended tree at Tiantong Temple, Ningbo, Zhejiang 

Two Chinese characters are commonly seen when visiting temples in China. One is the character for "Chan" (Zen), usually seen on a banner in front of the Chan Hall. The other is the character for "Buddha." Let's look at that today.

First we need to know this: When the Chinese language borrows from others, there are two common strategies. One is to translate the idea, as when "computer" becomes dian nao (electric brain). The other is transliteration, an adaptation of the sound of words, as when "chocolate" became qiaokeli.

Sometimes, the strategies are combined: Can you guess who "Gaga Xiaojie" is?

When Buddhism immigrated to China from Tibet, lots of adapting took place. The character for Buddha was originally seen in a transliterated combination, fo tuo, but now we usually use the first character alone. This "佛" is made up of two elements: the meaning "person" (on the left) and the sound fo or fu (on the right).

Interestingly, as a stand-alone character "弗" means "not." Could the originators of the character have been thinking that Buddha was not--or more than--a man?

This brings to mind the story of when a Brahman (member of the Indian priestly cast) asking the Buddha, "Are you a major god?" The Buddha said no. "Are you a celestial musician?" No. "A minor god?" No. "Are you then a human being?" No, said the Buddha. "Then what are you?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake" (or perhaps to be translated, "I am the Buddha").

A Chinese character is more "immediate" than the alphabet--which merely spells out sounds--so in a way the character "佛" is the Buddha, as much as any statue.

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