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toward a buddhist grammar?

I’ve been teaching grammar, punctuation, and the like at the New School for about ten years. After work, at either 6 or 8pm, for undergraduates and continuing ed students. My class size is limited to 15; I seldom max out on class size, but I usually get a nice group of 10-12 students by the time the first session begins.
Recently, a friend of mine in the ID Project was recruited to teach a class on Buddhism at the New School. At 8am. His class maxed out enrollment three weeks before the first class.
Clearly, the respective interest level in the these subjects is clear. I joked with my friend that perhaps I should teach Buddhist Grammar.
And I wondered what that would be, beyond a quickie absurdist comment.
The grammar I teach the undergraduates is based on three levels of understanding grammar: First, the rules for producing grammatically correct sentences that conform to Edited American English usage; second, the rules for producing grammar that all native English speakers have, but can seldom make explicit–rules explored by structuralists; and third, the deep structures of English syntax explored by Noam Chomsky and the transformational grammarians, who sought the underlying code that can generate all the grammatical sentences in English and none of the non-grammatical ones.
Now, if that doesn’t make you want to study grammar, I give up. Enroll already!
But seriously, about ten basic sentence structures exist, which can be transformed in various ways, duplicated, nested, cleft, and folded into the fantastic variety of forms that make up the world we read.
And all rest on the relationship of subject to itself or subject to object, expressed thru verbs. Either a complement IS the subject, a complement is an attribute of the subject, there is only a subject, or a subject acts upon or perceives an object. That’s pretty much it. Subject/object. Duality. Me, you. Us, them. I hit the ball, you drove the car, he fought the leopard, she loves the winter. People come to the ID Project.
So I started to whimsically muse: Would Buddhist grammar have no objects? Would it consist only of complements, or predicate nominatives?
Would it start from “I am you”? or “we are we”? We are it? It is we? Maybe interbeing doesn’t lend itself to long sentences.
Or maybe it proliferates into the multiplicity of sentence forms we know and love, folding, nesting, reduplicating, and echoing and reflecting themselves and the world itself.
Would be cool to have more buddhists into grammar. There’s more to this than the correct use of “which” and “that,”–that’s for sure!

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posted February 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm

i’m not sure a buddhist grammar exists, but you could have some fun comparing it to rastafarian grammar: the implicit inclusion of either jah or the addressee in the phrases “i and i” and “you and you,” something like that. i forget.

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Juan Carlos

posted February 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Buddhist Grammar class? SIGN ME UP. So Alan Watts. By the way, you should Google “Language Against Its Own Mystifications:
Deconstruction in Naagaarjuna and Dogen By David R. Loy”
Some cool shit.
Miss you babe.

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Greg Zwahlen

posted February 23, 2009 at 2:57 pm

I found this quote interesting
“In English the differences between objects and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished. But a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs—so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than things.”
—George Crane, Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

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Paul Griffin

posted February 23, 2009 at 5:16 pm

I too have whimsically mused upon this subject of a Buddhist grammar. I tend to see, along with Chomsky and his ilk, that much can be seen about how we construct our world through our grammar, and more broadly, our language. I like Greg Zwahlen’s quote about Chinese grammar revealing a world of processes as opposed to things, etc. I read that certain pygmies have a hundred words for red (meaning the shape and contour of the object which is red determines the word used), or that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, etc. When I think about the possibility of Buddhist grammar, I think first of the Buddhist language itself, and how much of the entire way of Buddhist thought is lost in translation . And, at the same time, how much is gained in our contemplating certain Tibetan or Sanskrit words, like nidana or lungta or skandha.
In the end, it always seems to me that, as Wittgenstein wrote, our world, or our perception of the world is, or is equal to, the limits of our language.
When I think of a study of Buddhist grammar, I run into the old chicken-and-egg dilemma. Which comes first: the shift in our view, or the shift in our language? Does language come into being in order to represent the human outlook? Or does the human outlook itself shift with the invention of new language, or with the development of an entirely new grammar?

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