How to chinwag like Siddharta himself (in China)

Even if you don’t follow in the ways of the Siddhartha, there’s a lot people can learn from the tenets, language, and culture of Buddhism. Imported into China almost 2,000 years ago, there are 185 million Buddhists in China, and Buddhist vocabulary is deeply ingrained in the Chinese language.

Many words can make you sound more like a Buddhist. When you want to say “stupid”, instead of 愚蠢 (yúchǔn), you should say 愚痴 (yúchī), which makes the word sounds more sympathetic, as if the Buddha’s eyes are casting empathy on the stupidity of humanity. For those on a diet who want to say “I’m determined to lose 10 pounds”, say “我发愿减十磅” (Wǒ fāyuàn jiǎn shí bàng), giving the action a solemn tone. But if there is one Buddhist word you need to learn, it’s 无常 (wúcháng), essential to all Buddhist beliefs. It literally means unpredictable, but in a Buddhist context it means everything will die and nothing is permanent.

My house is going to be torn down.

Wǒ de fángzi yào bèi chāiqiān le.


That’s how this world is, everything passes away.

Shìshì jiùshì zhème wúcháng a.


I was fired.

Wǒ bèi chǎo le.


Let it go. It’s just a job. If you feel attached to anything in this ever-changing world, you are fated to suffer.

Fàngxià ba! Zhè zhǐshì gè gōngzuò. Rúguǒ nǐ zhízhuó yú zhège wúcháng de shìjiè shàng de rènhé dōngxi, jiù zhùdìng yào shòukǔ.


The word 因果 (yīnguǒ, karma) is another frequently used word because it can be used to explain away all good and horrible in the world. 因果 literally means “causes and results”, but when it is used in a Buddhist context, it indicates a resigned attitude that puts everything in the hands of fate. It is often used together with 报应 (bàoyìng), which means basically the same thing.

Did you see the hit-and-run news? The police have no leads.

Nǐ kànle nà tiáo zhàoshì táoyì de xīnwén ma? Jǐngchá gēnběn zhuābúdào tā.


We are all creatures of our own karma. They will come face to face with their deeds one day.

Wǒmen dōu bēifùzhe zìjǐ de yīnguǒ. Tāmen chízǎo huì zāo dào bàoyìng de.


I won the lottery.

Wǒ zhòngjiǎng le.


It must be karma. You must have done a lot of good things in your last life.

Yīnguǒ a! Nǐ zhè shì shàngbèizǐ xiū lái de fúfen.


To speak like a more authentic Buddhist, you need to express how you’ve seen through life’s transitory nature; Remember to quote the Diamond Sutra:

All composed things are like a dream,

Or bubbles in a stream.

They vanish like the morning dew,

Or a streak of lightening across the sky.

Yíqiè yǒu wéi fǎ, rú mènghuàn pàoyǐng, rú lù yì rú diàn.


If this is too much to take on, just remember 梦幻泡影 and compare everything in your life to it.

My youthful years are floating away like a dream, or bubbles in a stream.

Wǒ de niánqīng suìyuè xiàng mènghuàn pàoyǐng yíyàng liúshì le.


You should also show how, armed with the wisdom of Buddha, you cannot be seduced by the vanity of the material world. In Buddhist terms, the exterior of things is called 色 (sè), the visible form, while the innate nature of all things is 空 (kōng), emptiness. Memorizing this passage from the Heart Sutra and will make you look really insightful:

Form does not differ from emptiness,

Emptiness does not differ from form.

Form is emptiness,

And emptiness is form.

Sè bú yì kōng, kōng bú yì sè. Sè jí shì kōng, kōng jí shì sè.


In this example, “form is emptiness” is widely used.

I’m so jealous of the Porsche owner who painted his car gold.

Wǒ zhēn xiànmù nàgè kāi jīnsè Bǎoshíjié de rén.


But remember, all forms are emptiness.

Dàn nǐ bié wàng le, sè jí shì kōng a.


Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not draw a strict line between the converted and the unconverted. If you consider yourself a potential Buddhist, or are simply interested in Buddhism, then you are more than welcome in any Buddhist community. To address a Buddhist, regardless of that person’s gender or age, you should always call the person 师兄 (shīxiōng, brother) to show reverence. To refer to yourself you should use “末学” (mò xué), which literally translates to “the worst student”. For example, to address a 70-year-old woman whose surname is Li, you should say,

Good day, Brother Li. How do you interpret this passage of the Diamond Sutra?

Li Shīxiōng hǎo. Nín zěnme lǐjiě zhè yí duàn 《jīngāngjīng》?


And follow it up with:

Thank you for your teaching.

Mòxué shòujiào le.


To return a greeting, say “阿弥陀佛” (Ēmítuófó, Amitabha) on all occasions and it will almost never go wrong; it show s humility. Amitabha was a bodhisattva’s name, but in daily conversations, it just means “Buddha bless you” and indicates politeness. It can also be used as an exclamation, similar to “Oh my god!”

Amitabha! I’ve used the sugar instead of salt.

Ēmítuófó! Wǒ bǎ táng dàngzuò yále.


If you visit a temple and want to offer incense or get a string of beads, never say “buy” but rather “invite” (请 qǐng). Although you do pay with cash, the blessing that comes entwined with the items is not something any worldly wealth can buy, but only falling to you through humility.

You: May I “invite” a string of Buddhist beads?

Wǒ xiǎng qǐng yī chuàn fózhū.


Monk: Amitabha. Our Buddhist beads are all blessed by the abbot. May you come to know infinite righteousness.

Ēmítuófó. Wǒmen zhèlǐ de fózhū dōushì zhùchí kāiguò guāng de, shīzhǔ zhēnshi jiéle shànyuán le.


In more touristy temples, you may want to tactfully reject what the monks want you to “invite”. If you’re really being bothered, reply with these words from the Diamond Sutra, and any further expensive “invitations” are likely to cease.

Patron, “invite” a Buddha statue to your house. His blessings will keep your whole family from illness and disaster.

Shīzhǔ, qǐng zūn fóxiàng huíqù ba, bǎoyòu nǐmen quánjiā wú bìng wú zāi.


“Should anyone, looking at an image or likeness of the Buddha, claim to know the Buddha and worship him, that person would be mistaken and not knowing the true Buddha.”

“Ruò yǐ sè jiàn wǒ, yǐ yīnshēng qiú wǒ, shì rén xíng xiédào, bùnéng jiàn Rúlái.”



Ginger Huang is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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