…is a real fucking mensch.
There’s a point to this blogpost, and it has to do with the holy use of the f-word by serious Zen Buddhist monks often when expounding the Buddhadharma of the cool Blue-Necked One. In addition to a bird’s-eye view of a great master revealing true bodhisattva-essence during a recent trip to a Zen Center in Germany, this post also attempts to present some really interesting scientific evidence revealing that spicy employment of the word “fuck” — in Dharma talks, too, no less! — rather than signalling this journaler’s former fear of something “low class” or degraded, actually signals great intelligence and emotional nuance than you would have otherwise believed to be possible. The latest neuro/psycho-linguistic scientific studies are cited to support this claim, as is the visit of one huge and significant to the Zen Center Regensburg two years ago today as evidence to back it up.
This post might seem to ramble into storytelling detours, in moments, but there is a fucking point to all this. Just bear with me, OK?
In March 2019, we had a visit in Zen Center Regensburg from Dae Bong Sunim, the Patriarch (Jo Shil) of Mu Sang Sah Temple in Korea. In addition to being an all-around amazing human being, Sunim is one of the most esteemed and respected disciples of our Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn (Dae Soen Sa Nim). Dae Bong Sunim is a great Dharma brother, always full of perfectly-insightful stories and approaches to most situations that any person could throw at him. Humble, full-hearted, other-entered to a shocking degree, and someone who hardly ever forgets a detail to a story involving Dae Soen Sa Nim, ever.
And, on a personal/historic level, Sunim is one of the elders whose very force of goodness, bright enthusiasm, and passion for these teachings, inspired an arrogant Ivy-educated idiot Irish-German Catholic from New Jersey to finally take that step and become a Zen monk. Not bad for a German-Jewish guy from Philadelphia who worked in mental hospitals and as a welder on nuclear subs. (Further revelation: Despite knowing him very closely for close to thirty years, I learned only on this visit that he is, technically, “more” German than me, since three of his grandparents were from German lands, whereas only two of mine were. Un-fucking-believable.)
This was Dae Bong Sunim’s second visit to Regensburg: he attended the Opening Ceremony for our little temple in March 2016. He had basically invited himself to that event. Those words are not meant crudely or arrogantly: when we first secured this fantastic location built directly over the foundation stones of Emperor Marcus Aurleius’s headquarters on the Danube, Castra Regina (constructed during the years he was writing his famed “Meditations”!), and literally the day that Kerstin and I signed a 5-year rental contract, I informed Sunim by email of the good news straightaway. He was the first person I informed, outside of my immediate circle of students and friends.
And Sunim’s very first reaction was — completely unprompted — “When is the Opening Ceremony? I’ll come!” I did not have the courage to invite him, or even to expect that he would even attend. He is based in Korea, with mountains and mountains of responsibility leading our sangha there, and maintaining Dae Soen Sa Nim’s singular presence there in a country which still does not get it about the unique, revolutionary force his teachings could be. Sunim is a little older in years than me, and he needs to limit his international travel out of Korea. So it would have been ridiculous in the extreme to expect that he would make the effort to come out of Asia to come to Europe to attend this ceremony. I never thought to invite him.
So, had he not “invited himself” — had Dae Bong Sunim not so generously and graciously and BIGly offered his own presence at the ceremony — there is no way in heck that we would have had the temerity to dream to host him.
He attended the ceremony in March 2016, and he gave a formal Dharma Speech directly on the spot where Marcus Aurelius founded his headquarters in 179 CE.
As a result of his Big Mind, we have been so honored here because he has visited Regensburg not once, but twice. His coming to our Zen Center — and nearly one week staying among us — raised some hackles among colleagues in Kwan Um who certainly did not agree with his decision to come here, and they told him so.
So, with all of this as accidental scenery, Dae Bong Sunim came to Regensburg to officiate at our Opening Ceremony, in March 2016, and visited again in March 2019 to officiate a Precepts Ceremony — our first in this Zen Center. In that ceremony, we gave precepts to more than 20 people, including ordaining 5 new Dharma Teachers (“Poep Sa Nim”). These were all landmark “firsts” in the growth of our little community.
His visit in Spring 2019 was so inspiring, on so many levels. As usual, he gave tirelessly beyond measure, at one point sitting down in the kitchen for coffee immediately after breakfast and not getting up from his seat — not even once! — for three full hours. No bathroom breaks. The students gathered around spontaneously on the floor, and Sunim just answered every single question that appeared. He was riffing madly, just blowing people’s minds, as usual. Pure Dae Bong Sunim loving.
It was a spontaneous visit to the kitchen right after Morning Practice, and it extended right up to the border of lunch.
There were students gathered at his feet from all over Germany and Austria, from Spain, from Greece, from Switzerland, Korea, France, Italy, and the US. (One person had flown in from New York City just to finally meet someone a figure who they’d given up hope of ever encountering unless they went to Korea.) There was someone from Poland, another group from the UK, and a whole group of Kwan Um refugees who had also grown apart from the churchifying School over the years, who nevertheless felt this pure, abiding wish to remain close to the clear force of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s extraordinary mind-technologies, regardless.
It was really great to jam with him. More truthfully, it was pure honour and privilege to be a witness to seeing him jam, this simultaneously grandmotherly and yet sharp, clear, no-bullshit-Zen-monk, a real living natural and easeful compassion and classic child of the 60s –both its flowers and its rage. We had some great dialogues, everyone together with him. I felt as much a student as the others, and mostly just hung around and helped him “return to path” when he took the whole room down one of his fascinating and colorful “digressions”, and into another narrative to fill out to its end. (With Dae Bong Sunim, a “digression” is not separation or diversion from the topic: his digressions are standalone sub-worlds of wisdom, some ancillary Dharma talk within the larger subject-talk. His digressions, they vein out from the main “point” of the discussion or the student’s question itself like capillaries of humor and reasonableness that all completely support his main point.) Everyone was fixed in place, unmoving. I was on the verge of tears, much of the time. Such gratitude for this brother, such gratitude for this practice, such gratitude for this chance we still might have to dive so deeply with such beautiful souls as him. And in the midst of it all, because he has spent so many tens of thousands of hours drinking in the essence of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s blinding force of Dharma, hearing Dae Bong Sunim, you receive some of the “flash” of this boundless Dharma, spiritual “collateral-damage”.
In terms of our lineage, Dae Bong Sunim is like a Zen-wiki. He is a mega-terabyte-sized databank of utterances and stories of our Teacher and the other old masters, old aphorisms of the Jews of Philadelphia 20th-century, against that backdrop of something else much darker happening in those years somewhere back in Europe, and balanced with lyrics of 60s songs, and the tumult of the Me-1970s in confident America, the tapestry of protest and complacency, the fake-ification of things emerging into hegemonic consumerist world-universality. As he “spiels”, you just sit there — utterly rapt — and absorb his unique passion against the self-willed suffering of humanity as seen through his lived wisdom with how to practice through it, and you immediately want to go begin practice. He teaches with both feather and sledgehammer, and even the hammer is not meant to hurt, but to pound out ignorance, unaware-thinking, the sticky-cogs of the checking-mind.
So there was really nothing for me to do, sitting beside him. I felt as much a student there as anyone could. My valves were getting adjusted just a few levels higher from the ground of practice, and my many, many mistakes struggled against just to get there, seeing through this self-made ocean of karma which had drowned not a few who’d been with me over the years. We dialogued about a few things, but it was my job to please just get out of the way of his pure Dharma-force, not be anywhere blocking in the first place. I’d just nudge a word forward to him, from time to time, if he tottered to remember his original point. (Which point is everything, by the way.) The guy’s got stories from old China and pre-modern Korea as well as the psychiatric ward at a Connecticut mental institution and the welding bay of nuclear submarines at a Northeastern shipyard, from this temple to that Zen Center in Paris or Berkeley, using all of that to explain some point of Dharma liberally mixed in with so many fragments from the craziness of the Sixties and the turmoil of the Vietnam War era and old stories from his exuberance, his raw Northeastern speech and mannerism and history and justice-seeking and hard-work and history history history.
Dae Bong Sunim was on fire. He was taking all sorts of questions from these people gathered to hear him. No one budged from their position on the hard, empty floor of our expansive kitchen-space. He sat after breakfast for three hours, in a stiff chair! There was nothing structured or lined up. He had sat, so I sat. And people gathered spontaneously like perfect shining human pigeons, asking him things, rapt, fully mesmerised by the clear and apparent possibilities of waking up.
We caught much of it on video, and — one day, when some free time appears — this can be edited and shared for the Dharma jewels embedded fully within.
He was working the room so hard, he had to shed his working jacket, so I shed mine.
It was an encounter that members of our community continue to reminisce about, and feel gratitude for having experienced.
* * * * *
But here’s another reason for this post today. There was a single teaching which pierced me through enough to take out my “backseat driver” on a matter of teaching that has come up from time to time.
During the visit, and especially during some of our public dialogues with Dae Bong Sunim in the kitchen and other locations, I noticed that the F-word was more easily rolling out during talks and conversations with the many who were gathered there. It was “f-ing this” and “f-ing that”, quite often. Now, people know I often use it in usual speech, an emphatic familiarity, a special conveyor of a certain kind of energy or power that is irreplaceable. So its liberal usage was not beginning there, in that kitchen, by any means — not tied to that day and that happening.
But though I notice the f-word appearing in my casual speech, it usually does not appear so often in some more public presenting, as it was in this kind of happening that was unfolding with Dae Bong Sunim, especially with all these pure faces gazing up for some Zen, and so therefore some “Buddhism”. I usually get more mindful of the old New Jersey, the Sopranos-schtick from childhood, when I am giving a public Dharma talk. I might draw back the expression when I notice a certain extra ladling of the old spice appearing. And especially when you know that someone is recording the talk, it kind of self-filters itself out. But it still comes out, despite the best efforts!
But I noticed that Dae Bong Sunim must have been feeling that hometown comfort amidst the Zen Center Regensburg family, because he was speaking with even greater ease and comfort. His “peppery” expression was just pouring out. Man! I never ever heard him so “purely” expressive in any Kwan Um interactions I heard him give: it would be positively anathema to use the f-word in a Kwan Um setting, with all of its “correct-this” and “correct-that” hyper-circumspection. (And perhaps for good reason.)
But that first morning, in the Zen Center Regensburg kitchen, it was different. You know when you go to a Thai or Mexican restaurant, and on the menu you can choose a dish to order, and they will mark the selection choices with anything from one, to two, to three, to four, to five “peppers” for the intensity of “hot”? That kitchen talk was three or four fucking jalapeños, man! It was kind of like being back in the Joizy schoolyard, but this one had a hint of Yiddishness which would have never been heard in our Catholic suburban agoras (or maybe even tolerated) — folksy wisdom tainted from a history of oppression, upward-mobility’s grandmotherly eye pointing to the survival that is only assured (though not guaranteed) by hard work and use of your own common sense. And with that glint in his eye — squinted crystal blue eyes spicing freely with the f-word nonchalantly and matter-of-factly to discourse clear-clear Buddhadharma, his huge magnetic smile — there was none of the edge we normally associate with the word.
The dharma-juices were flowing. There must have been a verbal feedback loop, because we just started dialoguing and the f-word just came out in magnified repetitions. Maybe he was finally sprung from the social strictures of needing to be The Man atop a temple community in super-conservative Korean Buddhist society. Maybe he was resonating with a fellow East Coaster absolutely conversant with his style of Dharma-rap (he and I often joke about New Jersey culture and Philly culture having similar tough-guy resonance). The eager Zen students were gazing up from below. They even forgot to be shocked — after all they had heard it enough from me. It was oh-so-gratifying to have such a senior monk up there, talking like me — made me feel so much less bad for my own verbal “freedoms.”
After a while, it was just like a couple of birds chirping. You felt immediate relief, some “correct correct correct” gas freely exited from the system. And I’d always wondered if people felt this too weird. I’d been told by people in various cities that suddenly hearing the f-word in the middle (or often) of some Dharma talk I was giving somewhere had felt off-putting and out of place with this teaching. Or using it again and again and again over dinner, with emphases baked in. Especially if you’re using “shit” in other places, even for temple bodily functions and outhouse culture at the older temples back then — the addition of some f-bomb spice can really prick up the sensitivity.
Of course, “shit” is a natural word in Zen-talk. The stories from old temple life are often replete with eschatological references: virtually any Shin Won Sah Temple stories of the first time I noticed rats scurrying below me through openings in the outhouse holes into the “pit”, the rats scatter-shot running and stopping to nibble on someone else’s frozen shit-steamer, running here and there over the pumpkin-brown moonscape of pure poop, running over their food while eating their food, while my own shit dropped out onto their scurrying heads; memories of those images of the toilet paper blowing up from your own shit-hole if you didn’t actually reach it down into the opening — these had been images you could not avoid sharing, if you were to share the teachings of your first days practicing in an authentic ancient temple in the mountains of old Korea. And share them I did, to not a few squirms and giggles, over the years. The stories are all over the landscape of Zen teaching: old shit-squatting-enlightenment stories, Un Mun’s shit-stick, “mentioning the word Buddha is like dumping shit on your own head,” etc. There is a natural schatological dimension to Zen culture and its stories, rooted in ancient temple life and its quaint earthy ruralism. And so that’s always going to be there in Dharma talks. People sort of get used to it.
But the f-word… This can be quite another hard-swallow for some people to need to make. People had sometimes pulled me aside after a Dharma talk somewhere, to say, “Sunim, you really might have offended that woman in the second row. Every time you said ‘fuck’ she winced” or “Sunim, you’ll need to be careful. People in our country are not used to hear such words from a holy man.” Because I’m not a holy man, is what would run through the mind in reply. Maybe one day they’ll get that email! Anyway, all you can do is just keep pounding the “send” button on getting that message out.
So, there are clear reasons why I’d always wanted to ask someone, a real practitioner, if this most native and natural speaking habit was too “off-putting,” as a few have said. And Dae Bong Sunim had just become the best-positioned sounding-board of this recurring matter: “Is using the f-bomb in a Dharma talk just too excessive?”
Man, was Dae Bong Sunim well-certified to give some view on this matter! It was like Robert DeNiro extolling the Buddhadharma; an Al Pacino of “Dog Day Afternoon” pointing the way of Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi. You know, “Humans make their own suffering. Look at what we’re doing to the whole fucking planet…” or “…and there’s no fucking reason to hold thinking so much…” or “…or Teacher didn’t give a flying fucking shit about what other Korean monks thought he was doing with promoting women and lay teachers.” The bombs were really flying! But without damaging intent, devoid of any opposites. Just some natural jalapeño for your melted Philly Cheese Steaks. You too vegan for this kind of Dharma? Fuck it — it’ll make you stronger. This is the sense you got.
Still, there was actually some uncertainty in the room if we should even be recording these talks. One time, after Dae Bong Sunim had finished one of his epic streams of stories and struggles, I stood up for a moment to stretch the muscles. Our Dharma brother, Oh Kwang Sunim, was there and he grabbed my sleeve and said closely in my ear, “Hyon Gak, you and others are recording these talks. Are you sure you are OK if this goes onto the Internet? He and you are really talking very freely. Maybe some people in Asia would be shocked. You know, the f-word…” And he was right! He knows how conservative and form-bound is the culture of Korean (and HK and Chinese) Buddhism where Dae Bong Sunim swims. He knows how sensitive Dae Bong Sunim must necessarily be about the many cultures are cross-linked in the international Kwan Um Zen family in old-country wired Asia. “That’s not correct!” “Not correct speech.” — these are common refrains one could hear to the expressions he and I are accustomed, by our own not-ancient culture, to using! I agreed to Oh Kwang Sunim’s suggestion that we be extra-careful about sharing with the world. I had also already considered this.
But Dae Bong Sunim’s talks were jewels, and the energy of the meeting and the rapt attention of the Zen Center Regensburg family to his wisdoms was inexorable. Here he was, mixing with students who were not already trained in the Kwan Um School nomenclature, moralism, and thematic limitations, the stock need to be “correct”, or speak in trained clever kong-an-y answers and the repetitions of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s genius teaching expressions for nearly every single teaching situation. You could tell that he was feeding off of the novelty of a group which had no pre-formed expectations or group norms guided by some Board of Ethics somewhere, and — boy! — was he feeding it all back in to them! You just wanted to weep with gratitude. I watched him with amazement. It was his raw power that made you grateful — the spicing was just the added flavouring of a cook unrestrained by the scripted recipe.
So, I had to ask Dae Bong Sunim, straight out. If just for my own listeners in the future, “Is it really OK for me to use natural speech like that, when the Buddha admonished us about ‘Correct Speech’ and the like in the Eightfold Path? Does free usage of the f-word just, well, fuck that whole thing up?'”
At the end of one of Sunim’s sessions with us in the kitchen, while we were walking out on his way back to his room in Mun Su Am, I asked him, “Sunim, you know, the word ‘fuck’ comes out of my mouth quite often. I’m used to people feeling confused about that word and the whole monk-thing. It’s always been kind of something I’ve wanted to change, you know? But, I sometimes just use ‘fuck’ in some part of a Dharma talk. I’d like not to do that so much. Old Jersey habit. But like you. You don’t mind letting your Philly out. Should I clean this up, or should I mind if people get sometimes a little too shocked or offended by it?”
Without missing a beat, he turned and said, “Well, if they can’t handle it, fuck ’em!”
Everyone gathered around burst out into an explosion of laughter. “If people can’t handle you using the f-word in Dharma talks, then, well, fuck ’em! They’ll never get used to all the other direct stuff in Zen later, at some point. You shouldn’t worry about it! Saves you a lot of headaches down the road.”
* * * *
After Sunim left Regensburg, though, the question was still with me: Why need to come across sometimes as Al Pacino when teaching Zen? Why isn’t this shit just filtered out by all these years in the monastery, in traditional temples in Asia, no less, and some if it doing some serious correction under the watchful eyes of some pretty conservative, demanding masters? And this is on top of the fact that I suffered badly when I arrived on campus at Yale in late summer 1983, only to discover that there were not a lot of people who would routinely shudder for a nanosecond when I uttered, “Fucking great lecture that day” and “Rilke is fucking SO intuitive” and “Vincent Scully’s class makes me want to be a fucking architect”! There would sometimes be “looks.” I thought it was just a little suburban New Jersey that had to wash out, over time. And it kind of almost did.
And yet it persisted. It persists.
As it turns out, just within a week of his departure, an answer was winged to me from a long-term student: Scientific studies that people who curse freely are actually better at verbal expression, more trustworthy, and even more honest about their thoughts and emotions. According to “science.” It has actually been researched.
None other than the esteemed National Geographic Magazine published an article recently titled “Swearing Is Good For You—And Chimps Do It, Too.” In the article, it is claimed that “new research reveals that profanity has many positive virtues, from promoting trust and teamwork in the office to increasing our tolerance to pain.”
Increased tolerance to pain? A behavioral psychologist in the UK has performed an experiment (whose results were successfully duplicated numerous times) where he subjected people to pain/discomfort, and then measured the amount and length of their usage of swear words. Those who swore, while being subjected to pain or discomfort, were able to endure the discomfort for longer than those who did not swear. “Swearing really does allow you to withstand pain for longer,” according to Emma Byrne, the author of the book, Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. (This would seem to explain why swearing was so helpful for enduring the hardships of early monastic life!)
One of the money-quotes:
“But more than just giving a verbal network for enduring pain or discomfort, swearing actually indicates signs of intelligence, sophistication, and verbal and mental nuance. [When you swear] You’re demonstrating that you have a sophisticated theory of mind about the person that you’re talking to, and that you have worked out where the limit is between being shocking enough to make them giggle or notice you’ve used it but not so shocking that they’ll be mortally offended. That’s a hard target to hit right in the bullseye. Using swear words appropriate for that person shows how well you know them; and how well you understand their mental model.”https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35187212-swearing-is-good-for-you
What was truly interesting for me was research into how primates — chimpanzees — employed, well, curse-words, in the form of developed sign-language. It is called Project Washoe, and Byrne’s depiction of it should be quoted in full:
Out in the wild, chimps are inveterate users of their excrement to mark their territory or show their annoyance. So the first thing you do, if you want to teach a primate sign language, is potty train them. That means, just like human children at a similar age, that they end up with a taboo around excrement. In Project Washoe, the sign for “dirty” was bringing the knuckles up to the underside of the chin. And what happened spontaneously, without the scientists teaching them, was that the chimps started to use the sign for “dirty” in exactly the same way as we use our own excremental swear words.
Washoe was a female chimpanzee that was originally adopted by R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix T. Gardner in the 1960s. Later, she was taken on by a researcher in Washington State called Roger Fouts. Washoe was the matriarch to three younger chimps: Loulis, Tatu, and Dar. By the time they brought in Loulis, the youngest, the humans had stopped teaching them language, so they looked to see if the chimps would transmit language through the generations, which they did.
Not only that: as soon as they had internalized the toilet taboo, with the sign “dirty” as something shameful, they started using that sign as an admonition or to express anger, like a swear word. When Washoe and the other chimps were really angry, they would smack their knuckles on the underside of their chins, so you could hear this chimp-teeth-clacking sound.
Washoe and the other chimps would sign things like “Dirty Roger!” or “Dirty Monkey!” when they were angry. The humans hadn’t taught them this! What had happened is that they had internalized that taboo, they had a sign associated with that taboo, so all of a sudden that language was incredibly powerful and was being thrown about, just like real excrement is thrown about by wild chimpanzees.https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/01/science-swearing-profanity-curse-emma-byrne/
So, if monkeys find it natural, why not monks? Take just two letters out and you have the same exact fucking thing.
But it is Byrne’s point about swear-words and intelligence that I needed more information on. Like most folks, I used to think that people who used swear words were just less intelligent than other people. But in other research, the use of swearing indicates intelligence, sophistication, and even a heightened sense of nuance:
“According to a study by Kristin Jay of Marist College and Timothy Jay of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, people who use taboo words are more likely to be fluent in non-profanity. ‘People who use taboo words understand their general expressive content as well as nuanced distinctions that must be drawn to use slurs appropriately, the ability to make nuanced distinction indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge.'”
I attended Yale and Harvard. I must admit to feeling a little bit of an inferiority complex after noticing that the f-word was coming out a little more than some of my peers: Would they think I was less intelligent (an important trait at those places)? Would they realize I was from Union County, N.J., and therefore not want to socialize with me? This was a not small concern in those years of late adolescence, first time in such a highly stratified socio-economic setting as the Yale campus. The only other guy in my dormitory who used swear-words as deliciously me as me was Gerry, a very very very Italian [read: “New Jersey Italian”] guy from the area around Newark, New Jersey. He was, like, real New Jersey — the stuff you see on The Sopranos or Goodfellas. While I bonded with him strongly, really appreciated and loved the guy (extremely intelligent), I found myself edging out of conversations where the two of us were functioning together with other Yalies: “the New Jersey,” it seemed, was just too thick, and it seemed to create a magnifying effect with itself.
So, yes, true to caricature, people from New Jersey do swear more than everyone in the US, except Delaware. And yet New Jerseyans score as high on an “integrity scale” as people from conservative, Jesus-loving Iowa, for fucking crying out loud! I’m being completely serious about this!
It’s probably not overly surprising that New Jerseyans curse more than residents of any other state. The positive side of our use of profane words is that Garden State residents are also considered to have among the most integrity:
[From the 2017 article:]
That’s according to a psychological study released earlier this month that asserts that people who swear more are more honest.
The studies — run by Maastricht University in the Netherlands on an individual, social media, and societal level — all concluded that people who swear are more honest.
“The consistent findings across the studies suggest that the positive relation between profanity and honesty is robust, and that the relationship found at the individual level indeed translates to the society level,” the study read.
While foul language is thought to be impolite, people who use curse words are less likely to care what others think and thus more likely to speak the truth, according to researchers.
In one part of the study, 276 participants were asked to self-report the use of profanity in everyday life, give reasons for the use of profanity and answer a lie-scale.
Another section examined more than 70,000 Facebook interactions and compared the frequency of profanity use to the amount of honesty markers within their conversations.
It showed that states where people swear more frequently also scored highest on the integrity analysis.
New Jersey’s profanity rate of 50 was second to Delaware, which totaled a 51. The Garden State’s integrity rate of 87 tied Iowa, edging Connecticut, which tallied an 86. [emphasishttps://www.nj.com/news/2017/01/new_jerseyans_are_profane_but_honest_study_reveals.html
So, the people from New Jersey, freely spreading their f-bomb spice, while not perfect, are more honest and trustworthy. Who would have fucking known?
Even a source no-less highbrow-leaning as the BBC picked up on this research. It turned out that the free and unhindered employment of profanity in everyday speech, rather than indicating some un-cultured orientation, actually proves a higher vocabulary and intelligence — not just a “bookish” intelligence, but an emotional intelligence, as well. The main point in the article: “Swearing, the critics say, may make us appear ill-educated, rude and untrustworthy, as our mothers might have tried to drill into us. But it could have some surprising benefits, from making us more persuasive to helping relieve pain.”
From the BBC article: “Recent research has also largely debunked the assumption that swearing is necessarily a function of low class or lack of education and language fluency. Timothy Jay and his colleagues found that the tendency to swear correlated with verbal fluency more generally, and was not a result of having a deficient vocabulary. And as Stephens discusses in Black Sheep, research from the University of Lancaster published in 2004 shows that though swearing reduces with increasing social class, the upper middle-class swears significantly more than the lower middle-class, suggesting that at some point on the social ladder, people don’t care about the effects.” [emphasis mine]
The BBC article further confirmed why curse-words often roll out of my mouth with almost uncontrollable novelty: I’ve often found experienced overly-constricted, guarded polite speech to feel limiting, even stultifying to my range of expression. ““When everyone is on his or her best behaviour, you can get these odd social occasions where everyone’s trying to be polite, no one’s speaking and nothing’s happening,” [Professor Timothy Jay, author of the most-cited study of cursing] said. “If you think the situation calls for chummy swearing you might get the social situation moving a bit even if it’s unintended.”
So, sitting there, giving talks as a Buddhist monk, I have this feeling — when teaching in the West — that folks are expecting this image to be presented to them, confirming their noble choice of this “clean” and “pure” tradition. So I feel an instant rebellion against that — not a rebellion against any one person, but against the expectation, the image, the idea. “Studies have shown that swearing can increase the effectiveness and persuasiveness of a message, especially when it is seen as a positive surprise.” Surprise the shit out of them — that’s the best way to communicate the Dharma. Though this effect is not intentional, by me or probably by Dae Bong Sunim, as well, it is just the most effective way of shocking folks out of their conceptual safety-zones, closer to the realm of pure perception, of the raw. (And it’s important to note here that I gravitate towards using swear words in Korean speech, too. This has been recently “cleaned up” a little bit.)
The scientific answer, had I know it way back in college, would have saved so many years of unnecessary worried grief based on my own unnecessary fear of social standing in the pecking-order of an Ivy League campus. “Most people will think about cursing as being a sign of low intelligence or perhaps that somebody is not refined,” another article on the findings reports. But “If you are one of those individuals who think that swearing only comes from uneducated individuals, you will be interested in a scientific study that has some light to shed on the subject. Not only do they say fairly good things about people who swear, they say that those who do so may be the smartest of our friends.” (https://innerstrengthzone.com/life/study-shows-people-who-curse-make-the-best-of-friends/)
So, a keen use of natural profanity indicates some sort of more advanced linguistic knowledge. That is quite interesting.
You can imagine the relief to learn that, fortunately, there are also profound and uncountable moral and social credits to profanity, as well. From another article, titled “People Who Curse Are Both Honest and Smart,” the research that followed human beings’ posting habits on social media, which tracked their verbal choices, and the inflections and frequency and context of use, is reported on again:
“According to the research, those who are honest tend to be the ones who swear frequently. They don’t like to hide behind a mask, so they don’t mind swearing.
“In addition, the psychologists say that people swear more often when they have a higher comfort level with expressing themselves. In their reasoning, cursing is an expression of emotion and if you use it at the proper part of a sentence, it can really add some emphasis.”https://innerstrengthzone.com/life/study-shows-people-who-curse-make-the-best-of-friends/
So, to swear is divine, it seems. As one article puts it, “What this collection of studies shows is that there is more to swearing than simply causing offence, or a lack of verbal hygiene. Language is a sophisticated toolkit, and swearing is a part of it.” https://www.sciencealert.com/swearing-is-a-sign-of-more-intelligence-not-less-say-scientists
The moral of the story? Well, boys and girls, it seems that the monks who can freely use “fuck,” together, might actually be stuck together.
[ Note to the Reader: This post was originally posted in Nov. 2019 as one of the first posts on this blog. We had not yet mastered the blog’s operation yet, so, several formatting errors remained stubbornly present, and the post was sent to the “drafts” folder very soon after posting. It has now been revised, and is being released for the first time today. Enjoy! ]