Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Alan Watts talks on YouTube.
The man was speaking 60+ years ago and he basically brought Buddhism/Eastern Philosophy to the USA (himself being an Englishman).
He was giving a talk where he talked about the concept of “Enlightenment.” What it really means, and he mentioned in Japanese the word for enlightenment is “Satori.”
What does “Satori” actually mean?
It’s actually not that straightforward.
Looking beyond the writing to find the meaning
Japanese is a really interesting language, because there are more layers to it when compared to other languages.
The Japanese writing system was taken from China, so many indigenous words were given Chinese characters.
Like the word for “man,” (otoko / 男).
The thing is, this conforming of Japanese to Chinese characters obfuscates a layer of meaning as to what the words originally mean.
What does “Otoko” really mean? By looking at the Chinese character 男 it’s simple. It means “man.”
But when we look at another word, the word for “maiden” (otome / 乙女), we see a connection here that isn’t apparent just from the writing.
Here’s another example.
In Japanese, “ko” means “child” and is used for male children. “Me” means “female.”
You can see this in the Japanese word for “prince” (hiko / 彦) and the Japanese word for “princess” (hime /姫).
You wouldn’t catch it by just looking at the writing, but both words are formed by the word “hi” + either “ko” (for men) or “me” (for women). So we can infer that “hi” originally meant something like “royal.”
What is the true meaning of “satori”?
This brings us back to our main point, the meaning of “satori.”
In Japanese script it is 悟り. The Chinese character 悟 means to see clearly or understand. Based on the writing, we infer that the meaning of “satori” is “true understanding.”
But what about the meaning beyond the writing?
“Satori” is made up of two components:
“sa” (差: gap/difference) + “tori” (取り: take)
It’s a gerund, where if made into a phrase would be “take away the gap/difference.”
How is that related to “enlightenment”?
The path to Enlightenment: Take away the gap
Japanese society is very rigidly structured. Who is below and who is above in the social hierarchy is built not only into the culture, but into the language itself. These “gaps” between people’s status are called “sa”(差).
Someone who is very aware of, and very considerate of, peoples status in society are always aware of these gaps. They always have them in the back of their minds when they are talking.
“Is this person above me or below me?” “How should I talk with this person? What is appropriate?”
“Satori,” in essence, means to take this gap away. To stop seeing people as above or below. To see that, in reality, there is no gap between you or the queen of English or the Emperor of Japan.
We are all on the same level.
To stop caring about your status related to others. To stop comparing yourself with others.
That is the true meaning of Satori. That is true enlightenment.
And it’s something that I still need to work on.