Presence

My natural inclination for balance leaves me feeling that a positive focused posting is in order to balance out the hard emotions found in Repudiate.

I think the logical candidate to balance this is the word that gave me the idea for these word meditation postings: presence.

As a preface to this posting, then, let me give a little background to how this all came about.

I really noticed the word presence after I watched the Martin Scorsese film Kundun. If you’re not familiar with Kundun, it follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama from when he was found by party searching for his reincarnation through his escape to India in 1959.

That film has been very important for me of late in my ruminations on things. I find it very moving in many ways. And I especially find the closing scene to be a very powerful mixture of spirituality and art. It also highlights and affirms a human nobility that speaks to me. It shows how one can be strong and gentle. That speaks to me because that is how I am, how I strive to be.

The title “Kundun” is a Tibetan word (སྐུ་མདུན) that is translated in English as “presence”. “Kundun” is the title by which the Dalai Lama is addressed by Tibetans. I found that a fascinating word to use as a title for the political and religious leader of a people who is reckoned a reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (known as Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་) in Tibetan and Kuan Yin (觀音) in Chinese).

That fact started me ruminating on the English word “presence”. And that ruminating led in turn to the idea of “word meditation postings”.

Presence has a very interesting etymology. It is formed from the root word “present” and the suffix “-ence“.

“Present” ultimately comes from a Latin verb, “Praesum“. Praesum combines the preposition “prae” with the Latin verb “sum“. “Prae” means “before” and is the root of the commonly used prefix “pre” (ironic that “prefix” has “pre” in it). “Sum” is the Latin verb “to be”. Combined, they have meaning of “being before” that has a very strong, almost tangible sense of being here now in both time and space.

(If you’re wondering how we get to “present” from “praesum” it’s because the Latin verb “to be” changes in its present (again, irony) infinitive form. “To be before” in Latin is “praeesse”. And in Latin, the present participle comes from the infinitive, so “being before” is “praesens”.)

“-ence” as a suffix comes from “-ent” which is related to the Latin suffix “-entia”.  As a suffix “-entia” typically denotes a sense of the quality of the root word. For instance in “sapientia“, the “-entia” “quality-izes” “sapiens“,  “thinking”.

So, present-ence becomes presence and as a word encapsulates this idea of the quality of being here now. It’s a very powerful word that connotes a very powerful concept. It is one of those words whose rich depth of meaning and its power is lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Think on it though: the quality of being here now. That’s a central Buddhist concept. So much of Buddhist mindfulness practice is centered on simply cultivating the quality of being here now, cultivating presence.

It makes sense and is fitting that this is the Dalai Lama’s title. Through his practice he comes closest of any human being to most fully embodying the quality of being here now, of presence. But too, he is a presence because as the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva is there within him, as a part of him, in front of us, present.

Being mindful, being present: these are important things that I am working on. And I find that a good place to start in this practice is to be mindful and present in the face of language. We forget that words have power. Speaking aloud of our experiences is hard but liberating sometimes. Those of us who have stood in silence out of fear for so long can speak to how scary and liberating it is to finally speak. And speaking and communicating is how we really make our presence known to others.